‘Dead Papa Toothwort wakes from his standing nap an acre wide and scrapes off dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter.’
As with Grief is the Thing With Feathers, Lanny is steeped in metaphors and lyrical writing throughout the book. I was excited to hear the book come to life in the acoustic chambers of the Christ Church in Bath on Julian Road. Max Porter was joined that evening with the backing vocals and cello playing of his two musical assistants, Mark and Kate. He met them at Cheltenham festival where all great minds meet: from marine biologists, deep-sea photographers, poets, artists, and musicians. As Lanny is ‘a book about song, Englishness, folklore, myth, touch, and beauty and collaboration – my friends really are playing in the spirit of the book.’ (Max Porter, 2019).
Lanny tells the story of a married couple who moved to a village commuting distance from London, with their son Lanny. The mother, Jolie, and the father, Robert are some of the few voices in the novel that carries an undertone of authority. This has an effect on Lanny’s impressionable personality. As Lanny’s parents’ marriage begins to fray at the edges, Lanny adopts the behaviours and traits of the people around him. This includes Mad Pete the artist who lets him hang out in his studio and Dead Papa Toothwort, making him a sort of Frankenstein’s monster – someone who gets toyed with emotionally.
‘Where did his gifts come from? Do I have the same gifts? What or who is supposed to manage and regulate Lanny and his gifts? Oh fuck, it’s us. Who can have children and not go completely mad?’
Max Porter’s book launch was special in how he orchestrated Lanny’s voice. This was in snippets of people talking on the radio that he played to us. As he played each of the voices in Lanny’s head, he whispered them down the microphone. This made the character of Dead Papa Toothwort paranoid like Lanny.
‘he lies down to hear the hymns of the earth/ he doesn’t know who he is/ he walks as an engineer in a high-vis jacket, then a track suit, then a rusted jeep bonnet…’
Max Porter reads the first abridgment of the book to us and asks us to listen for the correlations of the two characters. Take for example how Dead Papa Toothwort replays conversations in his head like Lanny. Almost all of the lines are hilarious (‘Mark smelt of rivers‘) and how we are each other’s businesses (‘Dad’s livid, more gin than tonic’). Also, Porter’s performance included quirky, offbeat language choices of the British Isles. If you notice on a daily basis, how just walking through town you pick up on the wonderfully stupid and other times increasingly elevated speech people use. Well, this book is a wonderful cohesion of those voices and character types: ‘I’m a million cameras, even when I’m sleeping’ says Lanny.
Experimental Fiction is a difficult genre in itself, but Max Porter does it expertly well. At the heart of his novel is a sensitive boy who challenges what it means to be authentically English. Another way in which experimental fiction is obviously shown in the physical book is in the wandering path of words. They represented the mad scribblings from the perspective of Dead Papa Toothwort. Mark, the cellist, did an incredible job setting the mood for this character in the launch. He did this in short pieces that carried with it an enigmatic vibe and after a long soothing silence ensued. In this time Max Porter just stared with a deadpanned expression down the aisle between the rows of pews.
To finish, the performance concluded on the same solo cello music. After, there were three minutes of silence. Similarly, in the way poetry is read at launches, Lanny was interspersed with a hiatus. This was necessary for an audience of creatives taking up a majority of the seats. This evening was valuable to me as a third-year poetry student and to the MA poetry students who sat in the front row, it demonstrated honesty, profanity, survival, personality. As well as that it showed the immense penumbra of theory surrounded any observation.
Photo Credits: Topping and Company Booksellers