Register Sunday | December 8 | 2019

The Pathetic, Lovely Smallness of Human Life: An Interview with Max Porter


In Max Porter’s first book, Grief is the Thing With Feathers, a mystical crow looks after a young family mourning the death of their mum. The bird sits patiently with the children and their father as they navigate the aftermath of loss, in all of its strange and ordinary ways.

The English author’s new novel, Lanny (Strange Light), begins with a few lines from Welsh poet Lynette Roberts that hint we’re entering familiar emotional territory: “Peace, my stranger is a tree/ Growing naturally through all its/ Discomforts, trials and emergencies/ Of growth.”

In Lanny, we meet a young boy whose family has recently moved to an unnamed English village, just a short distance from London. Lanny is an odd and ethereal child who lives in an intuitive, empathetic, near-dreamlike relationship with his surroundings. Wherever he goes, Lanny interrupts the mundanity of adult life around him.

He floats home from spending hours in the woods, sharing profound and unsettling philosophical insights with his parents. He mystifies his mother and father: Jolie, a once-actor turned crime novelist isolated in her new home, and Robert, a distracted city commuter whose days are devoid of meaning. He befriends and takes art lessons from an aging artist named Pete, outcast in the village but famous in the city for his surrealist sculptures. Most mysteriously, Lanny garners the infatuation of Dead Papa Toothwort—an ancient, mythical Green Man figure who watches over the village, eavesdropping on conversations and absorbing the place’s language and energy.

The adults have their own fixations with Lanny, which differ vastly, but each connection is ruptured—and made increasingly disconcerting—when the child disappears. In his absence, the village tumbles into chaos and suspicion, revealing its residents’ fundamental dispositions.

Porter’s novel is a clever and tender, sometimes searing, examination of English life, the nuances of a broken community and our flailing grasps for connection in the midst of turbulent events. I spoke to him in Montreal during his North American tour (on the same day, by coincidence, that Theresa May resigned).

Madi Haslam: I promise I wasn’t planning on talking about English politics, but given today’s events it feels impossible not to. The village in Lanny embodies many of the identity-based tensions that helped spur Brexit, including the urban-rural divide and xenophobic sentiment. What was the political situation like when you started writing?

Max Porter: I started writing it in 2016 [the year of the referendum]. But I wrote Lanny as a poem about ten to fifteen years ago. There was no village and there was no Dead Papa Toothwort in that though, so it’s a different book. The novel was written in the current context, but I wanted to zoom out. While it’s very specifically about an English place, I didn’t want to make it a Brexit novel or about such localized things as membership of the EU. To me, it’s about how a community draws on its superstitious underbelly or how a tiny flicker of something like xenophobia, hostility or even casual racism becomes a flame in times of crisis. That’s what we’re seeing all around the world at the moment.

But one of the reasons I used Dead Papa Toothwort as a device, in retrospect, was I was seeking some kind of catharsis. He’s an escape from the very aggressive specificity of this moment of populism. How would someone who has been viewing this village for thousands of years, like Papa Toothwort, think about Brexit? It would be nothing—it would be the latest ripple on the pond for him. His concern would be the broader things, like environmental apocalypse.

MH: Toothwort also represents the village’s connection to language, to myth and to its past. Why did you choose to have him frame the narrative in this way?

MP: Personally, he allows me to write in the way I want to write. I need characters that allow me to enjoy language, like the crow in my first book, because I love it. I want my books to be somewhere in between poetry, prose, fable and screenplay. So I need these devices that come and disrupt any sort of linguistic normality or socially realist, modernist traits in fiction. I’m always wanting some rupture or uncanny or even some magic.

Politically, Toothwort enabled me to contextualize things like petty aggression, the longevity of life and the banality of everyday existence—how we are relatively simple creatures. As Toothwort says, “Walk the dogs, live, dream, sleep, die, earn money...” There’s a kind of pathetic, lovely smallness to human life. And I needed a character that can say Was it ever thus? Not in a You’re all doomed kind of way, but a celebratory way. He loves everyday language and mundane chit-chat and Twitter and gossip and people in the world talking to each other in small, affectionate ways or brittle petty ways, not just the language of history or Lords. So he’s a kind of anti-canonical device. His canon is the canon of human people.

