After editing The Luminaries, UK writer Max Porter released his own astronomically good book, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers. His new novel Lanny is short and strange; every page squishes with imagery, a rich compost of words. It begins:
Dead Papa Toothwort wakes from his standing nap an acre wide and scrapes off dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter. He lies down to hear hymns of the earth (there are none, so he hums), then he shrinks, cuts himself a mouth with a rusted ring pull and sucks up a wet skin of acid-rich mulch and fruity detritivores. He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom, briefly pauses as a smashed fibreglass bath, stumbles and rips off the mask, feels his face and finds it made of long-buried tannic acid bottles. Victorian rubbish.
Tetchy Papa Toothwort should never sleep in the afternoon; he doesn’t know who he is.
He wants to kill things, so he sings. It sounds slow-nothing like tarmac bubbles popping in a heatwave. His grin takes a sticky hour. Cheering up, he chatters in the voice of a cultured fool to the dry papery wings and under-bark underlings, to the marks he left here last year, to the mice and larks, voles and deer, to the quaint memory of himself as cyclically reliable, as part of the country curriculum. He slips through one grim costume after another as he rustles and trickles and cusses his way between trees. He walks a few paces as an engineer in a Day-Glo vest. He takes a step in a dinner suit, then an Anderson shelter, then a tracksuit, then a rusted jeep bonnet, then a leather skirt, but nothing works. He pauses as an exhaust pipe, then squirms into the shape of a rabbit snare, then a pissed-on nettle into pink-strangled lamb. He plucks a blackbird from the sky and cracks open the yellow beak. He peers into the ripped face as if it were a clean pond. He flings the bird across the forest stage, stands up woodlot bare, bushy, and stamps his spalted feet. His body is a suit of bark-armour with the initials of long-dead teenage lovers carved in the surface. He clomps through the wood, wide awake and hungry for his listening.
Only one thing can cheer up crotchety Toothwort and that’s his listening.
Lanny, by Max Porter (Faber, $29.99) is available at Unity Books.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.