Max Porter discusses his new novel, Lanny, in which a mythical creature known as Dead Papa Toothwort lurks over a small village, luring a young boy from its safety as a strange tale unfolds, mixing contemporary life and eternal myth in a masterful blend.
My guess is that to embody Grief or Nature as an objective being would be a tricky thing for an author. (My musical-dramatic version of Lolly Willowes will be premiered next month, so I know something about this.) It would be so easy to “explain” Crow or Dead Papa Toothwort as symbols or Jungian archetypes or even just as pathological hallucinations. How important is it to you for the reader to understand these beings as real? Not just as products of your fictional imagination (like your human characters), but as genuinely true things in the world?
To get to genuinely true things in the world seems the main objective always, certainly, and so far I’ve found the best way to do that is to go straight to an apparently preposterously unreal device which carries the risk of interpretive closed doors, but should from the get-go be the heat of that project to describe truest things. One important thing for me is to do no pissing about, no explaining, no patronizing or boring your reader with a handbook or a gently-gently contextual run-in. Crow walks straight in, and we begin with (inside, alongside, complicit with) DPT. And even if there is sweetness (or related effects), there shouldn’t be any coyness on my part. If you’re a reader who needs to know, who dislikes ambiguity, who needs a metaphor locked into the metaphorical arena, then these books will annoy you.
For a lifelong reader of English supernatural fiction like myself, Lanny is a basket of Easter eggs. Machen and Grahame, Kipling and Blackwood, Forster and Warner—these daemons lurk in the understory as I read your novel. Am I mistaken in feeling that Dead Papa Toothwort is meant as a variation on this grand literary theme? Either way, I’d love to know who your own favorites might be (if any) among these folks, who have their own panicked tales to tell.
That’s good to hear, thank you. He’s a variation as well as a humble nod, as well as a contemporary (as in post-ummm-post-modern-mythic? Anthropocene?) gesture beyond these influences because he is self-aware, and in that self-awareness (very naïve and natural but also very accomplished) lies the secret of his identity, which we shan’t give away. I like a literary device that knows they’re an homage, knows they are loaded up with symbolic power and can play. I want to set a knowing and loving literary vandal loose among their predecessors as an act of affection for what’s come before as a well as to try and revitalize the sometimes lazy or boring flattening of the function in our current environment. I hope DPT is as much revisionist historian as he is kitsch.
Much of it is hidden to me and revealed by readers. I have never read the legendary chapter seven of Wind in the Willows, but it sounds like a branch on the same tree as Lanny. I realize now, all these months after finishing, that in here is Carter, and Fungus the Bogeyman, and Riddley Walker, and Garner, and many more besides. In the greenwood there’s no naming of names, but there’s many things I don’t realize I’m replying to until someone tells me.
Toothwort feasts on the babel of human voices, nourishing his implacable need for connection with those benighted village souls, fueling the crescendo to the crisis he must bring on (as part of the inevitable cycle of things). Is Lanny offering us a vision of the natural world as possibly a redemptive force for our suffering, as long as we are able to accept the merciless suffering it also willfully inflicts as the necessary terms of its sovereignty?
Again, only after finishing the book does any of this fall into place, but Lanny is fairly classically druidical in his thinking. He could be said to exemplify (unknowingly) an accomplished post-industrial Celtic metaphysic. Which is painful, in these times, which is why he’s sad, why he worries.
The awful and inevitable turn against Mad Pete by both the village and the media intensifies the luminous trauma of your narrative. In this case, Pete is innocent; in other cases (Eric Gill, most notoriously), the artist is hideously guilty. At the heart of your storytelling, therefore, seems to be a parable on the fragility of goodness (especially for artists), the rarity and sanctity of kindness and trust and uninhibited affection, so easily ruined by abuses of power of any kind. The awesome power of Dead Papa Toothwort strikes me as nothing more or less than a fully embodied accusation of humanity’s sinfulness in this regard. The succession of tableaux in the village hall gives shattering evidence for this claim. Each individual is weighed in the balance; each person is found wanting. Would it bother you if I said to you that both your novels, with due unorthodoxy, present themselves as trials-by-ordeal, tests of spiritual wholeness, designed for this perplexed historical moment, precisely because they insist upon the presence of Beings who transcend history?
I’d be really, really delighted with such a reading. Thank you.
You’re the first person to bring up Gill, for which I’m grateful. And in your earlier question, you’re perhaps nudging me toward my own fascination with Jones and Gill and other troubled Catholic visionaries.
I would be dismayed to think I’d written self-righteous books, but there is a howling indignation at real-politik late-capitalist shittiness in both books, and a worshipful attitude to notional ideas of decency, warmth, kindness. And wit. Wit is religiously admired, because humor seems to me the great triumph of the species.
I’m pleased to be descended from Quakers, and despite not being a Christian myself, there is in my genetic material a pacifist moral framework which yearns for at least the moral certitude of the god-fearing system. So yes, the accusation is there for sure, and we are all found wanting, and one does occasionally come across someone . . . distinct. Luminous.
Finally (at last!), a simple question for you. Lanny outgrows his “changeling” nature and becomes a “normal” teenager. Is art, then, really the only way to keep such connection and consciousness alive? (“They draw the woods around them.” That verb is a most beautiful double entendre.)
Ha, even your simple question is profoundly complex.
The only way, who knows. I’ve met gardeners, mole-catchers, window cleaners, teachers and so on. They are in tune, they are open.
For shit sure there aren’t many bankers alive in the way you describe, but they figure it out and buy art in an attempt to fake the experience. Who knows.
Increasingly I feel that art and community are the same thing, the same resistance. They both begin with the body in relation to other bodies and the planet. And this all comes back to your first question, to truth. I’m no authority on anything, but when I sit down and write I want to begin from the same basic place one might begin a political or philosophical project, perfectly encapsulated by the Dickinson line I began my first book with.
Connection, consciousness, childhood, crisis, in all of this, now and always, before and after us, the freight is proportioned to the groove.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Lanny.
Author photo by Lucy Dickens