The Fragile Ecology of Teenage Boyhood in Shy: A Conversation with Max Porter


George Saunders said it best: “Max Porter is one of my favorite writers in the world. Why? Because he’s always asking the most important questions and then finding ways—through innovative structures and that inimitable voice—of answering those questions soulfully, with his full attention, in ways that make the world seem stranger and more dear (or more dear because stranger). He gives his reader, in other words, bursts of new vision.” A versatile artist who works across mediums, Porter writes with an ear for clauses that fit together rhythmically, the physics of words that seem to float above the plane of the page. In his newest novel, Shy (Graywolf Press), Porter does more in fewer pages than virtually any Anglophone author, with expressionist storms that surge and sigh within a tight frame. Since his acclaimed debut, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (Graywolf Press), he’s followed the cadence of his characters, coming to literature free of a conventional education in the canon.

Shy is set in the English countryside in 1995 and tells the story of a few strange hours in the life of its eponymous protagonist, who sneaks out of Last Chance, a home for troubled adolescent boys. Shy carries a rucksack full of stones and a chorus of voices in his head—voices his Walkman and mix tape are unsuccessful in drowning out. Through the night, Shy navigates the darkness of his escape with the same difficulty he’s encountered his entire life. Memories—fierce, fragmented, often funny—bleed across the screen of his mind. There’s hip-hop music. There’s a phantom, called Eve. There’s rage and pain and the glimmer of redemption. Most of all, there is beautiful prose. Shy plumbs the crisis of masculinity and asks questions about our cultural responsibility to young men.

I had the good fortune to interview Max Porter via email, where we discussed his main characters, the effects of 1990s music on the cultural mood, the dearth of strong and sensitive male characters, and why we need to be “urgent and radical in our belief that some solutions exist” to the staggering challenges that confront boys and men today.


The Rumpus: How did you find your main character, Shy? Or did he find you?

Max Porter: He rose up out of a sacrilegious medieval manuscript illuminator I’d been writing for something else, and a troubled Victorian Penny Dreadful employee I’ve discarded for now, and a dream I had about a transparent figure in the woods through whom nonhuman energies could flow, and my three sons, and some friends I lost or nearly lost, and some kids I work with in my mentoring. He found me at the end of the school holidays when I hadn’t been able to write, and he hit the page full pelt.

Shy cover

Rumpus: As others have noted, Shy is a complex blend of neurobiology and socialization. Do you view him in this way?

Porter: No, but I was aware that others would. Perhaps these interpretive systems were at play at the edges of him, as they might be with our own children, available for denial or temptation, their danger and their allure finely intertwined. I had to resist arming myself, as a novelist, with any such discourse, lest the kid become an essay or a symptom of my interests. I hope he ruptures or slips free from attempts to view him this way. I hope he surprises. He surprised me at times, which felt good. I’m not a control-fixated writer (or parent, for that matter).

Rumpus: I love your technique here: spare and yet sophisticated, tapping polyphonic influences from Joyce onward. Do you write with specific technical concepts in mind or more by intuition? 

Porter: Wholly intuition. There was only one point in this book where I knew I wanted to do something with the text (the litany-wodge of parental frustration that breaks the container of the typeset page) and otherwise I was simply trying to build it as a machine for getting Shy to the pond, immersed in creating the emotional weather for him. Having never studied English literature, I am sometimes surprised by techniques or influences identified in my work. I appear to represent some literary tactics to some people, and in due course I betray those people, or the work squirms free of their critical scaffold, and this is all fairly interesting to me later down the line, but when I’m writing, I’m just writing. Listening to it.

Rumpus: Despite its impressionistic, elegant surface, Shy has a firm narrative spine, a plot, if you will. Did that narrative emerge from your sentences or did your sentences emerge from the narrative?

Porter: The latter. You’re kind to call it a plot. I knew he was going to the pond. I knew he was carrying a backpack of rocks. I knew what would happen at the end. Various removals were vital (cause and effect boyhood trauma devices, for example) and various things appeared (music, hauntology, bullying, therapy, ketamine, dead animals) that raised the bar at sentence level. The whole device of Eve gathered an unplanned psychic momentum as I wrote. I realized how invested I was in the overlapping consciousnesses only when I tried to achieve it at sentence level.

Rumpus: The visual interplay between fonts is arresting and a compass through an elliptical story and fractured consciousness. How does your background in art and theater shape your style?

Porter: I think I fundamentally don’t see why the novel would deny itself some of the tactics or aesthetic registers of other forms. I suppose fear of gimmickry would be one reason, but then the answer would be not to do it as a gimmick. Another might be just that the modern Western literary novel has settled itself oddly quickly into an accepted shape, length, and style, and I can’t write like that and don’t want to.

