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
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