I devoured Porter’s first book Grief is a Thing with Feathers in one sitting, so I cleared an afternoon and settled in. Although I am a bit of a traditionalist in terms of form, there’s something about the way Porter dissolves the boundaries of form that is really accessible.
Lanny opens with a barrage of language – lots of little overhead snippets that swamp the page. It’s a little like diving into a pool of unknown depths – slightly disconcerting at first but once you’ve got your bearings, the only thing to do is to relax into it and enjoy the texture. These opening bits featuring Dead Papa Toothwort were generally quite unsettling – the overhead snippets were humorous in parts and felt very contemporary in their content – but the voice of Dead Papa Toothwort felt like some sort of Gothic folk tale figure – and mixing the two brought this danger right into the modern world.
Although he is the subject of the novel, it’s interesting that we don’t hear from Lanny at all – we never see things from his perspective, only viewing him through the prism of someone else’s experience. In a way, this is what makes him such a fascinating character – he seems almost like a stereotype, a sort of symbol of childish innocence and by viewing him from a distance, he never stumbles from this pedestal.
I found the narrative of Pete the most interesting – he seems to really understand Lanny and Pete’s unbridled joy at Lanny and their friendship is what gives the novel so much warmth – and it’s in Pete’s narrative that Porter brings the most art to his description: “Palette-knife smear of bad weather rush past the window”. Thanks to Pete, we judge the other characters by their treatment of Lanny. From his Dad, we see the minutiae of commuter life, of a father who is irritated by his son’s oddity – and we dislike him for it. However, his Dad also dislikes himself for his reaction and is made more human as a result – which allows us to empathise. For how often have we ignored the beauty of the world around us in our pursuit of something else? How many times have we dismissed a curious wonder or thought for its silliness? How would we have reacted if our son asked us “Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?”
Lanny is an odd child, who loves nature, who sings to himself and sees the world in a childish, innocent way, full of wonder. His mother says “I can’t imagine this boy becoming a man” and the first section paints the picture of an idyllic young man, loved by all despite his oddity for his grace and kindness. However, as the novel progresses, Lanny starts talking more and more about Dead Papa Toothwort and a feeling of something sinister begins to grow. His dreams become more disturbing and his parents wake to the sensation of someone in their house. Dead Papa Toothwort in the third person is unsettling – and he begins to hatch a plan for a “terrible thing” Lanny’s mum has a recollection of hacking a dying hedgehog apart with a carving knife.
The second part becomes even more fractured, Lanny’s Mum observing herself, creating a distance between events and the reader like we’re watching – like she’s watching a film play out. The use of I jumps from character to character which is interesting to see the way in which we view events through a prism of our own expectation. As the village gets involved, the speech comes thick and fast, lots of short narratives from different points of view, a chorus of sound similar to the fractured sounds from Dead Papa Toothwort’s parts. There is lots of judgement, lots of different voices full of nasty gossip. For the rest of this section, the narrative continues in this way, piecemeal but immediate. We are granted access to what people actually mean – it’s a study in human behaviour and herd mentality.
The third part becomes more surreal, fusing narratives to a bittersweet conclusion. But it’s not the drive of the plot or the playfulness of the language (although this is spectacular in parts) that makes this such a special read – it’s the way in which Porter persuades us to look inside without judgment. As the novel draws to a close, we should hopefully feel changed – more curious about the world around us, more prone to innocent wonder and playful thinking – more like Lanny.