Sunday, April 16, 2006

Unreliable narrators

A little while ago I read a great little essay in the LRB by James Lasdun that made me realize I should get his novels, and I've just finished reading The Horned Man (which I find an astonishingly appealing title). It is a strange and elegant little book, rather disgusting--in a good way--and written in the most beautiful sentences imaginable, I like reading novels by poets: a novel of doubles and hauntings and uncanny violence (I am adding it to my list of good glass-eye novels along with We Need To Talk About Kevin). You never really know whether the narrator is the victim or actually (what seems more likely) the divided-against-himself perpetrator of the mysterious conspiracy he discerns all around him--the book it reminded me of most was Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans, though there's also very much the feel of Nabokov, or a darker and more uncanny version of Anthony Burgess (I would be surprised if Lasdun had never read the Enderby novels).

(In an extremely interesting interview by Robert Birnbaum, Lasdun denies the utility of the term "unreliable narrator" for his characters, but that seems to me an undue nicety--there's nothing necessarily gimmicky, in any case, about the thing that phrase invokes, which seems to be Lasdun's objection.)

Anyway, here are a few tastes of the prose. Rereading a short story he wrote some months earlier for the clues it provides as to the nature of a strange triangle that includes the narrator, the unpleasant and elusive Bulgarian who used to inhabit his office (the academic settings here are very well realized) and a female colleague he knows through the medium of the university's Sexual Harassment Committee, Lawrence Miller thinks of the three of them "each present there [in the story] via our more or less phantasmagorical versions of each other, our recondite emblems of ourselves":

And for a moment I felt I was at the point of grasping what it was that made the full unfolding of another human being into one's consciousness so painfully dazzling that one spent one's life contriving ways of filtering them, blocking them out, setting up labyrinthine passageways between oneself and them, kidnapping their images for various exploitative purposes of one's own, and generally doing all one could to fend off their problematic, objective reality.

Or here is Lawrence musing on his ex-wife's decision to counter her debilitating fear of flying (something he perversely loves in her) by obtaining tranquilizers, without consulting him in advance or telling him what she has done:

The clandestine nature of it all--the secret visit to the doctor, the covert purchasing of the pills, the non-mention of them when she spoke from Palo Alto, the apparent attempt to conceal them on her return--all that I could forgive, as I knew Carol well enough to know that the motive was to spare my feelings rather than to 'deceive' me in any improper sense. What stung was the act itself. That state of more-than-human vulnerability, of absolute unshieldedness from the dark terms of existence, was one of her glories, like her beautiful hair or the delicate fluting of her hands. She knew I felt this, and so for her to sabotage it, to smother it under a sedative, was an act of self-mutilation that seemed, as I reflected on it, to be aimed at me; aimed specifically and defiantly at me, its principal connoisseur and sole admirer. I pictured her swallowing the pill (minute and violent; I had looked), imagined it unfolding inside her, shedding its artificial calm in great drifting sheets that settled one by one over the disturbance inside her, swathing it in blankness. And it seemed to me that in obliterating this fear, she was also obliterating my own presence inside her, and that this, whether or not it had been her original intent, had proved an unexpected liberation.

I think that is chillingly good prose, I can only imagine that Lasdun's colleagues looked at him with great unease after reading this novel, he so persuasively inhabits this creepy first-person voice....

One last bit, which seems to sum up the book's bizarre appeal. At one point late in the book the narrator thinks with sorrow of having lost touch with his mother, for whom he no longer has an address or phone number:

I had always been aware of something not quite natural about this, but now, for the first time, I seemed to come face to face with its full, appalling strangeness. What was almost worse was that I had no real idea how it had come about! It was as though some deep rift or faultline existed in the terrain of my psyche, some hidden oubliette of consciousness, into which events--even momentous events like this--could fall without a sound.

Kafka is always invoked when people talk about this kind of fiction, the dreamlike disconnected self kind of thing, and yet Lasdun's touch is really nothing like Kafka's, he's written a very original novel that is distinctively his own. I am curious to see what the next one's like, I've got it here but I think I must read something less unsettling next; it sounds a bit like John Banville, and this one also had Banville-like things about it. Hmmm....


  1. THE HORNED MAN! Yes! Absolutely transfixing from the first page! I have a little list of excellent novels written by poets: The Horned Man, A Nest of Ninnies (Ashbery and Schuyler), The Scorpions (Robert Kelly), and Pieces of Payne (Albert Goldbarth). (I've not yet read Lasdun's SEVEN LIES but have heard good things.)

  2. Yes, he's just outstanding, isn't he? For my money, "The Horned Man" is one of the best novels written in the last decade. I often think of the section where the narrator pockets his neighbor's glass eye as a perfect fictional segue from reliability to unreliability. Until that point I was ready to accept most of what the narrator said, but once he took the eye I realized he was at least half-crazy. Fascinating and very smart, don't get me wrong, but insane nonetheless.

    Have you read Rupert Thomson's "The Insult," Jenny? I had a hard time with some sections of it, but it's still one of my favorite novels, and I think you might like it given your response to the Lasdun.

    -- Maud