Who’s under the desk?

Siddhartha Deb

  • The Horned Man by James Lasdun
    Cape, 195 pp, £10.99, February 2002, ISBN 0 224 06217 4

At the beginning of James Lasdun’s novel, Lawrence Miller, a professor of gender studies at a college on the outskirts of New York, is interrupted while reading a book. When he returns to his office the next day, he finds his bookmark has been moved forward thirty pages. ‘Either I had moved the marker inadvertently myself, or else some night-visitor had been reading the book in my absence.’ He brings the matter up with his analyst, Dr Schrever. Her name is perhaps a clue that the more paranoid interpretation is the right one, but Miller wonders if the misplaced bookmark could be ‘a case of parapraxis – Freud’s term for the lapses of memory, slips of the tongue, and other minor suppressions of consciousness that occur in everyday life.’ It will not be long before he realises that the slips and lapses in his life are far from minor, and the world around him anything but everyday, but the plot’s momentum has been checked. This is the way the narrative works, with interruptions and false starts: Miller’s carefully modulated account of the odd incidents in his life holds the reader back even as the incidents themselves pull us forward.

Miller’s seeming calm and his attention to minutiae are no doubt partly an effect of his profession, which involves teaching American undergraduates ‘the science of unscrambling the genetic code of prejudice, false objectivity and pernicious sexual stereotyping that forms the building blocks of so many of our cultural monuments’, but the world of the college campus throws up more than purely academic or interpretative challenges. A Sexual Harassment Committee has been convened to look into the philandering of Bruno Jackson, an English expatriate like Miller. It isn’t the first case they’ve had to deal with. Bogomil Trumilcik, a visiting professor of uncertain provenance (perhaps Bulgarian or Romanian, an American character remarks), was accused of making passes at his female students. He made ‘the most truly awful scene you can imagine’ in the middle of the campus before running off, and hasn’t been seen or heard of since. The Sexual Harassment Committee is anxious to avoid a repeat performance from Jackson.

So much for the men. Across the gender divide – forcefully maintained by the Sexual Harassment Committee, the Sexual Harassment Awareness Week, Take Back the Night events, Date Rape seminars and a Speech Code conference – are Miller’s estranged American wife, Carol; the deceased former occupant of his office, Barbara Hellerman; and the college attorney, Elaine Jordan.

Much of this territory is familiar from the recent flurry of novels set on and around the American campus: the collapse of the liberal arts model under the pressures of political correctness, post-structuralist theory and tenure difficulties has been explored with varying degrees of insight by writers as different as Francine Prose, Philip Roth, James Hynes and even Jonathan Franzen in the opening pages of The Corrections. The Horned Man, however, is concerned with the campus only up to a point: its world is not self-enclosed, and can hardly be so, set as the college is in a decaying suburbia connected by the Metrorail to a city governed by a similarly disciplinary regime, although not one motivated by political correctness.

Miller more than once invokes Angelo in Measure for Measure in reference to Rudolph Giuliani’s efforts to cleanse Manhattan of vice, further complicating the conundrum of repression and desire central to the novel. But the contemporary city-state doesn’t only round up its pimps and prostitutes, as we find out in an account of Trumilcik’s life that Miller discovers on an old computer at the office. It controls its immigrants, turning them into grainy photographs on employment authorisation cards, and in doing so it forces a return of the repressed – in the shape of a derelict man (Trumilcik?) lurking in the basement of an abandoned building and possibly sleeping under the desk in Miller’s office; in the fear of a woman in the recesses of Central Park who thinks she is being stalked. Lasdun’s Manhattan, like all noir landscapes, is a stylised set, for the most part empty of crowds, and sometimes of people. Every encounter is potentially disastrous; even an innocuous dinner party can turn sinister, which is what happens when Miller’s wife leaves him behind, on the eve of his employment authorisation interview, in order to visit an S&M club.

