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These Lovely Painful Things

Lanny Max Porter, Faber & Faber, 2019

If you’ve never lived in a small British town, you might be excused for imagining rather picturesque scenes: rose-covered cottages and rolling, heather dotted moors. An escape from dirty, urban city life. What nobody could prepare you for is the bizarrely Southern Gothic reality of life in Britain’s more insular communities, where everyone knows everyone, and strangers are stared at with an air of inherent distrust. You are entering a landscape made up of flickering lights in local supermarket aisles, fear-mongering Christian warnings plastered on the sides of crumbling parish churches, impenetrable mists, child disappearances that hang over towns like a bad smell, profanities scrawled on dry-stone walls, abandoned car parks (with overhead wires swinging in the wind), the pale faces of the elderly twitching open their curtains to stare, and strange noises from empty houses with overgrown gardens. Those with ignorant opinions shout the loudest to be heard over incessant gossip: undoubtedly about you. Small town life is strange, self-governed, founded on long-kept silences, but also often overlooked for flashier, city-centric narratives. In his upcoming novel Lanny (March 2019, Faber), Max Porter explores the complexities and nuances of ‘the quiet life’. His novel is set in a small town a commutable distance from London. Despite being on the outskirts of the city, Porter’s fictional settlement couldn’t feel more removed from metropolitan life.

Porter, the former editorial director of Granta Books, is fairly new to selling his own fiction. His strange, sad, beautiful first offering, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, was widely critically acclaimed, winning both the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Sunday Times’ Dunlop Writer of the Year Award in 2016. It continues to be a best-seller and undoubtedly has all the potential to become something of a cult-classic in years to come. The theatre adaptation by experimental London theatre company Complicité features the darkly brooding Cillian Murphy, and begins a sold-out run at the Barbican in late March 2019. The book’s genre-defying style grabbed the attention of critics and booksellers alike, many finding it almost impossible to categorise Porter’s work: part novel, part poem, part elegy, part critical commentary on the poetry of Ted Hughes. The work is, unsurprisingly, rather haunting: I can’t recall many narratives where a giant, talking crow steps in to babysit a widow’s children following his wife’s untimely death. As fantastical as the plot may seem, Grief remains rooted throughout in the quiet, day-to-day struggles of a family dealing with a great loss. Anyone who has ever mourned for someone now gone can sympathise with the young family’s attempts to creatively fill the space where their wife/mother once was, attempts continually foiled by Crow for their own good. It was not only Porter’s unexpected choice of subject matter which captured people’s imaginations, but his truly idiosyncratic, intelligent writing style, which fluctuates easily between carefully crafted, allusive passages, that one might dub ‘prose poetry’:

This is the rotten core, the Grünewald, the nails in the hands, the needle in the arm, the trauma, the bomb, the thing after which we cannot ever write poems, the slammed door, the in-principio-erat-verbum. Very What-the-fuck. Very blood-sport. Very university historical. But don’t stop looking.

Raw snippets of speech approach loss with Porter’s characteristically dry humour: ‘moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project’. One of Porter’s great talents is his complete dismissal of conventional book-rules; he playfully refuses to stick to one written register in the same way in which he disregards the confines of genre. Rather than dismissing the necessity of generic markers to convey meaning, his unorthodox approach to how genres boundaries and expectations might overlap unanticipated ways reiterates their significance, forcing us to recognise and reconsider our preconceptions about fiction.  Porter, who was a bookseller for over six years, explained in previous interviews that his first work aimed to move towards ‘getting rid of the silo mentality of genre, the idea that poetry and prose need to be separate, that crime fiction and romance never meet’, because primarily ‘those are economic things, they’re economically determined and it’s therefore worth interrogating and mistrusting them as powerfully as you possibly can as a writer’.

Perhaps this is part of what makes Porter’s work so special: it is pointedly not commercial. In a marketplace flooded with copycat best-sellers, in which one knows exactly what they are getting for their money, a slim book like Porter’s (emblazoned with his strange Crow, and sometimes wrongly confined to the poetry section of bookshops) is undoubtedly a gamble, and the unlikeliest of hits. Word of mouth has been integral to the success of Grief, as there is an essential intrigue to anything which people struggle to describe. This is literature with feeling, about people and for people, difficult but with none of the pretensions that usually go into making a particularly literary piece of fiction, the inaccessible kind that takes itself terribly seriously.

