“Was this it? Was this the catastrophe he had felt preparing itself inside of him?” – It’s Beginning To Hurt: Stories, by James Lasdun

October 1, 2009 at 12:41 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

Recently in a New Yorker profile, Daniel Zalewski called Ian McEwan a connoisseur of dread. James Lasdun has a pretty good line in that regard himself. Like the better known McEwan, Lasdun, a Londoner now residing in upstate New York, creates compelling characters, puts them in disturbing situations, then proceeds to worry the heck out of the reader.

lasdunwebcopy I’ve written about James Lasdun on previous occasions. IMHO, as a writer of psychological suspense he has few peers. I very much liked his two novels: I was riveted by The Horned Man but that work has the peculiar distinction of being the novel I’ve recommended most frequently to people who disliked it with various degrees of intensity. Lasdun shares with Ruth Rendell the power to inflict discomfort to an extent that the reader stops enjoying the experience and simply wants to bail. (At least, I think that’s the problem!)

Like Ian McEwan, Jasmes Lasdun is a terrific writer. In my post on the Horned Man, I quote this passage:

“I had come to realize that I no longer wanted a ‘lover’ or a ‘girlfriend’; that I wanted a wife. I wanted something durable about me–a fortress and a sanctuary. I wanted a women whom I could love–as a character in a book I’d read put it–sincerely, without irony, and without resignation. I had been observing a self-imposed celibacy as I waited for the right woman to come along; partly so as not to be entangled when I met her, but also, more positively, in order to create in myself the state of receptiveness and high sensitization I considered necessary for an auspicious first meeting. I believed that human relations were capable of partaking in a certain mystery; that under the right conditions something larger than the sum of what each individual brought with them, could transfuse itself into the encounter, elevating it and permanently shielding it from the grinding destructiveness of everyday life. And just such a mystery, such a baptism-in-love, was what I felt to be sweetly impending as I stood beside Carol in my room that afternoon.

beginning I’ve just finished Lasdun’s story collection It’s Beginning To Hurt. It is as excellent as I expected it to be. The short form actually gives Lasdun greater scope for exercising his ability to evoke unease, to depict scenarios in which small details and occurrences suddenly acquire a huge, threatening scope.

He is a master at limning the precariousness of the human condition. Just when you think, ah, no more worries, something happens…

In 2005, the BBC established its National Short Story Prize.  The first winner, announced in 2006, was “An Anxious Man” by James Lasdun. It’s the first story in this collection, and it is indeed masterly. As the value of Joseph Nagel’s investment portfolio plunges to ever lower depths, his anxiety becomes global and begins to encompass the things in the world that are most precious to him: his wife and his small daughter:

“Was this it? Was this the catastrophe he had felt preparing itself inside of him? His obscure, abiding sense of himself as a flawed and fallen human being seemed suddenly clarified: he was guilty, and he was being punished. A feeling of dread gripped him. Childlike thoughts arose in his mind: propitiation, sacrifice…

Read on, and you’ll discover just how childlike, in this age of materialism, those thoughts are.

In “The Incalculable Life Gesture,” Richard Timmerman, an elementary school principal and family man, finds a swelling under his chin. It’s a discovery that threatens to derail completely his busy, well-ordered existence:

“Was it death itself that frightened him? Not exactly….More upsetting was the prospect of being reassigned in the minds of others from the category of the living to that of the dying, which appeared to him a kind of sudden ruin, an abrupt, calamitous coming down in the world, with all the disgrace and shame that accompany such a circumstance.

It gets worse:

“If you didn’t believe in God or the soul or the hereafter, then what was a human being if not merely living meat? And if that was so, then surely it was natural to want to be healthy, nubile, muscular, lusty…Better that than tainted meat, as he had become! It was he himself who was grotesque, surely, with this little death kernel growing in his throat.

Living meat, tainted meat… I found myself thinking, If this is what you’re left with when you’ve lost belief – better to be a believer, if there’s any way you can find it in yourself to be one. (As I was transcribing the above, in my mind I began hearing the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Lasdun describes rapture as vividly as he does despair. In “The Old Man,” Conrad, a widower inured to loneliness, unexpectedly finds himself embroiled in a passionate affair:

“They entered then on a phase of rapidly deepening intimacy.Was this possible, at the age of fifty, to have desire suddenly running through your days like a torrent from some underground spring? Such things apparently had a life and logic of their own. Before long every trace of reserve had  vanished from their lovemaking. No woman Conrad had known before, not even Margot, seemed quite so sheerly, so poignantly naked as Lydia when she undressed and none had ever come to his bed with such open delight.

The title story in this collection was written for the Small Wonder Short Story Festival. A tiny masterpiece, it can be read in full here – in a matter of a few short minutes.

“Caterpillar,” the final story in the collection, is about Craig, an ideologue, and the effect that his unbending convictions have on those around him.  His first utterance in the story is this: “Human beings…are disgusting.” “Caterpillar” features a peculiarly satisfying denouement, heavy with irony but relayed in the author’s trademark straightforward, almost affectless prose. (I happen to know someone very like Craig, so this  story struck me with a special force.)

I loved It’s Beginning To Hurt and recommend it highly, along with Lasdun’s two other novels:  horned-man lies

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