- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

By James Lasdun
Norton, $24.95, 193 pages

James Lasdun is known as a gifted short story writer and poet. Now here is his debut novel, "The Horned Man," about an expatriot Englishman teaching gender studies at an upstate New York college. As Lawrence Miller puts it, his business is "instructing my students in 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 …"
If that doesn't sound silly enough for you, consider this which comes later after Miller has got a colleague fired from the faculty on sexual harassment grounds: "Thinking of him now, I feel more than ever the rightness of the great repudiation of masculinity that so many of us in academe consider the supreme contribution of the humanities in our time."
In his novel, Mr. Lasdun is being a comic writer, but darkly so, laying the satire on thick. His hero, or anti-hero, Lawrence has gone through life with his schoolboy's recollection of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," one of the Bard's darker comedies, very much on his mind.
In the play, it may be recalled, Duke Vincentio deputizes Angelo to enforce Venice's neglected laws, and Angelo (Miller likens New York City's mayor at the time Rudy G., one presumes to this character) drags out an old statute against fornication to condemn Claudio to death for sleeping with his fiancee, Juliet. But when Isabella, a religious novice, pleads for her brother Claudio's life, Angelo promises her Claudio's freedom if she will sleep with him. Things go on from there.
Lawrence's moral situation in the novel is no less self-contradicting than Angelo's in Shakespeare's play. He is writing a book "about gender relations in the evolution of psychoanalytic practice" and, believing that he should put his values into practice, has taken a place on the college's Sexual Harassment Committee, chaired by a breezy white-haired conformist called Roger Freeman (characters' names in the story often are suggestive).
The culture of the Sexual Harassment Committee is an insane dystopia of political correctness. A visiting Australian professor gets hauled over the coals for writing the word "Ramses" on the chalkboard. It is taken to be a make of condom when what he'd actually had in mind was a brand of Turkish cigarette. Such infractions, Elaine Jordan, the committee's stern legal counsel, emphasizes, stay in one's record ever afterwards.
Some men on the faculty, usually of European origin, won't go along with the game. Bruno Jackson, another British expatriate, refuses to take heed of the "whisperers." One departed visiting teacher, Bogomil Tremulcik, from Bulgaria or Romania, made a tremendous scene before storming off the campus in fury. The nature of his and Bruno's relationship to Lawrence provides one of the more mysterious aspects of the novel, which also is something of a psychological thriller.
For the most part, male faculty go about carefully regulating their conduct for fear of the slightest misstep. Lawrence on one occasion is so fearful of inappropriately approaching Amber, their straw-haired, golden-freckled, willowy office intern who walks ahead of him slowly and languorously as if in a dream, that he lets himself miss his train to New York City. The truth, of course, is that he finds Amber spectacularly distracting, and for the usual reason.
Nor is the rest of Lawrence's life as straight-arrow as his professional convictions would argue. His wife, Carol, whom he married sooner than he otherwise would have because he needed a green card to stay in the United States, has left him. A medieval studies specialist, she seemed to be conspicuously sensible and honest. Her one weakness, fear of air travel, it had been Lawrence's pride and pleasure to indulge and comfort.
Then a sudden change occurred: Carol, without telling him, went to a doctor and got pills that enabled her to get over her fear of flying. Around about the same time, a friend brought an actress to dinner, and afterwards suggested that the four of them go to the Plymouth Rock, an Eleventh Avenue club where sex games were played. Carol, to her husband's astonishment, said yes.
He remained behind, incredulous at his wife's behavior, and all the more so inasmuch as it was the night before his all-important interview at the Immigration and Naturalization Service's office in Federal Plaza. Now, foresaken, he lives alone in what was the couple's apartment, harassed in his turn by the two televisions his upstairs neighbor, Mr. Kurwen, plays loudly to aggravate the younger man.
This elderly gent, below, who has a glass eye and whose take on the Millers' marriage rather questions Lawrence's account of it one day rumples his downstairs neighbor's hair, mistaking him for another visitor. The event is one of the triggers prompting Lawrence's intermittent reminiscences of his English childhood and of his mother, father, stepfather and the latter's infinitely desirable but, so far as her stepbrother was concerned, cutting daughter, Emily Lloyd.
Lawrence very much wants Carol back, and imagines their putting their troubles behind them and starting over. An odd habit of his is to delete all incoming phone messages without listening to them, so that he won't be disappointed that it wasn't Carol calling. And he regularly visits Dr. Schrever, his therapist, at her office off Central Park West. In another moment of erotic fantasy, Lawrence imagines that he sees Dr. Schrever on the street, wearing a tight leather skirt. When he tells her about it, she assures him that she hasn't been outside the office all afternoon.
Is Lawrence imagining things? Yes and no. His college office is Room No. 106, previously occupied by a faculty member called Barbara Hellerman, who has left behind her books. The novel opens with him taking down one such and finding among the pages a bit of tissue paper used for a bookmark. But when Lawrence next opens the book, the tissue bookmark has been moved to another page from the one where he'd left it. That is the beginning of Mr. Lasdun's story.
Soon more funny (funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha) things are happening to Lawrence, giving full play to any tendencies he might have toward paranoid anxiety. Clearly, someone out there is messing with him. And not even out there, for much of what is occurring could only have been executed within the walls of Room 106 when he is not there or maybe even when he is there.
Lawrence continues to go about what he takes to be his righteous duty, including the Sexual Harassment Committee. For all, or because of, the committee's efforts, sex is constantly in the air, and one deliciously ridiculous consistent with Shakespeare seduction reversal takes place, with Lawrence on the business end. There is also equally consistent with Shakespeare a bit of cross-dressing, and one very tough nun who knees men in the groin without thinking twice about it.
As well might his creator, a Londoner in the Big Apple, Lawrence travels hither and yon in the New York region, feeling almost American at times but on other occasions on the verge of destitution in Manhattan and finding the terrain just too big and wild when he gets out into the countryside. The "Horned Man" of the title refers to the mythical unicorn, and the self-satisfied Lawrence, fancying himself to be hunting, but in reality being hunted, spirals into a dizzying denouement entailing a connection to this single-horned beast of story.
Mr. Lasdun's tale is entertaining enough and makes good satirical fun of these current American years' sexual harassment nonsense. But it is too conglomerate to be seriously satisfying as a novel. Comparisons with the writer's distinguished English predecessors in the satire genre would be easy, but let's not make them. Let's rather wait in hopeful expectation for Mr. Lasdun's next full-length fiction.

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