Grief explores the way that loss can shape an individual, and how the loss of an individual can alter a family. In many ways Lanny is a continuation of Porter’s exploration of loss. It moves from looking at our ties to family, to the imperceptible ones that bind a wider community: whether that be to the people of the present (our neighbours, co-workers, friends), or to some pseudo-solid sense of our own cultural history, to the people who came before us. For as long as I have followed him Porter has had a quote, from English actress Susannah York in 1980, pinned at the top of his Twitter account:

I look into the air and find the spaces where our children’s children might be; among the rain and the sun and the leaves those bodies are realizable; and I feel with a terrible hope how lovely life is - and how unbearable is the thought that by our own blindness, by our lack of memory and courage, by our slackness we could end it.

This quote, which seems to speak to Porter’s work, particularly Lanny, encapsulates a very contemporary concern: the question of how we might, collectively, balance the potential erosion of our cultural past, and the numerous, daily threats to our future as a people. Lanny is a story about ‘parenting, friendship and English myth’, about towns, like those many of us have grown up in, that belong ‘to the people who live in [them] and to the people who lived in [them] hundreds of years ago… to England’s mysterious past and its confounding present.’ The premise is a simple one: the mystery of a much-loved, charming child gone missing. However, the story opens not with Lanny, or his family, but with the deeply mysterious Dead Papa Toothwort waking ‘from his standing nap an acre wide’, to scrape ‘off dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter’, and lie ‘down to hear hymns of the earth… cut himself a mouth with a rusted ring pull and suck up a wet skin of acid-rich mulch’. Toothwort, like Grief’s Crow, is a nightmarish fantasy creation with strangely endearing qualities, an urban legend simultaneously blood-curdling and intriguing. Though clearly malicious, Porter’s Toothwort seems improbably comparable to the town’s amateur pantomime actor, almost comedic as he ‘slips through one grim costume after another as he rustles and trickles and cusses his way between trees’, with the ‘quaint idea of himself as cyclically reliable, as part of the country curriculum’.

The genius of Toothwort lies in the tightrope balancing act Porter performs between the ludicrous and truly awful, mythic and mundane; later Toothwort will swing ‘his way back into the woods, flinging himself in thirty-foot arcs between telegraph poles, dressed as a barn owl with car-tyre arms’. There is something touchingly human about his love of the sounds floating out of the town, the way our nonsense is like music to him: ‘Private property, / honeycomb / Gorgeous / Shampoo in my eyes, windfalls / A lovely time of day. / press pause, no sign of Dad, stinks in there, tilt your glass’. In perhaps the most magical moment of the book, Toothwort converses with the abandoned top of a Fanta bottle, a conversation which is as surreal as it is utterly brilliant:

Beauty is what, my semi-synthetic friend? Illness, decay and exploitation? A tapestry of small abuses, fights and littering, lake-loads of unready chemicals piped into my water bed, greed and decline, preaching teaching crying dying and walking the fucking dogs, breeding and needing and working...

Toothwort’s obsession with the quotidian reality of small-town life and the entire novel’s fixation with the subtleties of living quietly recall one of Porter’s self-proclaimed influences: Emily Dickinson. ‘I’m on my knees with Dickinson’, admitted Porter in an interview on his favourite books of all time, ‘I can’t handle how good she is; I can’t believe anyone had been able to do with the brain what she did’. The way that Dickinson could rapidly oscillate between the careful observation of a single household object or task, to grand, often endearingly naïve and sweeping comments on abstract concepts like love and existence, seems embedded in the heart of Porter’s writing. Even her irritation at the confines of generic boundaries speak directly to Porter’s beliefs: the desire to ‘dwell in Possibility - / A fairer House than Prose - / More numerous of Windows - / Superior - for Doors -’, searching for ‘This - / The spreading wide… narrow Hands / To gather Paradise’. She seems present in Toothwort’s fond memories of how children used to be truly scared of him, not ‘based on fear imported’, the ‘TV terrors, games and comics, untouched by genuine belief’, but the threats that colour Dickinson’s own poems on closer inspection: ‘green and leafy, born of dark gaps in Sunday school nightmares… threat and agony growing together, tree demon, uncle and dad, king of the hawthorn and hops, harvest and hope, threat of starvation.’

