James Lasdun was an accomplished poet and short story writer prior to publication of his first novel The Horned Man. Like the author, the protagonist, Lawrence Miller, is an Englishman in New York, an academic tenured in a stereotypically liberal university Humanities department, becoming hopelessly mired in identity politics and the absurd tyranny of political correctness.
From an early reference to the condition of ‘parapraxis’ the narrative runs a similar course to the movie Shutter Island where at some point one must decide on the reliability of a persuasive narrator. It’s an uncomfortable journey rendered occasionally brilliantly in claustrophobic and at times poetic prose. There are some exquisite observations. Interacting with the student body our narrator is subject to ‘the obscure sense of disgrace that comes with age.’ As the last drinker in a closing bar he notes that ‘the upturned chairs were approaching like a herd of inquisitive cattle.’
New York is a malevolent, almost Dante-esque backdrop to the novel, all empty train carriages, deserted scrubland en route to identikit suburban streets, an as-yet un-gentrified Lower East Side where it’s perennially night time. The plot is more or less that of a thriller, the narrator gradually being framed for a serious crime by an unseen yet ever-present nemesis. The narrative dances around the conventions of this type of novel until you realise an entirely different story is unfurling. Things descend convincingly into a frayed Kafkaesque reality as it transpires it may not be freedom Miller is at risk of losing, but his identity and ultimately his grip on sanity. As befits an educated mind, the landscape of this madness is wonderfully literate and allusive, there is something poignant about the faithfulness of the narrator as he blithely chronicles his own degeneration. It’s almost worth going there with him.