The Gordon Burn Prize 2019: Lanny


Lanny is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. A novel following the disappearance of a young boy at the hands of supernatural forces, Max Porter’s second novel is surreal, moving between the supernatural, the everyday and something undefinable. 

Max Porter’s second novel is surreal

A narrative which reads like poetry, the language is decorative in a way only poetry usually is; there’s a lyricism woven throughout which means sections require reading more than once to understand (or maybe that’s just me). I can’t quite unpack everything in it, but there’s a beauty in that itself. The idea of the inexplicable, life and death and the natural world are explored in such a melodic way, that its language is left up for interpretation.

Although Porter’s prose is perfectly arranged, the narrative itself does take a while to get going. Following Lanny’s disappearance, the plot seems to pick up tenfold and the novel hurtles through voices trying to find answers. It takes on the tone of a tabloid newspaper, as the neighbours become full of petty gossip and its voyeurism subtly condemns the natural prejudices of the villagers. The narrative beauty gives way to the spiteful thoughts of the neighbours and this contrast only pours more shame on mob culture.

Porter’s characterisation of his lead characters is oddly refreshing. Lanny’s Dad, Robert, although he struggles to connect with Lanny, is still given a human and vulnerable role throughout the narrative. Rather than being the archetypal, emotionally-stiff father who can’t connect with his son, we’re allowed to see his own inner struggle and ultimate love for Lanny. Ostracised from the local community along with his wife, Jolie, her character is one of a more palpable yearning to understand Lanny. She possesses an unexplained dark edge, but so does every other adult in the novel, and it’s her journey to find her son which is the most emotionally striking.

The narrative itself does take a while to get going

“Mad” Pete feels like a balance of the outside world and the childlike innocence of Lanny; it’s no surprise that the outside world condemns him. Used as a scapegoat, the unfairness of false accusation plagues him. It’s so shamefully akin to the reality of today where everything we don’t understand is pulled apart, that it’s painful to read; undoubtedly we are all guilty of judging someone before we know their full story. Lurking at the edge of these human narratives, Dead Papa Toothwort’s existence offers a haunting undercurrent which forces human conflict into insignificance. Porter’s prose piles itself on his character, long weighty sentences which match his long weighty existence, and we don’t quite understand who he is, but I don’t think we’re meant to.

A stinging commentary on the loss of childhood innocence

This darkness of the adults in the novel offers a stinging commentary on the loss of childhood innocence. Whereas we are uncertain about the morality of the grown-ups, the child’s world of Lanny is pure in its intentions. His perspective of the world cannot be explained, but it is unabashedly well-meaning, whereas behind every adult lies something immoral. The vulgarity of Robert’s mind or Jolie’s novel sometimes interrupts the naivety of Lanny, but this isn’t something they can help, it is merely the adult world they are forced to live in. To me, Dead Papa Toothwort embodies the injustice of childhood innocence being stripped away in its most brutal form. It feels frustrating and inevitably tragic, as we watch the outer world tug at Lanny’s innocence, and the ending is a death in itself.

‘Lanny’ by Max Porter is nominated for the Gordon Burn Prize 2019 as part of the Durham Book Festival. The winner will be announced in Durham Town Hall on Thursday 10th October 2019 from 8pm. More information can be found at:

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