The bumblings of boyhood


The bumblings of boyhood

LOUIS GAIGHER waxes lyrical about Max Porter's tender and empathetic trilogy that gives us new ways of thinking about masculinity.


SHY, the third instalment in Max Porter’s loose trilogy of boyhood, is similar to its predecessors, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (2015) and Lanny (2019), in its slim page count, stripped-down and highly concentrated aesthetic, and ample white space. It is equally generous in its tenderness, empathy, playfulness, richness of sound, polyphony and typography, with type occasionally extending beyond the surface of the page.

The books draw from traditions of theatre, folklore, fable, children's literature, genre fiction and concrete poetry, and they delight with their ambition, specificity and surprising detail. Furthermore, Porter's trilogy offers us a broader vision and new ways of thinking about masculinity and our sociopolitical and climate crises.

In the middle of bumblefuck nowhere

One morning at 3.13, we encounter the 15-year-old Shy near Last Chance, a school for troubled boys on an estate “in the middle of bumblefuck nowhere". It is pre-digital 1995 England — we are still being enfolded by three dimensions and tethered to our bodies. Teenagers are not able to escape or turn to the digital fourth dimension to create multiple identities. It's also the last year of (the previous round of) prolonged Tory rule, a time during which greed was celebrated, the idea of society was dismantled, and a progressive institution on sought-after land, like Last Chance, would be under threat of defunding and developers.

With a drum n bass tape (his area of expertise and obsession), a spliff and a backpack filled with 600 million-year-old flints, Shy is walking towards a pond. Besides the contents of his backpack, a stream of consciousness — another hat tip to Virginia Woolf — reveals Shy's seemingly predetermined fate. But perhaps refuge can be found in tenderness and music. Maybe receptivity to a reality adjacent to the human-made world could save him — a field where white forms are either small rocks or creatures sitting deadly still and a pond with two strange, floating, lifeless objects that make Shy feel “colossally sad. //Blisteringly sad. //Almost ecstatically sad" upon closer examination.

The litany of complaints against Shy includes: “He’s sprayed, snorted, smoked, sworn, stolen, cut, punched, run, jumped, crashed an Escort, smashed up a shop, trashed a house, broken a nose, stabbed his stepdad’s finger." What compels Shy to seek out the pond’s oblivion? And in our time of pop-psych diagnoses and easy pathology, why is he out of control? Porter overturns the easy tropes and answers of the trauma plot — chaotic domestic circumstances and abuse. Shy comes from a loving home with a mother who is well acquainted with depression.

In the prelude to the morning’s events, his mother discourages him from going to Last Chance: “No Poppet, you’re lost, that’s different." She argues that the other boys there are violent, rapists and severely disturbed. Shy encounters boys at Last Chance who speak with frankness, venom, cruelty, bravado, self-reproach, and “some baffled grinning shrugs and ripples of easy laughter". Porter's depiction of socialisation of boys is fascinating with “friendship [seeping] into the gaps of these false registers in unexpected ways, just as hatred does, just as terrible loneliness does".

The boys try to make sense of each other and themselves through conversation; Shy's mother turns to writing to try to understand him: “Like a person being devoured/animal that’s in him/skin? On him/trapping him/Shy’s inside, but the skin is also him, so angry, so true. I’m almost envious."

Carrying his strange brain around

The thinness of skin and the porosity of the membrane that separates the human and non-human are also explored in Lanny. The titular character is a bit otherworldly, a particularly wide-eyed 10-year-old boy. His DNA is spread all over the pastoral commuter village where his family has recently settled. Lanny is omnipresent in the landscape, but also elusive. He is a space that can be filled in with others' perceptions and fantasies. In fact, we get to know him only by what others tell of their encounters with and imaginings of him.

His father, Robert, a “lean, mean commuting machine" who relentlessly pursues fitting in, is awed by the ease with which Lanny relates to the environment. Lanny baffles him: “I sit at work in the city and the thought of him existing a sixty-minute train ride from me, going about his day in the village, carrying his strange brain around, seems completely impossible."

At the behest of his mother, Jolie, a writer of violent crime novels who had been paralysed by postpartum depression after his birth, Lanny befriends the artist mockingly known by the villagers as Crazy Pete. When Lanny disappears, and Porter, with a few brushstrokes, takes the novel into missing-child territory (a staple of British tabloids), Pete, as a gay man and an outsider, becomes a natural suspect, as does Jolie with her unconventional ways. Is friendship and caretaking across generational divides possible in a time of frenzied suspicion? And has the moral panic about child safety destroyed the generative wilderness of childhood?

Lanny is not the only being in the village who pricks his ears. Dead Papa Toothwort, a troublemaker, provocateur and shapeshifter who sporadically emerges from the debris of the scarred landscape, recognises Lanny as a fellow collector of villagers' linguistic expressions, both banal and poetic, which undulate and ripple across the surface of the page. As a representative of an older, mythical England, his presence and consciousness extend beyond his depictions on keystones, tattoos and the cricket club logo, and transcend Brexit and other contemporary woes. It is truly wonderful to encounter on the beautifully designed pages the sputtering and bubbling language of this primordial being who provides a counterweight to our time of cultural diminishment

Motherless children

In Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, a “rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss and leather and yeast" heralds the arrival a non-human visitor to the London flat of a man and his two young sons. They have recently lost their wife and mother: “The whole place was heavy mourning, every surface dead Mum, every crayon, tractor, coat, welly, covered in a film of grief."

Their profound loss and emotions are bait for Crow, a creature borrowed from Ted Hughes's work, who taunts Dad back to life, and pesters him to move beyond “this list-making oracle in clichés of gratitude, machine-like architect of routines for small children with no Mum". He also takes care of the youngsters when Dad's grief renders him absent.

This story of Lego and psychoanalysis, as Porter calls it, is told in the voices of three characters, one of them being collectively the young boys. As is the case with the other two books, Porter's generous vision interweaves language and tenderness and pricks the thin membrane that separates the human from the non-human, offering fresh and generative ways to think about childhood.

Be sure to listen to David Naimon's masterful in-depth interviews with Max Porter about Lanny and Shy on his Between the Covers podcast.

♦ VWB ♦

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