The city is both charming and menacing, and has a quality of ‘magnificent callousness’ that appeals to the masochist in Trumilcik. Seen through the eyes of its resident outsiders, Manhattan is a suitably unhomely site for evoking the uncanny. And the uncanny is everywhere: in the actor/actress in a Kafka adaptation who may provide a link between Trumilcik, Jackson and Carol; in the sudden attraction to Miller that the college attorney seems to develop; in the calls to a battered women’s shelter someone appears to be making from Miller’s office at night; in Miller’s discovery that Barbara Hellerman was killed by an unknown assailant in the New York subway. Violence against women is no longer a controlling device wielded by the thought police but something real.

There are no redundant details in The Horned Man. A lot may remain unexplained, but it’s hard to find anything that isn’t related to something else in the novel. The door to Miller’s office opens to a succession of visitors, the misplaced bookmark reappears at the end, and if Dr Schrever never says a word about paranoia, she will nevertheless perform a series of crucial functions: as a displaced erotic object, one of several doublings in the novel; as a possible ally who is unfortunately lost; as one of a number of female characters who reveal, and conceal, the nature of Miller’s relationship to women. Lasdun demonstrates here the same economy he has shown in his poetry and short stories, and this slim book feels fuller and more rounded than you might expect from so few pages.

At the same time, the need to put everything to use has its downside: the genealogy for the horned man motif is a little too elaborate to be convincing, and the compulsion to give almost every object a vital function can lead to overkill. Take the following description of a bleak landscape not quite bleached of its beauty:

Strange, at the station, to move off in the opposite direction from usual. Out in the twilight a row of shacks went by. Zigzagging white Christmas lights – a new type that had taken over the country like an invasive weed – fringed the plastic-roofed decks. Beyond them was an old assembly plant with a row of truck cabins – just the cabins – mouldering in front of it like gigantic skulls in some dinosaur graveyard. Then after that, stranger still in the dregs of the daylight, a ghostly fairground, abandoned decades ago by the look of it; the blown husks and bracts of some bygone era’s little flowering of fun. A radial of horseless spokes was all that survived of the merry-go-round. Over a small wooden booth I made out the capital H and M of two otherwise illegible words in faded circus lettering. Whatever came next the scrub had knitted a snarl of creepers over, obliterating all but a few dark forms that looked like ruins in a jungle.

This is done very well, but the clue embedded in the scene feels like a distraction. The novel is also weighed down at the end, when Miller is shown to be writing this account and not merely narrating it, a trick reminiscent of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, where the discovery of a notebook adds another, organising frame to the story; it is curious that novelists still feel the need to resort to such strategies.

The novel more than makes up for these shortcomings, however, with its impressive narrative voice and the poise of its language. Lasdun is alert to the relationship between language and character: in ‘Dead Labour’, a story in his collection The Silver Age (1985), a young writer takes up freelancing for a lifestyle magazine; his new prose style changes him so much that he can no longer make sense of the fragmentary notes on theatre and politics put together by his dying mentor. The language in The Horned Man oscillates between a repressed mode of communication – with parenthetical and modifying phrases and convoluted constructions doubling back on themselves – and a wistful, sparser style that may be just as deceptive. The shift sometimes takes place within a paragraph, and the effect can be disconcerting. Here is Miller watching his intern:

I looked over at Amber; I wanted to say something, to whinny out an aggrieved protest and hear the reassurance of another human being’s sympathetic outrage. On reflection, however, I realised Amber would hardly be an appropriate recipient for such an appeal. I stood there in silence, dazed, regretting for a moment (even as I acknowledged its importance) this unremitting obligation to hold oneself in check. I was gazing at her back: the obverse of the gold coin of herself. Wings of fine down caught the light at her long neck. Her shoulders were trim and straight in the soft blue sheathing of her top, crisscrossed by the ochre halter of her brushed cotton dungarees. Her willowy figure barely curved at the hips, almost as expressive as her face of things yet to awaken into the full articulation of themselves.

These shifts in register are part of a technique that creates an impression of dark corners, recesses to which we have access through Miller’s narration even if he is unaware of what he’s really saying. The mimetic counterpart of this is an intricate system of mirrors set up in Miller’s office that allows someone under his desk to see what is going on in a way that Miller at his desk cannot. But how can we be certain that the reader’s point of view is less deluded than the narrator’s? It’s a question Freud might have asked himself in his study of Dr Schreber’s paranoia.