When you flip to the first page of Max Porter’s second novel, “Lanny,” you instantly understand this is no simple — or simply told — story of a restless, green-eyed boy living in a village outside London. In fact, the first character we meet in the opening paragraph is not the titular boy, but the town’s mystical shape-shifting spirit named Dead Papa Toothwort, a devilish patron saint who reassembles into anything he wants (say, a smashed fiberglass bath or a barn owl with car tire arms) and eavesdrops on the villagers, especially the inventive Lanny.
Porter, a prizewinning British writer in his late 30s, tends to write about young parents (he is one himself), trauma, children and mystical creatures. In “Lanny,” Jolie and Robert Lloyd, recent urban transplants to a rural village an hour from London, are struggling to find the best way to raise Lanny and nurture his creativity. One day, Jolie asks a local, aging artist of renown, Peter Blythe, to take Lanny under his wing, and teach him to paint and draw. Blythe agrees, setting in motion a narrative that deliberately edges up to — but artfully avoids and then upends — the well-trod conventions of a thriller.
Over the next 200 or so pages, Porter unspools a partial fable about Lanny, one grounded in reality and domestic life but also threaded with fantasy and the musings and manipulations of the ever-watchful Toothwort.
For much of the novel, we see Lanny come alive under the tutelage of the famous Blythe. They tramp into wooded areas, where Blythe — known in town as “Mad Pete” — spins ghost stories and teaches his student how to use charcoal in his art.
“Often as he works Lanny says strange and wonderful things,” Blythe recounts at one point, “puzzling things for a child to say — I’m a million cameras, even when I’m sleeping, clicking, clicking, every second something is growing and changing. We are little arrogant flashes in a grand, magnificent scheme.”
Later, when Robert catches Lanny sleepwalking toward an old oak tree near their home, the boy explains that he’d heard a girl in the tree, a girl who’s lived there for hundreds of years. After his dad scoops him up and returns him to bed, Lanny asks, “Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?”
The whole time, Toothwort is watching, and “wafting” throughout the village (at one point giving a guided tour to an orange Fanta bottle top), but always monitoring and admiring Lanny. “The boy understands,” Toothwort says. “He builds his magical camp in the woods as a gift to them all. They should worship him! He is in tune with the permanent, can feel a community’s tensile frame. Do you see? His intuition? Lanny Greentree, your miracle ribs remind me of me.”
I won’t reveal what happens next, partially because the book is only 200 pages. But the plot is not actually the most interesting part of “Lanny.” It’s the book’s structure, which is constantly switching perspectives.
A few pages will unfold from the first-person point of view of “Lanny’s Mum,” then Pete will have his say, then Lanny’s dad. In Toothwort’s sections, the text is written mostly in the God-like third-person — and the font is bolded with some of the typography curved up, down or diagonal. Later in the book, Porter abandons the helpful boldface headers, cluing us into the speaker’s identity because, perhaps by then, we can more easily recognize the speaker.
The back-to-back narrations — without heavy exposition from the author — quickly steep us in the interiors of the characters. They also equip us with a wider lens through which to absorb and assess the book’s plot and everyone’s emotions and motivations.
Some of the novel’s most heartbreaking narrations come from Lanny’s parents — Jolie is a former actress writing a crime novel; Robert is a workaholic in the finance industry — who often feel regret over their parenting skills and bemusement at their inscrutable offspring. We feel their pain all the more thanks to Porter’s sentences, which are tender and alert, deftly weaving in a mix of images, without ever being treacly. “I hold him and soothe him and he’s all warm bumps,” Lanny’s mother says at one point. “Warm bumps of an elbow, of a knee, hot little heels like pebbles warmed by their own internal sun.”
Porter also used alternating points of view to beautiful effect in his debut novel, “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” — featuring its own mythical creature named Crow — which was so successful it was adapted into an off-Broadway play (closing May 12) starring Cillian Murphy at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
More than anything, though, Porter’s framework has enabled him to write a book that is part poetry and part prose, where each main character feels like a member of a chorus delivering a soliloquy, some humorous, many others pained. This propulsive structure works in tandem with what seems to be Porter’s ultimate subject: the tribulations of parenting — those moments when everything a mother or father works hard to prevent actually comes to fruition.
Max Porter will be in conversation with Martha Anne Toll at Politics and Prose at Union Market on Friday, 7 p.m.
By Max Porter
Graywolf. 160 pp. $24