You’d be forgiven for thinking that James Lasdun’s latest sounds, on the surface, a lot like the plot of a hundred French films: young man invited to join wealthier, older cousin and attractive wife in holiday retreat, only for tensions and drama to ensue. Our narrator, Matthew, is struggling with a kind of mental paralysis, a withdrawal from the world that was meant to precipitate a plan for the next stage of his career but which has instead become an ongoing bout of procrastination. Charlie, his cousin, is also at a kind of crossroads, having parted company with the hedge fund that allowed him to make his fortune – and he spends his days exploring the possibilities of ethical investment. And then there is Chloe, Charlie’s attractive wife, a photographer and a woman who was, according to Matthew, “full of little surprises: pockets and recesses, inlets and oubliettes…”
For a time, the novel strikes you as being an interesting tale of repressed sexual tension in which people have intriguing conversations (“…from the point of view of corporate power the perfect social unit is the dyad consisting of you and your screen”), in which beautiful places are visited, works of art seen (“slabs of colour arrayed across the painting in the form of saints’ robes, each figure in its dissonant brilliance engulfing the two of them like some tumultuous, intensely differentiated type”), in which intense self-examination (“the whole phenomenon existed in a realm he had long ago placed off limits to himself, a realm of faith in human betterment that he considered himself too tainted by experience to enter”) happily co-exists with their “Clear untainted friendship… their easy happiness together” – and then it all goes wrong and the sweetness of the summer is given “a forcible induction into the meatspace of the real”.
Matthew spies Chloe leaving a motel room and gradually his fragile calm is eroded as he attempts to spy on her, evaluating his own feelings and trying to find a way to assay a conversation with Charlie, who himself grows gradually more distant. What may once have felt a little French finds its geography (the holiday home in which much of the action takes place is somewhat upstate from New York) asserting itself. This is an American drama, a tough, topical tale of adultery and murder couched within a genuinely unsettling exploration of the distance between how a person appears to themselves and how they appear to others. Patricia Highsmith eat your heart out.
Any Cop?: This is a terrific novel, both a sturdy page turner and a dynamic character study. Lasdun really delivers the goods. Time and time again, you find yourself surprised by a seemingly inconsequential detail that goes on to have important ramifications. Highly recommended.