In “An Anxious Man,” the first story in James Lasdun’s new collection, It’s Beginning to Hurt, the protagonist, who is vacationing on Cape Cod, grumbles self-consciously about the falling prices of his stocks: “Joseph felt the petulant note in his voice, told himself to shut up, and plunged on.” Though whiny neurotics can be endearing (Gogol, Roth, and early Woody Allen, for instance), the anxious men in Lasdun’s stories are not among that engaging bunch of losers. In most of these stories, Lasdun fails to dig deeply enough into his characters’ psyches. Instead, he keeps the reader on the surface, only confirming what we’ve already predicted: The protagonist will carry on with his dissatisfying life.
In “The Incalculable Life Gesture,” Richard fears that a swollen lymph node might be cancerous. Ellen, his financially irresponsible sister, adds to his angst by refusing to move out of the house their parents bequeathed them: “Being put in this position, of having to be either a victim of Ellen’s selfish stubbornness or else a bully, further upset him. Above all, he disliked how the problem, with all the childish feelings it aroused, seemed to have taken over his mind.” He eventually tells Ellen that she can stay, but she mocks his false generosity. “God, she was impossible!” Richard thinks. “She knew him well enough to have an idea where he was trying to go with this. But was she going to be gracious about it? No!”
Unfortunately, Lasdun’s penchant for having his characters express such “childish feelings” deadens potentially compelling situations—a cancer scare, a family argument, a middle-aged woman’s attraction to a teenage boy. Some of the stronger stories offer delicately rendered emotional mysteries, instead of clunky explorations of exclamation-pointed feelings. But too often the relationships feel shallow. In “The Natural Order,” Stewart beds woman after woman while on a road trip, and his sexist remarks are passed off as charm. “I’ve never met an English girl who wasn’t deep down just obsessed with getting married,” he tells two English girls, both of whom end up sleeping with him. In “Peter Kahn’s Third Wife,” a woman working in a jewelry shop falls for a man who makes extravagant purchases for three different fiancées. Modeling jewelry for this fickle stranger inexplicably inspires in her a “sensation of effortless compatibility” with him.
The problem isn't that all the men are jerks and all the women find them compelling, but that Lasdun doesn’t take advantage of fiction’s capacity to peer closely at human behavior—and to make it beautiful, or make it terrifying, or make it hurt. It’s Beginning to Hurt is a promising title for this collection of stories, but they don’t hurt nearly enough.
Polly Rosenwaike has published fiction in various literary magazines and writes book reviews for the Brooklyn Rail.