An acclaimed poet, short story writer, novelist, and memoirist, James Lasdun has long been a critic’s darling. Back in 1999, James Wood called him “one of the secret gardens of English writing” and declared, “[w]hen we read him we know what language is for again.” Reviewing his brilliant 2002 novel, “The Horned Man,” Gabriele Annan cited Lasdun’s “exceptional ability to create atmosphere”; Laura Miller dubbed him a “Poe for the twentieth century.” Commercial success, however, has heretofore eluded him.
But that may change with his new book. Already drawing comparisons to “Gone Girl’’ and “The Girl on the Train’’ — but more aptly described as the literary descendant of Dostoyevsky and Patricia Highsmith in an alluring contemporary setting — “The Fall Guy’’ is a twisty, chilly, exquisitely written, and tautly suspenseful exploration of big ideas in the guise of a psychological thriller.
The story is set in an affluent Catskills community during the summer of 2012. Shockwaves from the financial crisis are massively reverberant, and no one — neither callow one-percenters nor those who protest their excesses — is immune from Lasdun’s witheringly satiric gaze.
Matthew is a typical Lasdun protagonist: a man driven by inchoate desires and subterranean motivations, confronted by and contributing to an ever-more-disturbing reality. A professional cook (and erstwhile drug dealer) without a steady job who’s mulling over the idea of getting into gourmet food trucks but feeling himself “in a state of peculiar inertia,” Matthew has been invited by his cousin Charlie, a wealthy former banker, to stay in the latter’s country-estate guest house for the summer.
Matthew lives in a narrow, viewless Bushwick apartment, has no romantic partner, and is running out of money. Charlie has a spectacularly appointed Brooklyn brownstone, a stunning contemporary house on 20 acres in Aurelia (clearly modeled on Woodstock), and a lissome second wife, Chloe. Although he’s now interested in socially responsible investing and the Occupy Movement, Charlie ostentates unapologetically: zooms around in his cream-colored BMW convertible; brags about stashing a million and a half dollars in his safe after 9/11.
Matthew is happy to take Charlie up on his offer to be the summer’s “official cook and grillmeister,” especially because he feels an “unspoken sympathy,” a “sense of almost supernatural kinship” with the coolly beguiling Chloe. For Matthew, Chloe is “an idealized composite in whom daughter, sister, cousin, mother, mistress, friend, and mystical other half were all miraculously commingled.” Assuring himself that he has “no actual designs on Chloe,” Matthew finds the erotic triangle “a very comfortable arrangement.”
Soon, however, it becomes clear that the triangle is balanced on a point. Both Charlie and Chloe disappear mysteriously from time to time, and Chloe seems especially evasive. Curious and suspicious, Matthew follows Chloe only to discover — to his shock and dismay — that she’s having an affair.
What should he do with this illicit knowledge? Is he fearful for Charlie or for himself? So great is his attachment to Chloe that Matthew feels like “a kind of surrogate cuckold.” This over- or mis-identification broaches one of Lasdun’s main themes: how we come to rely on points we ourselves fix and place however absurdly, tryingto ensure we will know both our coming and our going. For though it is none of Matthew’s business, “it was his own sense of reality that was being threatened. . . . Inconceivable, somehow, had been the possibility of a fourth figure breaking open the shape altogether, and the intrusion of such a figure was proving remarkably difficult to accept.”
Geometrically disoriented, Matthew plunges into “a state of neurotic, spiraling obsession.” Lines blur and identities become fluid; boundaries are transgressed, roles reversed, and long-festering secrets revealed. Who is manipulating whom? Who is the betrayer and who is betrayed? Who the victim and who the perpetrator? Who is performing and who is real?
Lasdun’s prose is both lapidary and hypnotic. The story, surreal as it is, unfolds with a kind of inevitable momentum. Like the wedding guest stopped by the Ancient Mariner, we cannot choose but hear. As compared to “The Horned Man,’’ “The Fall Guy’s’’ greater accessibility allows it a different quality of power. Less allusive and technically daring, it is perhaps more compelling as story: neater, more aesthetically self-possessed, more diabolically resolved. Let us hope that readers caught up by its narrative drive will stay to admire the many other wonders of this particular labyrinth.
THE FALL GUY
By James Lasdun
Norton, 256 pp., $25.95
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’