From the Publisher
“Lasdun's novels succeed as efficient entertainments, narrowly focused, linguistically dextrous, coolly presenting their characters' foibles . . . His short stories relinquish none of this gamesmanship, yet they seem to expand where the novels contract . . . Their characters have a complexity and confusion that override the unfolding plot. And the narratives seem opened up to the entire history of ?ction . . . Touching and revelatory . . . Devastating.” Mark Kamine, The Times Literary Supplement
“Reading Lasdun is like reading a sly collaboration between Kafka and Updike: elegant, acutely observed and utterly unflinching . . . This is a collection that examines the most inward mechanisms of rage, fear and desire with astonishing skill and strangely lyric power.” John Burnside, The Times (London)
“Lasdun has a Nabokovian eye. Few exponents of the short form offer such tempting, disturbing pleasures . . . It's Beginning to Hurt is . . . a superlative collection, exhibiting all of Lasdun's familiar talents and a few new ones into the bargain.” Richard T. Kelly, Financial Times
“A gem . . . James Lasdun writes the best sort of English prose.” Colin Greenland, The Guardian
“A story master.” Tim Adams, The Observer (London)
“[Lasdun] create[s] a world of objects and feelings that are rich, recognisable and yet elusive . . . His prose [here] is marked by a ?ne, thoughtful, humane exactness . . . Lasdun uses his dramatic skill to show the most subtle and delicate movements between poles of feeling.” Tom Deveson, The Sunday Times (London)
“[A] marvelous, masterful collection.” Lizzie Skurnick, Los Angeles Times
“Like such masters of dark literature as Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka, Lasdun limns the deep cracks in the soul even as his tales are enlivened by his gift for insight and ear for language. His stories are a fury of elements: skilled dramatic monologues; sketches of fraught emotional states . . . [which] are shot through with crafted verse . . . Masterful.” Susan Comninos, The Miami Herald
“There is much to admire in Lasdun's stories, not least the astonishing beauty and precision of his imagery. In a few perfectly chosen words, Lasdun can distill a character's essence and bring him to life.” David Bezmozgis, author of Natasha
“[This] stellar collection combines a sharp eye for detail, subtle character development and virtuosic command of narrative voice . . . [It's Beginning to Hurt] merits comparison with the understated artistry of William Trevor or Graham Swift.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“As he proved with Seven Lies, Lasdun is an elegant and incisive student of the human mind--an author who can register exactly when, for a character, ‘it's beginning to hurt.' This remarkable collection shows what happens when we break through the gauze of everydayness and existential panic hits . . . Affecting, yes; sentimental, no. Hard-edged truths about our predicament poke through this work, which is highly recommended.” Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (starred review)
“This accomplished poet, novelist, and story writer's collection packs a devastating punch. Lasdun peels back the facades of middle-aged, middle-class types through their run-ins with cancer, infidelity and loss that lead them to deal with unexpectedly large and often ugly recognitions . . . Jewels of resignation and transformative personal disaster, these stories are written so simply and cleanly that the formidable craft looks effortless.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“This collection of short stories illuminates the everyday agonies of the mind, its anxieties, obsessions, doubts, and yearnings. Lasdun pins each observation to the page with grace and exactitude.” The Atlantic, Top 5 Books of 2009
“James Lasdun proved himself to be a master of the form with the enthralling psychological subtleties of It's Beginning to Hurt.” Geoff Dyer, The Guardian
“Compulsively readable short story collection that's perfect for summer . . . The most remarkable feat, though, is that Lasdun can pack stories this moving into as little as three pages.” GQ blog
“More than another look at the mid-life crisis, what emerges from these miniatures of male apprehension is a portrait of the modern man perpetually understudying for a grander, sexier life as he awaits his transcendent moment--one that, if it ever does arrive, is rarely as absolute as he'd like. As nervousness yields to anxiety, and as anxiety gives way to terror, Lasdun's calm orderly prose never falters in tone, steering these stories with a confident, white –knuckled steadiness. To cut this deep, there can't be a single tremor.” Playboy.com
“[E]very story is heart-poundingly vivid. Mr. Lasdun's characters live in the here and now--they fret about their stock market losses, they're laid off from their jobs, they feel a lump and know it's cancer. But nothing is simple or direct except Mr. Lasdun's crystalline prose. Much of the action takes place inside their heads, where their hopes, anxieties and terrors contort their sense of ordinary life. Mr. Lasdun instinctively understands human psychology, and it seem as though he can turn anything into a story.” Wall Street Journal
“If you listen, you can almost hear it ticking: the time bomb of anxiety, or delayed gratification, or fear, or deflected love, in any one of the artfully told stores in James Lasdun's latest collection, It's Beginning to Hurt. . . Intimate, sometimes wryly comforting tales of tenderness and rue.” O, The Oprah Magazine
