The Fall Guy by James Lasdun Frances Wilson
FRANCES WILSON The Fall Guy by James Lasdun Jonathan Cape £12.99
Keane asked her elder daughter to write the book. ‘I trust you completely,’ she said; ‘the only thing I’m afraid of is that you won’t be nasty enough.’ Sally Phipps hasn’t been nasty, but she has been honest and brave about her mother, ‘enchanting and troubled, courageous and fearful, warlike and compassionate...’ She is as understanding of her faults and foibles as Molly Keane was of those of her own characters. In each instance the author has paid attention to milieu and subject alike. Here the result is an engrossing study of both Molly Keane and the now-vanished world to which she belonged. Anglo-irish literature may be a thing of the past, but thanks to Sally Phipps its final days have been eloquently preserved for posterity.
James Lasdun is an English writer living in New York, where he teaches at Columbia University. In his debut novel,
The Horned Man (2002), an English professor teaching in a New York university is stalked by a former colleague whom he suspects of occupying his office when he’s not there, and of framing him for sex crimes he has not committed. A good, tight thriller in the Patricia Highsmith vein, The Horned
Man might not be remembered with such horror had Lasdun not published, in 2013, a memoir called Give Me
Everything You Have in which he described being, for the past five years, cyber-stalked by a former student who accused him of having sex with female students and engineering her rape. The creepiness of the coincidence was not lost on Lasdun: it is as though the author was being stalked by his own novel.
The Fall Guy returns to the same territory with the compulsion of a man possessed. This is a one-sitting read, a whitewater ride to hell in which Lasdun hurls headlong into the psyche of his stalker, in this instance a thirtysomething former chef called Matthew. A magnificently unreliable recorder of his own experiences, Matthew finds the shadow-like pursuit of other lives so instinctive that he feels, even on reading his father’s underlined copy of Pascal’s
Pensées, that he is ‘stalking his ... shade through the thoughts and aphorisms’. If reading is stalking, then who should escape whipping?
The date is the summer of 2012, and the setting a luxurious summer house in New York State. Matthew is spending August with his handsome cousin Charlie and Charlie’s second wife, the exquisite Chloe. It’s a complex triangle and the two men share a complex history. Twenty-five years earlier, Matthew’s father, having invested in Lloyds on the advice of Charlie’s father, lost everything and then, after emptying his own clients’ bank accounts, disappeared without a trace. In their youth, Charlie was cool and successful and Matthew uncool and unsuccessful. As adults, things remain much the same. Charlie, now a moneyman, bankrolls the luckless Matthew who inhabits their lives like an indentured servant. Their slightest communications – most of them about supper requirements – labour beneath a great weight; Matthew and Charlie are stalked by the past, imprisoned by an unspeakable, and unspoken, experience.
Meanwhile Chloe, with her silky underwear and small white teeth, is secretly adored by Matthew who watches (and follows) her every move while considering himself her rightful spouse. Stalking, as Lasdun understands, is a kind of marriage: the stalker and the stalked are coupled in a ghastly union of death-in-life. Chloe, who doesn’t much care for Matthew, finds him strangely necessary, as the third person in a marriage often is (‘two’s company’, Adam Phillips explains in Monogamy, ‘but three’s a couple’). When Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair with a man called Wade, he feels like a ‘kind of surrogate cuckold’. But everyone in The Fall Guy has a surrogate, or second, self. Breaking into Wade’s A-frame house, where the novel’s harrowing central scene takes place, Matthew feels ‘as if there were two of him; a self and a second self, ghostlier and yet seemingly more in control of him than the first’. In fearlessly observing sentences, Lasdun – who has an architectural imagination – unlocks room after room of Matthew’s psyche. ‘What exactly am I experiencing?
Tablecloth c 1934, by Winifred Nicholson. From Winifred Nicholson: Liberation of Colour by Jovan Nicholson, Philip Wilson Publishers, £24