When Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter’s debut novel, was published in 2015, it captured the public imagination in a way that few literary novels do and was successfully adapted for theatre by Enda Walsh.
Having achieved so much success, Porter’s second book has a weight of expectation behind it, but he hasn’t disappointed, for Lanny is a fine follow-up, perhaps more accessible than his first while still embracing his unique writing style.
Experimental fiction, by its very nature, can be a tricky business and, ironically, while so-called “difficult” books can be hard to sell to the public, some become successful simply because of the challenges they pose to readers, who must work hard to decipher the ideas and themes lying behind quirky syntax, disjointed timelines or unpredictable typography.
Often, gimmickry masks vacuity, and a fear of seeming out of step with the intelligentsia can allow an Emperor’s New Clothes school of writing to flourish.
But, balanced against this, lie fascinating novels such as this that challenge the reader without seeking to alienate, offering up rich rewards for anyone prepared to unravel their secrets.
After reading Lanny, I did something I’ve never done before: I read it again. I felt that I would both understand and appreciate it better the second time around and was keen to study how the author managed to lure me in, even spellbind me, with such a magical and singular story.
The thugs who will beat up an old man on the basis of a groundless rumour. The discord between what England believes itself to be and what it really is
On the surface, there is a simple tale here: a couple move to a small English village with their young son, Lanny. The husband, Rob, is immersed in his London work, every morning choosing between a train that allows him to breakfast with his son but suffer a tedious conversation with a colleague, or an earlier one that means he will miss out on both. Of course, he chooses the latter.
The wife, Jolie, is struggling to adapt to life outside the metropolis but her debut novel, a sadistic thriller, is due to be published shortly and she’s excited about the opportunities this might bring her way.
Lanny, however, is a curious boy. He sings a lot, is artistic and tells stories. He asks strange questions and makes odd remarks.
“I’m a million cameras, even when I’m sleeping,” he says. “Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?”
Remarks like these drive his father to distraction, and there’s a sense of something other-worldly about the child, particularly when a story is related about his infancy that, even in its bizarreness, is as chilling as it is believable.
To give too much away about what happens next would be to spoil the novel but suffice to say that an incident takes place involving the boy that leads to the triumphant central section of the book.
Across seventy pages we hear the voices of Lanny’s family, friends and neighbours, each chipping in with their thoughts on what has happened. No names are given, but Porter structures the prose in such a way that it becomes hypnotic, the narrative strands easily differentiated from each other.
Time and again, I found myself thinking of A Game of Chess, the second section of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, where multiple voices collide and fight for attention, but where the symphony of language offers such beauty that the reader longs for it not to end.
Overlaying this are themes that resonate with English mythology; the secrets of the land, the wisdom of trees, the desire for the green fields to rise up in anger against any who would desecrate them. And in stark contrast to the peaceful past is the vicious present, the supposedly idyllic village steeped in prejudice for anyone who doesn’t belong there – the mob, the trolls, the drunken louts looking for a fight.
The thugs who will beat up an old man on the basis of a groundless rumour. The discord between what England believes itself to be and what it really is. The crash of lightning when these two ideas collide and find themselves incapable of occupying the same space.
Despite reading it twice, I suspect Lanny will be a novel I will return to again, simply to absorb the strangeness of the story, the cleverness of the structure, the authenticity of the dialogue and the ethereal mystery that surrounds the book’s titular character. For those who are put off by experimental fiction, and I confess to being one, this is a novel to shatter your prejudices, for Max Porter understands that even the most complex idea must have a decipherable meaning if it is to be of any worth to a reader.
I greatly admired Grief is the Thing with Feathers. But I loved Lanny.
John Boyne's most recent novel is A Ladder to the Sky (Doubleday)