“Lasdun may be the most heralded writer you've never heard of. . . There is something classically enjoyable about Lasdun's stories.” Time Out Chicago
“Following his psycho-thriller debut with a collection of stories about extreme anxiety and paranoia, James Lasdun may single-handedly save British short fiction from an untimely demise. . . James Lasdun is a better-known BBC-prize recipient (he got the award in 2006), largely thanks to the critical acclaim won by his unsettling first novel, The Horned Man, a psychological thriller about a mild-mannered academic who seems to be losing his mind. His poised and elegant new collection, It's Beginning to Hurt, should only add to his reputation--striking a much-needed blow for the health of contemporary British short fiction along the way. . . Lasdun's stories are ruthlessly focused and machine-like in their efficiency. Many recall Maupassant or O'Henry in the way they conclude with an old-fashioned twist or epiphany. Sometimes this twist feels like the turn of the knife, as in ‘Cranley Meadows,' where a younger wife plans to desert her husband, or the two-page title story, a marvel of compressed nastiness . . . It's Beginning to Hurt [is] such a spellbinding read--and just what the ailing British short story tradition needs.” Taylor Antrim, The Daily Beast
“Meticulously crafted . . . an act of delicate precision and focus. . . The delivery of a revelation, the subtle gesture that shifts the reality of everything that has come before--these are Lasdun's bread and butter, giving his stories their understated luster . . . organic, insightful, empathetic, and wise . . . it's clear that Lasdun is a craftsman with keen radar for moments and gestures that resonate and reflect our humanity with understated clarity. Disguised as a collection of conventional short stories, this book will catch you off guard and lead you down pathways unforeseen.” The Rumpus
“The best stories that anchor this collection are some of the strongest you're likely to read this year.” The Second Pass
“James Lasdun's It's Beginning to Hurt gets right to the coruscating heart of things.” The Boston Phoenix
“Sleek. . . There is something reminiscent of William Trevor in Lasdun's matter-of-fact rendering of the way people are haunted by the choices they make. The cool, dispassionate prose belies an underlying desperation present in Lasdun's characters to do the right thing.” Time Out New York
This accomplished poet, novelist, and story writer's collection packs a devastating punch. Lasdun peels back the facades of middle-aged, middle-class types through their run-ins with cancer, infidelity and loss that lead them to deal with unexpectedly large and often ugly recognitions. The title story is less than three full pages, but generates near-boundless futility and regret as a businessman, having just attended the funeral of a long forgotten former lover, can't help falling back into the old habit of lying to his wife about how he's spent the day. "The Incalculable Life Gesture" builds to a climax of relief as an elementary school principal, feuding with his sister, follows through a series of tests that indicate he has lymphoma-until a specialist reveals the truth of his ailment. In "Peter Kahn's Third Wife," a sales assistant in a jewelry boutique models necklaces for a wealthy wine importer who brings in a series of successive wives-to-be over the years. Jewels of resignation and transformative personal disaster, these stories are written so simply and cleanly that the formidable craft looks effortless. (Aug.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Stellar collection combines a sharp eye for detail, subtle character development and virtuosic command of narrative voice. A British native who now lives in upstate New York, Lasdun (Seven Lies, 2006, etc.) also writes poetry, novels and screenplays, but his fourth volume of stories suggests that his strength lies in the short form. The title piece is the shortest, less than two-and-a-half pages, and functions as the prose equivalent of haiku in its evocation of an affair, a death and a marriage that is all but dead. Yet that same title could apply to practically every one of these stories, which often detail a pivotal point at which a man (usually) comes to terms with his essential character and discovers something hurtful or troubling about himself. In "An Anxious Man" (most of the titles are far more generic than the stories themselves), an inheritance disrupts a family's equilibrium, as the wife's attempts to play the stock market during an economic downturn make the husband fearful of everything, even as he questions his judgment. "Was it possible to change?" asks the protagonist of "The Natural Order," a faithful husband whose trip with an incorrigible womanizer leaves him both appalled and envious. In "Cleanness," a widower's marriage to a much younger woman forces his son to confront his own indelible impurities. "A Bourgeois Story" explores "the peculiar economy of . . . conscience," as an unexpected reunion of college friends, one of whom has become a well-to-do lawyer while the other has turned increasingly radical, leaves the former as uncomfortable with his own life as he is with his one-time friend. Chance encounters and unlikely connections prove particularly revelatorythroughout. The piece that is least like the others, "Annals of the Honorary Secretary," provides a mysterious parable of art that concludes, "Like most lyric gifts, it was short-lived. On the other hand, the critical exegesis has only just begun."Merits comparison with the understated artistry of William Trevor or Graham Swift.
