[I read this book in two halves, i.e. Part 1 followed by the rest. I wrote about Part 1 before reading on.]
3 April 2019
This is only the second novel that Max Porter has written, and almost from the start it feels recognisably—almost reassuringly—like one of his. As in Grief is the Thing with Feathers, there’s a real/imaginary entity, this time the Green Man of English folklore made grubby and cynical by hundreds of years of unattractive history. Oh, the things he’s seen… which Max Porter is happy to describe in all their nastiness for us, from pillage, rape and lovingly detailed murder to the thoughtless tearing-up of the landscape. Fine. And there are narrative elements we’ve encountered before in literature or wherever, like the floating consciousness, omniscient within the boundaries of his village and its surrounding fields. In fact, he’s omni-everything: he sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels it all. Porter has gone for a typographical gimmick this time—I can’t remember if he did something similar in Grief—through which, scattered into the bold text of ‘Dead Papa Toothwort’s’ third-person narrative, he renders the voices of literally anybody in the village, all 400 of them, in floaty italic text. These appear in curly little snippets on the page, looking a bit like unswept hair on a barber’s floor. A barber’s, not a hairdresser’s, I think…
…because this is a male domain. There’s at least one important female character, ‘Lanny’s mum,’ but this is the story of a boy, the two important men in his life and, weaving its way in and out of the village landscape, its presiding male spirit. Somehow, and we don’t know how yet, Papa Tooth-fairy or whatever he’s called has a closer connection than usual to this boy. OK. But the two undeniably real men are ‘Lanny’s father,’ who we also come to know as Robert, and Pete, a nationally recognised artist of gritty bucolic themes. No National Trust watercolours for ‘Mad Pete’—‘I can’t much be arsed with watercolour’—as he twists the bones and skulls of birds and other creatures into disquieting, gilded forms. Handy for there to be an artist of such quality in their little backwater, somebody who can find new things in common with his young protégé every time they meet. I get the feeling that if Ted Hughes had been an artist, Max Porter would write him like this. Big fan of Hughes, Max Porter, as we saw in Grief, and Mad Pete has a fine turn of phrase, unusual in a visual artist. But handy in a novel.
But Dead Papa T. I called him real/imaginary, because novelists can have characters like that if they like. Sometimes he seems to be completely incorporeal, no more than that floating consciousness. But he can also gather up bits of litter and plastic bottles into himself, and he coughs up a ‘petrified’ condom at his first awakening at the start of the novel. And when, towards the end of Part 1, he decides he’s going to stir things up like he does about once every hundred years, and Lanny’s dad wonders who or what it is that’s invaded their house, he imagines him made of sheets—a nod in the direction of MR James, which we wouldn’t have expected from Lanny’s terminally unimaginative father. And Papa T is a dark version of the BFG as well, injecting (or infecting) the minds of sleepers with terrible dreams. The big unfriendly giant. He says he doesn’t mind the way things are, that the land becomes itself again whatever horrors the people inflict on it, but…
…to be honest, he’s been feeling more and more unsettled. The neat little curlicues of italic text become so mashed-up in the final section of his narrative they’re almost unreadable, the barber-shop floor-litter all in heaps. And has the content of it got worse? Before, it’s been as comfortable as everything else, the recognisable sarcasm and gossip of middle England. At random, from half-way through Part 1 (you’ll have to imagine the curls): Yes he earns a big salary but his school is Ofsted outstanding, toodle-pip my soaps are starting; lord snooty comb-over and his blonde bimbo; descended from bird-starvers, barbed wire is the only answer… and so on. Maybe Max Porter makes it up, maybe he goes out with his phone on ‘record’ and later transcribes snippets of real conversations. It’s sort of cosy, as I’ve suggested, but…
…am I right that it becomes worse later on? Maybe there’s something of the middle England’s troubled zeitgeist in there by the time we reach the last heap of italics: night my love, dark times, boys will be boys, godless ferret-handling maniac, kids have sick ideas, I had the strangest feeling I was being watched. Maybe it isn’t a matter of Papa T infecting anybody. Maybe what he’s about to do—and it seems it’s going to be pretty drastic—is simply reflecting back on to his little territory what it’s splurging out at him. The novel opened with him waking up, and maybe he’s decided they all need waking up too.