My books teach the reader to read them as they unfold, and sometimes some identification of who is speaking is helpful, or generative. At other times (part two of Lanny) the exact opposite is true. I think if you’re offering the reader a compass, you have to be really sure of why and when and how it might affect the ordinary business of the reader–text relationship (which to my mind is extraordinary anyway, and only getting more extraordinary as we become addicted to small handheld computers). That’s why being edited, and editing, are such thrilling experiences. Did you realize you were giving us a compass at this point? Did you realize that we don’t need one, but maybe you did when you were writing and now you can remove it? Did you intend it to be kitsch, or a pastiche? Did you think we were stupid? Or are you playing with this firm ground because you’re about to drop us in a marsh? Etc. Haha, you see what a pain in the ass I am to work with.

Rumpus: The internal rhymes of hip-hop thread throughout Shy and other works. Which hip-hop artists are major influences?

Porter: You are the first to ask me this, and I’m grateful. The culture influences me to a very great extent. I won’t bore you with a history of my love of hip-hop through the three decades I’ve been listening, but here are some major influences past and present: Doom, Billy Woods, Homeboy Sandman, J Dilla, Jehst, Eligh/Living Legends, NoName, Hieroglyphics Crew/Souls of Mischief, Mike Ladd/Company Flow, JonwWayne, Scallops Hotel, Aesop Rock, Roots Manuva, Ghostface Killah, Saul Williams, Ursula Rucker, Spillage Village, Wilma Archer.

Rumpus: Among its other merits Shy is a valentine to ’90s music. In your view, what makes that decade’s music distinctive?

Porter: Well, take me for an example, and let’s say it’s 1997. I’ve got Portishead on my Walkman. I’m raking the neighbor’s leaves to earn money to buy Mo’ Wax anthologies. Ninja Tune are putting out records. I’m gorging on hip-hop, we’re all passing ’round Wu-Tang Clan like it’s the Bible. I’m discovering British hip-hop, instrumental hip-hop, German and French hip-hop, acid jazz. Bristol is just showering the world with this incredible sound. I’m going to Mr. Bongo or Soul Jazz in London to buy incredible music from around the world. My brother is coming home with early Metalheadz and V Recordings, drum and bass roaring into life gathering so many diverse forms of music and building a homegrown sound. I’m collecting blues and reggae and folk music on tape. My uncle is living in Ethiopia and sending me home incredible blues music and jazz. My birthday treat is to go and see Ali Farka Touré play live. Can you imagine?! The greatest of our time. Even pop music is good. Kids listening to Fugees and Prodigy on the radio, and in 1997, this is just what I’m into. The indie kids were thriving. The punks were doing it. The goths were doing it. The classical music scene was thriving. It was the climax of analogue culture.

Rumpus: Your acclaimed Grief is the Thing with Feathers draws heavily on the oeuvre of the late poet laureate, Ted Hughes, and his collection Crow in particular. Do Hughes’s and Sylvia Plath’s poetry resonate personally?

Porter: I don’t want to write an essay here, so I will just say yes. Always. I have read a lot about those poets and for a while I was reading about their lives more than I was reading their poems. Many of us have done that, in this unique biographical case, for better or worse. I have now tried to correct that mistake. I read the poems now. I can never read them separate from the lives, and to try would be idiotic, but I have had lovely, terrifying, startling, fresh encounters with both poets in recent months.

Rumpus: A larger discourse about the crisis of boys and men continues to build, which I thought of as I read Shy. How do we begin these important conversations?

Porter: I know that there has been a perpetual crisis of masculinity unfolding to our planet and species’ great detriment for millennia, but even still, the book points to some grim truths about right now that really frightened me. I think we begin those conversations in our homes and in our relationships. In our language. We don’t offload that work to others, we do it ourselves, all the time. In the granular details of our language. And we vote accordingly. We do everything accordingly, from the sidelines of our children’s football tournaments to how we react when they trip and fall, to what we say when they bring us their ideas of gender or tell us they’re going to buy Twitter and drive it off a cliff.

I was alarmed that, even in a liberal UK newspaper [review], the end of Shy was described as a “pure dollop of sentimentality” in which “Seinfeld’s no hugging rule is not followed here.” This frankly terrifies me—that the carefully calibrated professional decision to hold, to touch a person in violent crisis, is deemed an excess of tenderness, a letdown. Tell that to a carer, or a palliative doctor, or a midwife, i.e. the people doing the human work. We have tried toughness, and look where it got us. Both in literature and life, we need to have better conversations about masculinity that don’t lazily borrow from inherited vocabularies. The caged animal lashes out, and it doesn’t take a psychoanalytic theorist of sport, or capitalism, or war, or nuclear war, or violence as entertainment or art, to see that the end result is oblivion, for all of us. We need new frameworks of compassion, indebtedness, interdependence, fragility. With climate catastrophe as the umbrella context, it’s going to be very, very difficult to redesign the language, begin the conversations, unpack and deconstruct these harmful systems. Humanity’s doom loop has been encoded in male behavior for some time, as victim and aggressor.

