James Lasdun is my favourite ‘should be famous’ writer, his work extraordinarily taut and compelling. His eye-boggling psychological thrillers are understated, yet perspicacious and hilarious.
By ‘psychological thriller’ I don’t mean they contain newsworthy physical violence. Lasdun is too English for that (although he now lives in New York). I mean the kind of dilemmas that would have your average, settled individual writhing in empathetic angst: secrets and lies in a kaleidoscope; knuckles-in-mouth mortification.
Unwittingly (because he started them before the furore), Lasdun has written two superb novellas for the #MeToo age, published together in Victory. Both explore themes of lust, transgression, self-delusion and male friendships.
In the first, ‘Feathered Glory’, a respectable, contentedly married headmaster, Richard, plays sensible elder to his impulsive friend Victor. But despite his self-congratulation, Richard is not immune from temptation. Sara, his wife, is composed and caring. But she learns a few life lessons from a doughty senator’s ex-wife, who has dedicated her life to rehabilitating animals, and who drafts Sara into caring for an injured swan.
Lasdun expertly demonstrates how inner moral structure is often built on the scaffolding of tenuous and arbitrary rules and self-justification. The complexity of male friendship is also wryly assessed. As well as ethical dilemmas, there are the contradictions: simultaneous perception of a friend as pompous and interesting; the curious mixture of genuine affection and competitive Schadenfreude. And in Sara’s sangfroid, we see the value of instinct and intuition.
The second novella, ‘Afternoon of a Faun’, could be about one of the #MeToo allegations we are now so aware of. A fading TV personality confides in a friend, the narrator, that a woman he had consensual sex with has written a book claiming he raped her. The narrator expresses my own feelings when he says that fictional depictions of this dilemma aren’t interesting, because one knows that writers are aware that their conclusion will be taken as a statement on the general trustworthiness of one or other gender.
And yet this story is enthralling. The conversations and events ring true; the characters are believable. We know that either the alleged rapist or the accuser will have their life destroyed. This plays out against a backdrop of the 2016 US presidential elections, with taped evidence of ‘the Republican candidate’ having grabbed women’s genitals. At the end, we realise that instinct is often quashed by our higher cognitive centres, which pare and rationalise to extract truth from chaos. Or do they?