‘Diaphanous prestidigitation, slapstick and ordure’ – It’s Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun

James Lasdun’s third collection of short stories could have been subtitled “The Sixteen Deadly Sins.” The characters suffer from poor decision-making, moral relativism, petty jealousies, and self-inflicted neuroses. Lasdun’s prose dissects these people’s thoughts and actions, is as sharp as a scalpel, incisive, particular, and poetic. 

In “An Anxious Man” – winner of the BBC national Short Story Award (2006) – the overriding theme is loss; Joseph Nagel’s fear of losing money tested to the utmost by an incident concerning his daughter. Lasdun incrementally tightens the paranoia as the narrative not so much unravels as sucks the reader inward. An ethical tale for our time concerning market forces and the pressure finance exerts on families. 

The main characters of “The Natural Order” are on a working holiday in Greece. Abel is a photographer and ladies’ man, while Stewart is a happily married travel writer. The story explores the dynamics of male/female relationships, the tension and torque of friendship, and the intricate game of seduction. Lasdun manipulates the two men into a binary system, each aware of and utterly blind to the other’s morals. The characterization is pitch perfect, and the author has fun at the expense of the two men and the women they encounter. The story contains this line: “Life offered up so few human beings you could contemplate any intimacy with, that to turn your back on one seemed an insane and profligate waste.” Hmm… I know exactly what he means. 

Principal Richard Timmerman has a swelling under his chin, a troublesome growth that may or may not be cancerous; he also has an ungrateful and implacable sister. Principal Richard Timmerman is indignant, frightened, and overly aware of his place in society, bristling at imagined putdowns and averted eyes as he deals with life’s travails. “The Incalculable Life Gesture” (great title) portrays an old-fashioned man in a quickly changing world grasping onto his social position as reality (rudely) hurtles forward.  

Cruelly comic, “The Half Sister” is another examination of an individual not quite comfortable with himself or the world, another man who has failed or feels that everything has failed him. Martin Sefton, a piano teacher, unwittingly becomes a pawn in a family’s quest to find a partner for the (ugly) half sister of the title – armpit scorching embarrassment and very dry humour brilliantly entwined and executed. 

Two Czechoslovakian women inveigle themselves into the so-far so-steady life of Conrad, an investor who lives in Albany, to such an extent that his life completely changes. “The Old Man” pinpoints the everyday exchanges, small cruelties, vague conversations, and problems with language and understanding that slowly influence our view of ourselves.  

From the flower nurseries of upstate New York to an occult society in Bounds Green, London where lectures are held involving unworldly manifestations. Written in a wonderfully terse, almost anal-retentive prose, “Annals of the Honorary Secretary” is a comic gem of a story, dabbling in physics and our perception of reality.  

If the previous story revelled in diaphanous prestidigitation then “Cleanness” wallows in slapstick and ordure. Despite flying in from the USA, Roland really does not want to go to his father’s wedding. What happens to us in our lives is a matter of choice and chance – Roland makes a small incorrect decision that changes his view of what passes for reality. An updated Freudian fable about power, families, and manure. 

A sexual con trick forms the narrative basis of “The Woman in the Window” – an eerie tale with hints of Jorge Louis Borges and Franz Kafka and undertones of Paul Auster and Guy de Maupassant. 

In many of these stories, Lasdun examines the shifting parameters of friendship and love. “A Bourgeois  Story” concerns two old friends who have not seen each other for fifteen years and analyzes the changes that have happened in their lives. Dimitri is bitter and impoverished, living in a bed-sit, clinging on to his Communist views; while Paul is successful, rich, and has long ago exchanged radical politics for the capitalist lifestyle. The last line had me laughing out loud – a rare occurrence when reading. 

“Oh, Death” is a portrait of neighbours, a cutting examination of social and sexual differences and a kind of existential ghost story. Rick Peebles is a monster, a walking ASBO, and a source of bewilderment to his neighbour. A study of how we reconstruct people’s lives out of memory, hearsay, prejudice, and fear. 

A tense tragicomedy, “Totty” tells of June, a divorcee who has moved to the village of Three Bells Green. Attractive and flirtatious, June is not quite ready for the sexual approaches of a neighbour, nor does she understand the moral superiority of her cleaner. But there might just be a way for her to exact revenge. A modern fairytale with dastardly husbands, middle-age sirens, and innocent boys, “Totty” reminds me of John Updike at his best. 

The remaining stories – “Cranley Meadows”, “Peter Kahn’s Third Wife”, “It’s Beginning to Hurt”, “Lime Pickles”, and “Caterpillars” contain characters who are somehow dislocated from the world, or who have had their reality skewed by time or  other people. A woman who models jewellery falls for one of her regular customers, a man forgets to buy salmon because he is thinking of his dead lover, a teenage couple share a strange Indian dinner with the girl’s father and his mistress, a young boy following his father’s violent actions against nature is in danger of dying. These apparently simple narratives, studded with poetic lines, clever yet not overweening metaphors, precise characterization, and sumptuous prose, are a joy to read. 

Any Cop?: James Lasdun’s stories remind me of some of the great short story writers – Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike and John Cheever. Enough said.

Steve Finbow

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