This isn’t a story of Brexit and Parliamentary decisions. It’s about those funny little loyalties that are teased out in a community unexpectedly when something goes wrong. It’s about the ways in which some people will always seek to see the worst, and the ways some people have what I would project as being a robust, instinctive moral compass. So Toothwort is shuffling all this around in a sort of wine-tasting way.

MH: Lanny isn’t a narrator, so we only meet him through the perspectives of others, most of whom are adults. And he’s definitely a magical weirdo, but he also feels familiar in the way that any child’s presence can bring a really startling strangeness.

MP: I don’t think he’s that weird, you know? A lot of the reviews in the UK were like, He’s off-the-chart eccentric. In which case, my kids need help.

MH: Did you mean for him to be a comment on the way adults lose touch with a certain childlike way of being in the world?

MP: I hope that’s implicit in the whole thing. Lanny only exists in the way that other people comprehend him. To some people, like Pete, he represents a kind of refreshment. To Jolie, he has this sort of muse-like relationship. He’s this raw inspiration but also brings elements of maternal trauma and guilt.

I suppose the moral of Lanny would be that some people maintain, into their adult life, a warmth and openness, which is intellectual curiosity combined with a sort of warmth towards the other, be it a person or an idea. Lanny is a proto-pagan in that he just has good instincts. He wants to do generous things for his community. When he builds a bower of his favourite objects in the woods, it isn’t for himself.  One of the only things he actually says in the book is that he’s building it for everyone so they can “feel in love with the world.” I remember feeling that as a kid and I know kids feel it. Why do we all shut it down?

It’s not a romanticization of childhood necessarily, but it’s possibly a consideration of childhood as a relatively accomplished and radical philosophy that we might do better to borrow, to lean on a bit than we do. I don’t believe in fetishizing childhood innocence in a Victorian way. Children are very accomplished—usually much more than we are—at handling dark and unpleasant things. They lie, they’re duplicitous, they’re boring, they’re annoying.

MH: I want to go a bit darker for a bit because I’m obsessed with one scene in particular, where Jolie stabs a hedgehog. There’s so much presumed violence in the book, and yet this is one of the only acts of violence we witness. It also involves the character who is presented as among the most gentle and empathetic of the bunch. Then we get to see her consumed by rage. Why is that?

MP: It felt right and it felt true and I was trying to build characters that were true. In my first book, the characters were built in relation to the subject of the book. They were built as devices to carry meaning. In Lanny, I made them up from the ground and it was a real thrill to do that. And I was thinking about Jolie, I realized the book was sort of becoming about maternal feeling and that relationship. I needed to make her realistic and robust and part of that was making her clever, interesting and creative. When clever and interesting and creative people suffer from depression or postnatal depression, one of the things that’s often interrupted is their creativity. I wanted to combine that with a kind of psychoanalytical element of transference: aggression towards the child, the child’s aggression towards the mother and object replacement.

That’s why there’s the element of Lanny and Jolie having this almost scholarly back and forth sometimes. He’s accidentally quite profound in ways that she finds startling. And then she’s so disappointing to him as a kind of tease. He’s like Are you my friend? and she’s like No, I have to be an adult. It’s a quite complicated dance and there’s pedagogical stuff, but also just the raw challenges of raising a kid. It falls to her to do that. In most situations the mom has to do the complicated, hard emotional work. And then the dad expects to come home to a clap on the back and a round of applause when he cooks a curry now and then. I wanted some rage because rage is healthy and normal. I wanted to equip her with it. The violence among and between men is obvious and in the air we breathe. I wanted this book to counter easy narratives of male violence and female domesticity.

That hedgehog scene has also been observed by a voyeur. So it’s not just an act of violence. It’s a site upon which someone else is projecting their fantasies of violence to do with the ways in which we all are violent towards all sorts of animals. In a way, getting rid of that hedgehog and the communion Jolie has with the knife, with the bleach and sink—I hope it’s a sacrament of sorts. It’s a collaborative effort to not be squeamish or foolish about the relationship between humans and animals.

