James Lasdun
The Horned Man

Book Reviews

ISBN: 978-0-099428-35-0
Published by Jonathan Cape

A paranoid tale of Manhattan transference

Lawrence Miller, an English lecturer in gender studies, is lying on the couch of his Manhattan analyst. He casually asks her whether she considers that his finding the marker left in the book he has been reading that morning, which appears to have moved without his knowledge, to be a case of parapraxis – “Freud’s term for the lapses of memory, slips of the tongue and other minor suppressions of consciousness.” Thus starts a tale of Borgesian complexity, a seemingly banal story of the life of a minor academic, which fast becomes a surreal descent into a dark world where fact, fantasy and fiction are barely distinguishable.

After the case of the apparently moving bookmark, Miller finds that he mistakes a woman in the street for his analyst and that his phone bill contains a number he has never called. These are only a few of the uncanny events that flag his shifting hold on reality and indicate a possible conspiracy implicating him in a series of brutal murders. Using both wit and black humour, James Lasdun contrasts the emotionally inept Miller, caught up in the campus straitjacket of political correctness, with his fellow English academic Bruno Jackson, a cavalier womaniser under investigation for sexual harassment.

Also peopling his etiolated world are a prim attorney who develops an inexplicable passion for him, his estranged wife, an elderly, glass-eyed neighbour and a Bulgarian translator of Kafka, dismissed from the college for his sexual shenanigans – he was, after all, “from a different culture”, “with a different set of values”. The translator may or may not be living a fetid Caliban-style existence under Miller’s desk, as well as being pathologically violent.

Best known as a poet and short-story writer, Lasdun writes terse and economic prose that borrows stylistically from Raymond Carver while employing the dislocating uncertainties of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. His complex narrative is reminiscent of a set of nested Russian dolls, and there is a pleasing interconnectedness to the plot that will delight jigsaw fanatics as they watch the story fit together with satisfying clicks.

Lasdun was born in England of Jewish extraction but lives in America: his themes, both in his recent collection of poetry Landscape with Chainsaw and in The Horned Man, pose questions about inclusion, class and belonging. Miller spends a great deal of time anxious about his interview for his Employment Authorisation Card; he feels “an elastic limit stretching only so far from the warm centres of human society. Step beyond it, and you couldn’t count on being gathered back in.” Lasdun’s Europeans are freely disdainful of the puritanical sexual mores in American academia, though this apparent irreverence is painfully contrasted with Miller’s experience as a young boy in England, when he catastrophically misreads a series of social and sexual codes.

While there are times when the protagonists can seem more like rooks and pawns in a game of chess than flesh and blood, it is Lasdun’s narrative skill and psychological exploration of the “hidden oubliettes of consciousness” that make The Horned Man a worthwhile read. In the end, he seems to suggest (unsurprisingly for a novelist and a poet) that reality is as much about how we live inside our heads as what goes on in the external world.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

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