Dead Papa Toothwort exhales, relaxes, lolls inside the stile, smiles and drinks it in, his English symphony.
LANNY by Max Porter is about England, to be sure. His awful Dead Papa Toothwort, Green Man and spirit of an English village, could probably be productively read against Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s JERUSALEM, in fact. That earthly, faintly malign, strutting and lolling poisonous Englishness.
Dead Papa Toothwort has seen monks executed on this land, seen witches drowned, seen industrial slaughter of animals, seen men beat each other senseless, seen bodies abused and violated, seen people hurt their closest, harm themselves, plot and worry or panic and rage, and the same can be said of the earth. He has seen the land itself cut apart, its top layer disembowelled, stripped and re-plundered, sliced into tinier pieces by wire, hedges and law. He has seen it poisoned by chemicals. He has seen it outlive its surgeons, worshippers and attackers. It holds firm and survives the village again and again and he loves it. He wouldn’t do well in a wilderness.
Dead Papa Toothwort is the spirit of a rural village which has recently become home to Robert, a financial services worker, Jolie, an ex-actor working on her first novel, and their young son Lanny. Who is, immediately, of the land, like a bud from Papa Toothwort. To try and channel his wild dreamy nature, they convince a local artist — known in the village as Mad Pete, a part-retired avant-garde artist of the 20th Century — to give him lessons.
Dead Papa Toothwort has lessons he wants to teach, too.
Glorious, he sings, as he swings his way back into the woods, flinging himself in thirty-foot arcs between telegraph poles, dressed as a barn owl with car-tyre arms…
Reviews of LANNY alight on different things, I’ve noticed. It’s a novel of three parts. The longest, and most enjoyable, is an exploration of spirit and art. The language is often astonishing, and I recommend it chiefly to swim in Porter’s sentences. The second part is harrowing. And the final part is disturbing, and can be characterised as a trial. What do you alight on? The woman writing a crime novel finds herself living a crime novel? The moment where hope is punished on the stage? The way the rankness of old England reclaims the wondrous and renders it declawed and quotidian?
It’s about England. It’s about how cities and towns and villages want to knock the art out of you. It’s about how you stop listening to the world and start doing what the invisible voices tell you to.
Note: buy this in print, or use something other than a basic Kindle. It does tricks with word art that an e-ink Kindle can’t render.