Meanwhile, there’s another story going on, mainly involving one small family. Porter sticks with the go-to technique he used in Grief for offering different points of view—you can avoid the difficulties that arise from a pesky omniscient narrator: first-person present-tense chapters focusing on four or five people. Their stories are taking place in what is a recognisable reality in this particular village. I call it reality but, even though he’s only written two novels, it seems that reality is always relative in the Max Porter universe. Take Lanny. For a start, he has a name we’ve never heard of, possibly shortened from something else—his mother tends to call him Lan, shortening it further—and, wherever he goes, he seems to be some kind of benevolent fairy. His parents have moved to the village from London, now an hour’s commute by expensive muscle-car and train from the father’s city job, and it’s clear that they don’t need to worry about whether their unusual son is fitting in. The teachers love him, because… well, he just seems lovely. There are never any fights and arguments anywhere near where Lanny is. His surname—only used in connection with him, although he must share it with his parents—is Greentree. Is the name Lanny an affectionate form of Land? A shortening of Landscape? How should I know?
I’m asking because of the connection we’re beginning to get between this boy and the village landscape’s presiding spirit. He, Lanny, has already died once as a baby, and at the time his PND-suffering mother felt only relief when she realised he had stopped breathing. But we only have her memory of that, and it hasn’t been referred to again. OK, reality might be relative—but we know this can’t be a trivial detail. Maybe something big is going to happen in Part 2. Maybe Papa T has found himself an apprentice who can be born again, and he wouldn’t be the first to take him on. Mad Pete, who has agreed to let Lanny sit with him and maybe pick up a few ideas about how to do art—the man behind the grizzled cynic the artist projects is actually quite touched to be asked—has been astonished by how much he, Pete, is learning from this boy who seems open to every last atom of whatever the world offers him. You couldn’t make it up.
Only joking—you could make all of it up, from the other-worldly fairy-child and his worried parents to the convention-defying artist—who, in fact, feels he has sold out to the London art market—to the spirit of Old England who has had enough of all these people’s shit. I’m reminded of a play that caused a sensation on the London stage in 2009, Jerusalem, in which the main character, a defiantly free spirit, is cornered by the stupid powers that be in an England that has lost its way. Literally bloodied and beaten, he has to resort at the end to the rallying-call of a loudly beating drum and the names of mythical British heroes of the past: ‘Come, you battalions. You fields of ghosts who walk these green plains still. Come, you giants!’
I could imagine Papa Toothwort coming up with something like that, except for the inconvenience of him not being human. But the real men in this book are no good. Mad Pete has sold out, and Lanny’s father has sold out in a worse way—just because they can be sardonic about their own selling-out doesn’t stop it being real—and Lanny’s mother just doesn’t cut it. I’ve hardly spoken about her because… well, why? She has as many pages to tell us her stuff as anybody else does, but she’s surprisingly invisible, somehow. She adores her other-worldly son, but lets him get on with his life in a way that seems perfectly OK. She had been an actress, has clearly had some mental health issues since Lanny became a part of their lives, and is now writing her first novel, an eye-wateringly violent thriller. Maybe, in spite of the image she has of herself as a good mother, she’s as much a symptom of family dysfunction as the husband who seems to have been created for us readers to dislike….
It’s Lanny who’ll have to be the one to come up with something, although I don’t know how Papa T might fix that. And I don’t know what Lanny’s dad will make of it. He has almost literally no imagination, has no understanding of his son, of Mad Pete, of his wife’s needs, or of Lanny’s. He’s a kind of archetype, exactly opposite to Mad Pete who, at least, seems open to new possibilities. Lanny’s dad isn’t open to anything.
I might be wrong about whatever it is that Papa T is setting up—it’s impossible in a fantasy like this to know where an author might take it. Let’s see.
Parts 2, 3 and beyond—to the end
Whatever else it is, Part 2—nearly a third of the book, once Max Porter stops messing about—is a satirical tour de force. It’s largely a mash-up of two elements we’ve already had, but there are new things here too. The two elements are the individual points of view of the main (adult) characters, each section shrunk down to a paragraph or two, plus the snippets of overheard voices, now expanded to paragraphs that are often just as long. Middle England is revealed in all its 21st Century ugliness, as though Max Porter has set out to prove that Papa Tooth’s desperate measures were sorely needed. Except… except. I’ll come back to my reservations, not only about Part 2 but about the rest of this second half too. And the first.
