The Fall Guy by James Las­dun Frances Wil­son

FRANCES WIL­SON The Fall Guy by James Las­dun Jonathan Cape £12.99

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

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

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