Rumpus: In Shy, you write brilliantly about the interior, particularly what harms or damages the male characters. In our contemporary literature, there’s a dearth of male characters who are strong, smart, resilient, compassionate, fair-minded. What do you make of this?

Porter: I don’t know. Maybe they don’t make for great entertainment. It’s a cultural thing that they’re not appearing in literature. They appear in my life! But so do an awful lot of more entertaining shits and sociopaths. It upsets some people terribly, but those people can simply read sideways or backward, or write the books themselves, as people always have. There are always dearths of one sort or another in the culture industry and we all make efforts, or rail, or retire from the game in disgust. Speaking of which, I was once asked whether I felt it was important that the father character in Lanny masturbated, and I replied that I hadn’t really thought about it, but if it stood out as true, and as potentially a corrective to a silence or denial that men are colossal tossers, then yes, that’s important!

Rumpus: These sentences jumped out at me: “Adults tease [Shy] better, almost a form of kindness. The boys just rip and rip at each other, endless and patterns of attack and response, like flirting’s grim twin.” What can individuals do to break these brutal patterns?

Porter: Well, in the ecology of teenage boyhood, this has to happen. It can be enormously useful, and maybe even allow important advances in sympathy or identification. From an anthropological point of view, these brutal patterns are what allow growth and development. But also language as a weapon is so incredibly quick to evolve. Much of the language that defined these male-only environments in 1995 is now more or less extinct. We’ve evolved. A younger reader of an early draft was appalled at the homophobia. Those specific patterns have been broken. Others have no doubt emerged, perhaps more harmful, but such is language and life.

Rumpus: Another bit from the book: “They [the Last Chance boys] tell stories. Some bragging, some regret, some baffled grinning shrugs and ripples of easy laughter. They talk about how wrong school was for them . . . They each carry a private inner register of who is genuinely not OK, who is liable to go psycho, who is hard, who is a pussy, who is actually alright, and friendship seeps into the gaps of those false registers in unexpected ways, just as hatred does, just as terrible loneliness does.” What can our societies do to bolster the good and dial down the bad among adolescent males?

Porter: I’m not qualified to speculate really. I would say that role models are a big thing. We just shouldn’t be giving platforms to toxic figures. We are allowed a moral compass, as individuals and CEOs. My son shouldn’t know more about Andrew Tate than he does about Mahatma Ghandi.

From a UK perspective, much of it is ideological. The current government has decided to de-fund social care, close youth clubs, shut libraries, exacerbate inequality at school age, at university funding stage, at job-entry stage. And then the zombie dickheads announce their solution is to “ban loitering in parks.” So literally what are our young people supposed to do, and where? You couldn’t design a better system for creating angry, disaffected, bored, hopeless people.

Rumpus: How do we persuade men to address the staggering challenges that confront boys and men today? In our literary spaces, for instance, men are often reluctant to advocate openly for each other.

Porter: I don’t know. Perhaps it’s pitched as a problem separate from or stealing oxygen from other problems, such as global inequality, violence against women and girls, systemic racism, the climate crisis, whereas it is the same problem. We have a complex system failure, so we can no longer shout from our particular camps, “What about this problem?” We have to be diagnostic and rigorous in our acceptance of the ways these crises are connected. We have to be urgent and radical in our belief that some solutions exist and our hunger to collaborate in finding them.

I can’t speak to the literary advocacy fail you describe, but I’m interested in it. We should all care, that’s for sure, but perhaps people reach the limits of what they believe themselves capable of. Again, from a tiny kid believing himself unfairly treated by the referee, to a grown man believing himself unfairly canceled by a woke-ist army, we need to talk it through, case by case, drawing on as wide and generous a system of precedents and alternatives as we can.

Rumpus: How do we team up/join ranks with women to address the staggering challenges that confront boys and men today?

Porter: It seems a pressing concern, but perhaps by reframing it as connected to other challenges, other facets of our social landscape. It isn’t in opposition to feminism, to gender equality, to the aims of countless social justice movements. It should be organically and urgently deferential to and in collaboration with them.

Rumpus: What’s next on your docket?

Porter: Two plays. One monologue. Some work with artists, some work with musicians, and then I disappear and write my Very Different Novel.




Author photo by Betty Bhandari

Hamilton Cain is a Brooklyn-based book critic and the author of a memoir, This Boy's Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing. A former finalist for a National Magazine Award, he contributes regularly to the New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Minneapolis Star Tribune as well as other venues. More from this author →