The desperate measure that Papa T decides on is… the disappearance of fairy-boy. And, in spite of him turning up in the end, safe and sound, the old Lanny is gone forever. But that’s later, in Part 3. What we get in Part 2 is a superbly handled ‘what if?’. What if, in the sort of village we’ve got to know in Part 1, a nice young lad were to disappear under mysterious circumstances? At first, it’s all focused on Lanny’s mum, pretending to herself for as long as possible that there’s nothing unusual in Lanny staying out long after the end of school. Then, like the writing exercise it’s started to feel like, it goes where we might expect: we know he really has disappeared long before his mother realises, and both she and Lanny’s useless dad behave completely predictably. So, aside from one very clever set piece, in which Lanny’s mum tries to enlist the help of the oldest woman in the village, the first fifteen or 20 pages hold few surprises.
But that set piece is worth a look. It’s another ‘what if?’: what if we were party to two points of view simultaneously during a conversation between people who seriously dislike one another? We don’t know ‘Mrs Larton’, but she’s presented as the village know-it-all, chair of local committees—‘I gazed at the six Neighbourhood Watch stickers and wondered why … Mrs Larton hadn’t unpeeled the old ones. For weight of claim, perhaps. For pride. For proof of historic vigilance. Because she’s a dickhead.’ Thanks, Max, got it. And straight after that we get the old woman’s view of the relative newcomer, who decides she hides her good looks behind a ‘gormless face’ and ‘that messy hair’ for reasons that come down to one: ‘she is foolish.’ I’ll spare you the next four pages of tit-for-tat personal prejudice and dislike, all presented in this turn-taking way and ending in deadlock. The old woman isn’t going to tell this interloper anything because she hasn’t listened to a word she’s said.
It sets the scene for a change of gear, because now Max Porter brings in the other voices. Before the exchange with the old woman, he’d been intercutting the thoughts, not so much the voices, of the parents. He hasn’t been labelling them in Part 2, and now he does the same with new voices that arrive unannounced. As I said, it’s the italic snippets all over again, but now the speakers are given enough rope to hang themselves. Often, although not always, we hear the kinds of prejudices that have become familiar enough in the last few years to sound like clichés. They start off harmlessly, like voices offstage in what Lanny’s mum has already been presenting to herself as an unfolding noir drama: ‘It’s Lanny’s mum. She’s asking if we’ve seen Lanny.’ Then fuller: ‘She apologised for phoning me at home. I said don’t worry. It was 7.50 and….’ And so on. But within a page, the more cynical voices start: ‘Panicky call from Fitty McFitterson, the one with the invisible husband, she’s lost her weird kid.’ And a line or two further on, the first appearance of the big red herring that the village—and the police—decide to follow: ‘Duh, Mad Pete’s just tucking him into a shallow grave, LOL.’
Porter must have had a lot of fun with this section, and he mixes up a ghastly soup of prejudice and, before too long, vigilantism and mob rule. Even after the police grudgingly accept that Pete’s alibi is watertight—he was in London, but you should just hear the slimy innuendoes in the line of questioning he has to undergo first—his house is broken into and trashed, ‘Paedo’ sprayed on his smashed-up stuff. It’s a 50-page crescendo of rumour, prejudice born out of ignorance, and a terrifying (and terrifyingly plausible) mismatch of expectations. As far as the police are concerned, Pete’s life drawings, including erotica, are indistinguishable from porn, and his friendship with the weird kid could not possibly have been innocent. Even after he is released unconditionally, a nasty bunch of men in the village know what they know, and beat him up.
Meanwhile, it’s no better for the parents. That line about the invisible husband is only the tiniest sign of what is to come. They are clearly useless at child-rearing and, because well-known personalities are involved, the tabloids are soon sniffing around. There’s a perfect pastiche of a Daily Mail gossip/opinion piece about the woman we now know as Jolie Lloyd because, I suppose, this world is slightly different from the one in Part 1. The hatchet job goes from bland self-congratulation—‘Readers of this column will know that I like to take things at face value’—through lazy innuendo—‘something about Mrs Lloyd’s performance doesn’t sit right with me’—to the decisive, uninformed, and ultimately meaningless final line: ‘there’s something about Jolie Lloyd that rings alarm bells with me.’ It’s a masterstroke to have those repeated first-person pronouns. All this anonymous writer is a mindset driven by prejudice.