MH: Nature, and any sort of care for nature, is largely pathologized by people in  the village. Why do you think a connection to nature feels so threatening or transgressive in modern times?

MP: Or hippie! In the UK, that would be the main challenge. If you’re an environmentalist or a child working on a project or a politician suggesting we ought to be thinking about climate emergency, the accusation is “tree-hugger.” But to me, there always seems to be an element in that of misogyny and homophobia. It’s as if to care for the environment is to not be man enough. And obviously we see that in America more than anywhere, where to be a gas-guzzling, SUV-driving, gun-owning man is to be in opposition to caring for those after you, to think about care for the planet. That’s been a longtime binary.

So I wanted to set Lanny up as a pre-doctrinal, instinctual environmentalist. He has an understanding that trees are superior. Readers have intuited that from him, quite rightly. Why wouldn’t we worship them? They give us the air we breathe and the materials by which we live; they outlive us by hundreds of years. Lanny is just the true spirit of a metaphysical earth-worship, which I don’t see as being eccentric at all. I see it as being extremely rigorous and intellectually refined point of view, a gorgeous way of thinking about the world and truer than any other I can think of.

MH: About halfway through the novel, the names of the narrators fall away from its pages. It becomes harder to tell who is speaking, which helps create a feeling of panic and suspicion. A lot of the characters experience a dissonance between how they’re supposed to be performing and the thoughts going through their heads. (Robert, for example, realizes if Lanny wasn’t his child, he wouldn’t even care about his disappearance.) The things the characters have done or said in public are being picked apart by the village, but what they’re thinking is sometimes even worse.

Is there something about grief or crisis that makes that feeling of disconnect between performance and reality more acute?

MP: I think there is a self-consciousness to the person in crisis and a clarity available to people in times of crisis. When my kid was ill as a baby, I remember feeling an almost adrenaline-like clarity of thought. For the first time ever I wasn’t thinking of anything. I was so focused on him, there was no email, there was no streetlight, there was no form at all. It was just that question. And after the fact, I realized it was quite astonishing.

When I’m writing, I feel like there’s a sort of pudginess to a lot of prose. I’m very dissatisfied by formulaic or preexisting ideas, especially in regards to masculinity or guilt or grief. When I push against an idea like that, it gives way. It has no bone beneath the flesh. There’s nothing there. Like, I felt so guilty I wanted to hide away from everyone. I don’t believe that for a second. And yet what I would believe is someone saying, I pushed at myself to find the feeling that was in there and I found nothing. That’s why Robert has this sort of epiphany that there isn’t anything there. The whole idea of familial love or parental yearning or fiercely animalistic desire to protect those related to us—maybe it’s all just a load of bollocks. Maybe when it comes to it, he’s feeling nothing. And if given the choice, he would walk away from this.

Jolie says, If you told me I could sleep forever, I would probably accept that invitation, rather than the sort of psychic drudgery of carrying out this performance. Obviously, that in itself is part of an architectural system of guilt that we are supposed to perform in certain ways. That was what my first book was about: how are we supposed to be bereaved? And it was a kind of act of aggression against the idea of returning to normality. This book sort of takes those up: how are we supposed to feel about missing children, about children, and about old men and about marriage? How much of those ideas are we literally borrowing from a manual? And how much are we borrowing from the piss-weak nuclear family thinking the Church that has dribbled down to it? How much of it is good or useful to us?

As you said, no one’s got a name in part two, so it’s us and our fellow actors pretending to be these people. And in the act, you might work out how you feel. That’s why those crosses are there [scattered across the pages and separating the dialogue of unnamed speakers]. They’re for you to go like Oh yeah, that’s a person I recognize or That’s a person I hope I’m not turning into. And that’s Lanny’s job as well. Lanny’s a miracle throughout. How successful that is really isn’t up to me. It’s up to the reader.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.