Like a well-planned itinerary, the blueprints of James Lasdun’s stories are thoughtfully delineated, and each step feels purposeful and sure.
The stories in James Lasdun’s latest collection, It’s Beginning to Hurt, are meticulously crafted set pieces that walk a fine line between skillfully orchestrated and overtly engineered. The unfolding of Lasdun’s stories can be slow—but it is the anticipatory slowness of thread passing through the eye of a needle, an act of delicate precision and focus.
Most of these stories explore the well-charted territory of modern-day courtship, monogamy, and family life, but they do so with a quiet shrewdness and wisdom that leaves you reflective. When the stories end, you find yourself retracing steps, to admire the carefully placed cues and signs, as well as the deftly executed shifts in pace and perspective. In “The Old Man,” Lasdun spends ten pages methodically establishing characters and developing a romance, then discreetly delivers a revelatory moment on the second to last page: the discovery that the protagonist’s new wife has committed an insensitive act towards one of her relatives. The revelation leaves us wondering how the moment achieved such resonance; looking back, we discover that Lasdun introduced a seemingly irrelevant character early in the story, precisely in order to set up the moment. Like a well-planned itinerary, the blueprints of Lasdun’s stories are thoughtfully delineated, and each step feels purposeful and sure.
This precision and tight focus can sometimes risk nondescriptness, the stories seeming almost generic because they feel manufactured. That said, when it seems Lasdun has too austerely rendered a story, he will appease with a quiet gesture, or a scene that draws us deeper into the psychological world of his characters. In “The Natural Order,” two friends travel through Europe and one is tempted to cheat on his wife. The story is a textbook example of quotidian, epiphanic fiction, replete with matrimonial malaise and a milquetoast protagonist, building towards a somewhat uninspired symbolic moment on a cliff, the main character standing “motionless, looking out into the gulf of empty space.” Still, the quiet moments, brief glances, and shared silences sprinkled throughout “The Natural Order” elevate it to unforeseen levels of sagacity and sensitivity.
The delivery of a revelation, the subtle gesture that shifts the reality of everything that has come before—these are Lasdun’s bread and butter, giving his stories their understated luster. In “Half Sister,” a young guitar instructor unwittingly agrees to go out with the unattractive half sister of two of his students. Most of the story reads like one drawn out awkward moment, but then the half sister surprises both the guitar instructor and the reader by politely relieving him from his unwanted commitment. The story verges on cookie-cutter Hollywood romance, but the half sister’s act unceremoniously becomes the story’s centerpiece, and does so without unnecessary sentimentality. Her gesture is almost redemptive in its transformative power—what starts out as an exploration of melancholy bachelorhood becomes a more interesting story about the quiet decency of a girl who knows herself to be unattractive.
“The Woman at the Window,” a more blatant example of Lasdun’s bait-and-switch storytelling, starts with a man walking down the street, thinking about what kind of gift to send his girlfriend. A woman yells at him from her window, saying she is trapped inside; as the man races to help her, we follow his unfolding thoughts from apprehension to obligation and then confusion. Lasdun leads us to believe the man is the story’s protagonist, but then we see the scene replayed from the perspective of the woman at the window, and the trap is sprung, the elaborate charade revealed. We see that the story is actually about a lonely woman who lures men into her apartment by pretending to be trapped inside. Once again, an innocuous, almost predictable story deploys unforeseen turns to shake us awake.
Lasdun is also capable of surprises at the level of genre. “Annals of the Honorary Secretary,” a horror story with echoes of Kafka and Steven Millhauser, is conspicuously divergent in tone and theme from the rest of the collection. Its solemn and uncomfortably obtuse depiction of a group of telepathic exhibitionists is a refreshing gut punch, and as the story’s reality comes into focus we feel as though we are gradually discerning the features of a monster. As a result, “Annals” ends up being the best story in the collection, a surprise that leaves you unnerved, amazed, and perhaps slightly confused.
When the set pieces in It’s Beginning to Hurt work, Lasdun’s stories feel organic, insightful, empathetic, and wise; when they don’t, they feel contrived, forced, and transparently formulaic. More often than not, they work—but even when they don’t it’s clear that Lasdun is a craftsman with keen radar for moments and gestures that resonate and reflect our humanity with understated clarity. Disguised as a collection of conventional short stories, this book will catch you off guard and lead you down pathways unforeseen.