The running themes are judgment and pre-judgment. This is what the English do, gleefully commenting on the failings of others and, if proved wrong, ignoring the facts in favour of a vague sense of having been swindled out of a bigger truth. It wasn’t far into this section—in fact, now I think of it, it was with those judgmental, lazy snippets in Part 1—that I thought of the horrific effect of the EU referendum of 2016. A different author, Ali Smith, opened her post-Referendum novel Autumn with a frankly despairing opening line—‘It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times’—and now here’s Max Porter offering us a collage of voices that seem to illustrate every last one of the divisions that have only become more pronounced in the two or three years since. It’s easily the best thing in the novel, and I’m not surprised Papa T decided it was time to stir things up.
In fact, it isn’t quite 50 pages. Before the end of Part 2 the focus is moving on to the character of the missing kid. We’ve had a mix of fair comments and predictable snipes at his weirdness and his parents’ incompetence, but then his ‘letters’ appear. These are in fact the boy’s half-formed philosophical musings—again, I’m not making this up—and outsiders start to realise he really was, or is, a highly unusual child. And we’ve had a single bold-text intervention: Papa T has been around, watching—and the person he’s watching is Peggy Larton. She had actually just begun to understand Jolie’s plight by the time she’d stomped back along the garden path, and now we realise she’s concerned. And more than that: midway through the storm of condemnation—not a storm at all, really, more an irritating shower of the kind the English love to moan about—Papa T had been listening as she speaks to him. ‘Peggy kneels and places her ancient hands on the acorn-garland carvings on the chest her great-grandfather carved out of local oak. She whispers, Look after him.’ And a few lines further on: ‘I know you. / I know what you’re up to. / Give the boy back.’ At the end of Part 2, she’s at her gate, and there’s another message to, or from, bold-text land. ‘Peggy waits… / Listening for endings. / Waiting.’ And it isn’t long now because, as soon as Part 3 opens, Papa T is starting the process of doing exactly what she had wanted. He’s going to bring the boy back.
Have you had enough of this? Whatever, Max Porter needs to bring it to a close but, being the good-value sort of chap he is, on a flourish. We’re in Midsummer Night’s Dream territory as Jolie, Robert and Pete all have a shared dream, if it is a dream. They find each other invited to attend an event at the village hall, and it’s amateurish-seeming enough. Just the three of them, and some sort of stage show: in turn, they are going to have to take a test. First up is Pete, having to somehow reinvent a lifesize version of the first drawing Lanny did for him, speaking Papa T’s words to him in Pete’s own voice. And he does reinvent him, painfully, until he’s a strongly muscled young man, part childish drawing, part sinewy masterpiece. Its strong, manly embrace, ‘brutal’ in its intensity, seems literally to embody the future relationship with Lanny that Pete would hope for… and ‘the drawn man leans down and whispers in Pete’s ear, in Pete’s voice,’ a plausible ending for the terrible missing-child story. A teenage Lanny, out with his mates, quietly acknowledges the old artist, ‘a bond of sorts, yes? Can you see teenage Lanny, Pete, is this one of your endings?’ Well, yes it is, and Pete has passed the test. Diamond geezer, Pete.
Unlike Robert, the no-good father. A glamorous assistant, actually composed of vegetable matter like a living Archimboldi painting, shows him two ‘endings’ on a phone. The first one, unimaginative idiot that he is, is a tableau of sexual abuse being inflicted on his son. Yes, that’s what he’s expecting, and the now slowly rotting Archimboldi figure damns him with faint praise for his honesty. He is presented with an alternative ending, in which Lanny, now a grown man, is successful and suited, surrounded by the markers of status his father so adores. Robert is delighted, and his failure is complete. The marriage, it’s later confirmed for us, will collapse soon.
