Words in Max Porter’s “Lanny” refuse to stay in their lane. I mean this in the most literal sense: They stack on top of one another, expand and contract at random and bend into and about the margins, as if drunk on their very impression. And they grow more belligerent with every page. By the end of Part 1, they don’t even land sequentially, opting instead to splatter the page in haphazard handfuls.
The verb for interacting with words flattened between the pages like bugmush feels more like “look” than “read.” Similarly, “Lanny” feels more like an experience than a text. To that point, it’s the most exhausting thing I’ve read this year. Max Porter’s sophomore novel, longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, floats around a jaded artist, her yuppie husband and their peculiar-yet-brilliant young son, the titular Lanny, as they move from urban London to an ostentatiously creepy village. The trope is painfully rich: There are batty old neighbors (including “Mad Pete,” a once-artist who may or may not have dabbled in porn), secret bunkers dug into the earth and a local folk-spirit known as Dead Papa Toothwort that stalks villagers from the trees and whispers cynically about their microwave dinners.
Between the “spooky village” camp and the words sporadically sliding off the goddamn page, it’s within reason to sow a few first-glance doubts about “Lanny.” There are a lot of moving stylistic pieces that thwart its access, and Porter goes forth confidently in the direction of instability by dividing the project into narrative thirds. Part 1 vacillates between the subjective perspectives of four major characters before fragmenting into disembodied snippets of direct, blunt thought from anonymous villagers in Part 2. And then Part 3 is all up in the ether, slipping between first and third person, theater and novel, dreamscape and “reality” … I had to read the section three times to feel done, forcing the book to end through brute repetition, like some performed conclusion. It’s intense.
There is a plot somewhere beneath all these informal devices, though, and a surprisingly simple one at that: Lanny goes missing. But when you run that story through Porter’s neurotic narrative machine, its components are yoked apart and magnified into a pulsing array of issues. The biggest yokefest takes place in that gulf of perspective between parts 1 and 2, a deft move on Porter’s behalf that contrasts what we tell ourselves with what the rest of the community — a single character, at this point — sees, warps and spreads. For instance, the villagers in Part 2 are the ones that imply Mad Pete’s lascivious tastes, which complicates the wholesome art lessons he gave Lanny in Part 1; conversely, Lanny’s mum writes grisly thrillers to make a living, which is easy to understand from her own perspective, but now looks nothing but suspicious. With every new piece of information, paranoia builds, backs turn and credibility plummets. Despite the fact that all are represented and speak directly, this voice rings no more “true” than the subjectivity of Part 1.
In an earlier anecdote, Lanny’s mum unknowingly captures a tense sort of triangle between data, fiction and truth. She once found baby Lanny in a tree house nine feet off the ground and, despite his repeated denial and airtight alibi, subscribes to the story that her father had snuck off and placed him there as a joke. “It was easier to accept that Dad was lying,” she explains, “than it was to have no rational explanation.”
Such transparent storymaking is the inventive, exhausting work of “Lanny.” In its own peculiarity, Porter’s bizarre little book deconstructs the myths we create to survive those moments when there is no rational explanation, everything from Dead Papa Toothwort to media coverage to the critical literary things I tell myself about the words falling off the page — whatever makes you feel better.
Most impressively, though, “Lanny” refuses to elevate one sort of myth over the other. Lanny’s mum is a creative hippie type and his father a (satirically hilarious) capitalist cog in the machine and, although the book’s very existence gravitates towards the purview of the former, both are depicted as violent: Lanny’s dad displaces his labor malaise and masculine anxiety onto the family and his Mum stabs rodents in the sink for release. It’s impossible to imagine these two together, but, somehow, they still bone.
“Lanny” is a lot for its 210 generously margined pages, and its ambition leaves loose ends that you will have to do work with. If you’re into the sort of reading experience that feels like wrestling, “Lanny” will be a very satisfying project. But it is the token experiment on the Booker menu that’s a little too left-of-center to progress to the shortlist, inheriting the 2018 seat of Nick Drnaso’s “Sabrina.” Until the Foundation catches up, though, it’s up to us to read the longlist, to keep the scene weird.