Other characters necessarily pale in comparison to Toothwort’s eccentricity, however one of Porter’s great talents is creating utterly convincing characters, archetypal without being two-dimensional, vessels you might easily slip into for the duration of a book, finding their body still warm with life. Much of the main plot concerns Lanny’s parents, and their friend Pete, a lonely, elderly artist, who has been giving their son after-school lessons – until Lanny’s disappearance. Lanny’s parents are brilliantly written: deeply flawed, sometimes difficult to like and often hypocritical. Lanny’s mother is constantly trying to hide the horrifically graphic crime novel she is writing from her son; everyday, alongside teaching him about all of the good in the world, she writes about violent rapes, murders and, memorably, ‘a scene in which [her] protagonist has pushed a corrupt politician in front of a train and then – hours later – found a little piece of his cranium stuck to her V&A Museum tote bag’.

Her husband is wrapped up in his own feelings of dislocation towards a place he has only moved to in order to commute daily: ‘I have to please the village but I can’t because the village is a place defined… by its proximity to London’. There is sincerity in his guilt that he could expect warmth from a place he is only using for his own means: ‘I am therefore part of the problem, cause and effect’. Porter is interested in personal responsibility, the part of the individual within the collective. Lanny often considers the nature of his own individuality with alarming poetic maturity: ‘I’m a million cameras, even when I’m sleeping, clicking … we are little arrogant flashes in a grand magnificent scene.’

While much of the book looks at internal conflict, the processes of re-evaluating the self in the face of great tragedy, being newly defined by it, Porter touches rather fantastically, with his typically sharp wit, on the generational friction in the town. In a moment of almost explosive anguish, Lanny’s mother internally seethes:

What if we, the too polite sons and daughters of these old fuckers, actually started picking them up on their warped world-view, on their grotesque self-interest and petty entitlement? What if I did murder Mrs Larton? The world would be a better place. How lovely it would be to kick in her door and ask her again: I just wondered if you’d seen my son, you awful bitch, you pissy cling-film hag and by the way I hate hate hate you, I despise your smell of fetid carpets and toast; Silk Cut, marmalade, gas and antiques… you are the worst thing about living here, you are the worst thing about this English village. You are the worst thing about England. And villages. I wish you would die so somebody nice could move in here.

Though clearly hyperbolic, almost childish, in its inordinate awfulness, Jolie’s speech draws attention to one of the main tensions which seem to grip small British towns, particularly due to political upheaval over the last five years. There has been a trend in fiction exploring fractured communities and what makes something distinctly ‘British’ over the past year: one thinks immediately Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall (2018), edited by Porter, or Ali Smith’s ‘Seasonal Quartet’, with the third instalment Spring on its way in March. Lanny fits alongside these novels as a book observing the dissolution of community and communication, looking at what happens to the bonds between people when they come under extreme strain.

Lanny is special in his ability to perceive such tension. Unlike most of us, he is ‘in tune with the permanent, can feel a community’s tensile frame’. Porter is particularly good at conveying the human inability to think exactly the right thing at the right moment: we do not always follow the unacknowledged script which exists for moments of truly stunning shock or grief. Porter never gives us what we expect to read, and his depictions of particularly raw emotions are all the closer to reality for it. A child goes missing and a protagonist asks: ‘If I wasn’t central in the drama of his being missing, would I actually care that he’s gone?’ Porter seems keen to separate the expectation of a moment, a person, a small town with rose-covered cottages, from its stark reality. He does this with dizzying, occasionally nauseating abandon. Reading Lanny, at times, feels like a fever dream in which everything is inexplicably clearer, stomach rolling you step aside from your regular lived experience to stop and look, with fresh eyes:

at this image, this lovely English thing… [and hating] it in ways I’d been keeping about my person… in my ears, under my fingernails… since I first watched animals slaughtered, since I first sold my fucking soul to a London gallery, to a glossy magazine, since I first saw supermarket carrier bags in the throats of rotting seabirds… [suddenly] this all queued up, these painful things.

JESSIE GOETZINGER-HALL reads English Literature at Christ Church. She hopes her biopic will be directed by Wes Anderson.

Artwork by Gina Yatsenko


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