Then comes Jolie, and what she gets is a kind of living dream. First she is somehow with Lanny, understanding him better by helping him to build the bower some other kids regularly vandalise. Lanny doesn’t mind, obviously, but things move on. Now she’s on a path through the woods, on a bewildering and terrifying night-time search. It becomes another of Max Porter’s set pieces, a nightmare of fear and confusion as she searches the woodland that’s already been searched a hundred times. And so on. We’ve been party to a scene in which, in agreement with Papa T—we always knew there was a close link—Lanny hides in an old drain. But the cover comes down and traps him, and Lanny can hardly believe the betrayal….
And so on. The end of the nightmare morphs into a real search and rescue, and Lanny explains away the food and drink he’d persuaded Papa T to give him. He’d had stuff in his backpack, he says, and maybe that’s he truth after all. Because now, as I mentioned, the old Lanny has gone. Maybe this whole adventure, from start to finish, has been an allegory of leaving childhood behind. Or the story that every fond parent can tell, of the endlessly lovable child who grew up and out of it. Maybe.
But—and I said Max Porter likes to offer good value—we don’t have to be satisfied with only this ending. There’s an untitled epilogue, focused on the spirit of Peggy Larton. She dies picturesquely, remaining standing lifeless at her gate as people pass by and say hello, then…. She does a bit of Papa Toothworting of her own, her spirit taking a trip to the woods to see how things are going. Is she the one who is going to take up the baton the long-term incumbent seems to have had enough of? Well, no she isn’t, even though she was the only adult in the village to truly believe in the dead old git.
Her four-page epilogue opens with this: ‘False things, endings. Sustenance for fools and never what they claim to be.’ Fine. But an ending is what Max Porter gives us anyway, and it doesn’t actually sound a bit like an old woman’s voice. It’s a quick, totally standard summary of what happened after the rescue, followed by Lanny’s move into adolescence: ‘he moves more slowly, asks fewer questions, and thinks straighter about man and nature.’ But now we do get Peggy’s insights: ‘He has tried to lose the memory of Dead Papa Toothwort…. But some knowledge of it lives in his marrow.’ And, reader, there’s a boy-shaped sapling in the woods—we saw its creation in Jolie’s nightmare search—woods that are somehow imbued with young Lanny’s songs. Bless.
The final set piece is a more satisfying ending. An old man sits in the wood, and it’s Pete. He draws, and the adolescent who used to be Lanny—he uses a different name now—comes and draws with him. Bless, again. Pinocchio might be a real boy, but we remember there’s a plant-version of him in the woods, and who knows what he will grow into. Maybe Papa T will be able to reach his final rest after all, although Max Porter isn’t suggesting any such thing. But if he can offer multiple outcomes, why can’t the poor old reader?
I mentioned reservations. Max Porter is a truly talented writer, but I really hope that this novel and Gief are only trial runs for something more substantial. They both fizz with ideas, and some of those set pieces I mentioned are superbly done. But… so? Porter has done an excellent job of repackaging—repackaging an ever less attractive England for our queasy entertainment, and repackaging so many readymade features the whole novel feels like Papa Toothwort himself, composed of found items. How many things in it are a bit like things we’ve come across somewhere else? For me, for example, the best ever floating consciousness is that of the main character in Susan Price’s The Ghost Drum, a novel for young adults that blurred reality and folk-myth 30 years before Lanny. The named chapters in Part 1 are the standard way of presenting multiple points of view in popular and young adult fiction. And alternative endings have been around forever….
But that isn’t my main reservation. It’s about what we might take away from this beautifully executed novel beyond a sense that we’ve been taken on a fantastic ride. I had the same reservation about Jerusalem, the state-of-England play I’ve already mentioned. Yep, I thought as the curtain came down, but what point are you actually making here? That England is shit? Fine. Now tell me something I don’t know. And when, Max Porter, are you going to bite the bullet and have real interactions between characters, so that they go beyond just their individual voices? Where’s the character development? And where, let’s face it, is a plot that goes beyond grand guignol melodrama?
And finally… what about the women? I might have been a little unfair about Lanny’s mother early on—she truly loves him, in her way, and in the end she’s the only one who can save him. Except she does no such thing. Papa T shows her the way—and I don’t believe for a minute that it was the novel’s other, less attractive woman who got him to do it. This is a male book and, whereas in Grief the presentation of the dead wife and mother is idealised, here the presentation of women’s roles feels like tokenism. The girls, eh? What would we do without them?