If you blend a few tidbits from Borges with a pinch of Kafka, add some Henry James along with choice sprinkles from the Bible, mix in a tasty selection of lines from the Bard, then dip into medieval myths about unicorns, serve them up with a couple of murders, you will have the ingredients that make a literary feast of THE HORNED MAN by James Lasdun.
Best known for his poetry and short stories, Lasdun's first novel simmers with the aroma of a thriller, the essence of a character study, and the bouquet of a neurotic eccentric's descent into madness. Or does it?
Professor Lawrence Miller's emotional plate is full. He teaches at a small college outside of Manhattan, serves on the sexual harassment committee and, with the help of a female therapist, is trying to come to terms with his broken marriage. Or does he have another agenda on his menu?
One day he pulls a book from its shelf only to find the bookmark in the wrong place. Could he have forgotten he moved it? Perhaps. Then his computer files are erased. Could he himself have inadvertently committed this dastardly deed? Doubtful. Next he reads about two women who are beaten to death in Central Park, and when, within hours, an iron bar "mysteriously" appears in his office, his world implodes. He's almost sure that if he killed anyone he would remember; therefore, he concludes that he murdered no one. Or did he, "…it gets hard to tell which version reflects reality, and I find myself splitting the difference: withdrawing into an attitude of detached reality."
The narrative of THE HORNED MAN is a brew of imagination and dark allusions that simmer and sizzle throughout. As each event unfolds, Miller's behavior is more controlled. He slices and dices the "evidence" and meticulously analyzes each morsel. When the information boils to a climax the professor is forced to examine his world as it slowly, but indisputably, collapses around him. Finally, his ruminations lead him to surmise that someone is setting him up for crimes he did not commit. Or did he?
As Miller's identity disintegrates, he moves into a state of paranoia. This unleashing of his personal demons propels him to try to find his wife and reconcile with her. Dressed in drag, he decides to visit a shelter for battered women, where he thinks she is hiding. While there, he is invited to dine with the residents, but as soon as the meal is finished, the supervisor, who is not fooled by his disguise, unceremoniously throws him out. This final blow to his ego forces him to admit that his salad days are over and he must gather the few crumbs of dignity he has left.
"Was it really possible to be so catastrophically wrong in one's reading of a situation? The discovery of it disturbed me profoundly. I have distrusted myself ever since…and therefore I must…"
Well, you're going to have to read the book to find out where the trail leads. Be prepared to savor the appetizing assortment of red herrings, fresh clues, provocative questions, and formidable ideas that force readers to redefine their own perceptions of reality, memory, revenge, and the definition of madness. Lasdun's stark, deft prose and dark wit work to perfection, allowing these juicy themes to gel into one fascinating read.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 22, 2011
The Horned Man