Read an Excerpt
It's Beginning to Hurt
By James Lasdun
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2009 James Lasdun
All rights reserved.
AN ANXIOUS MAN
Joseph Nagel slumped forward, head in hands.
"My God," he groaned.
Elise snapped off the car radio.
"Calm down, Joseph."
"That's four straight days since we got here."
"What do you think we're down now? Sixty? Eighty thousand?"
"It'll come back."
"We should have sold everything after the first twenty. That would have been an acceptable loss. Given that we were too stupid to sell when we were actually ahead —"
Joseph felt the petulant note in his voice, told himself to shut up, and plunged on. "I did say we should get out, didn't I? Frankly it was irresponsible committing all that money" — shut up, shut up — "not to mention the unseemliness of buying in when you did —" oh God ...
His wife spoke icily. "I didn't hear you complain when we were ahead."
"All right, but that's not the point. The point is ..."
Her face had tightened angrily on itself, all line and bone.
"The point is ..." But he had lost his train of thought and sat blinking, walled in a thick grief that seemed for a moment unaccounted for by money or anything else he could put his finger on.
Elise got out of the car.
"Let's go for a swim, shall we, Darcy?"
She opened the rear door for their daughter and led her away.
Glumly, Joseph watched them walk hand in hand down through the scrub oaks and pines to the sandy edge of the kettle pond.
He gathered the two bags from their shopping expedition into his lap but remained in the car, heavily immobile.
Money ... For the first time in their lives they had some capital. It had come from the sale of an apartment Elise had inherited, and it had aroused volatile forces in their household. Though not a vast amount — under a quarter of a million dollars after estate taxes — it was large enough, if considered a stake rather than a nest egg, to form the basis for a dream of real riches, and Joseph had found himself unexpectedly susceptible to this dream. The money he made as a dealer in antique prints and furniture was enough, combined with Elise's income from occasional Web design jobs, to keep them in modest comfort — two cars, an old brick house in Aurelia with lilac bushes and a grape arbor, the yearly trip up here to the Cape — but there wasn't much left over for Darcy's college fund, let alone their own retirement. In the past such matters hadn't troubled him greatly, but with the advent of Elise's inheritance he had felt suddenly awoken into new and urgent responsibilities. At their age they shouldn't be worrying about how to pay for medical coverage every year, should they? Or debating whether they could afford the dental and eye care package too? And wasn't it about time they built a studio so that Elise could concentrate on her painting?
The more he considered these things, the more necessary, as opposed to merely desirable, they had seemed, until he began to think that to go on much longer without them would be to accept failure, a marginal existence that would doubtless grow more pinched as time went by and end in squalor.
After probate had cleared and Elise had sold the apartment, they had gone to a man on Wall Street, a money manager who didn't as a rule handle accounts of less than a million dollars but who, as a special favor to the mutual acquaintance who had recommended him, had agreed to consider allowing the Nagels to invest their capital in one of his funds.
Morton Dowell, the man's name was. Gazing out at the pond glittering through the pines, Joseph recalled him vividly: a tanned, smiling, sapphire-eyed man in a striped shirt with white collar and cuffs and a pair of elasticized silver sleeve links circling his arms.
A young assistant, balding and grave, had shown them into Dowell's cherry-paneled bower overlooking Governors Island. There, sunk in dimpled leather armchairs, Joseph and Elise had listened to Dowell muse in an English-accented drawl on his "extraordinary run of good luck" these past twenty years, inclining his head in modest disavowal when the assistant murmured that he could think of a better word for it than "luck," while casually evoking image after image of the transformations he had wrought upon his clients' lives and hinting casually at the special intimacies within the higher circles of finance that had enabled him to accomplish these transformations.
"I think it's just so much fun to help people attain the things they want from life," he had said, "be it a yacht or a house on St. Bart's or a Steinway for their musical child ..."
Joseph had listened, mesmerized, hardly daring to hope that this mighty personage would consent to sprinkle his magic upon their modest capital. He was almost overcome with gratitude when at the end of the meeting Dowell appeared to have decided they would make acceptable clients, sending his assistant to fetch his Sovereign Mutual Fund prospectus for them to take home.
"What a creep," Elise had murmured as they waited for the elevator outside. "I wouldn't leave him in a room with Darcy's piggy bank."
Stunned, Joseph had opened his mouth to defend the man but at once found himself hesitating. Perhaps she was right ... He knew himself to be a poor judge of people. He, who could detect the most skillfully faked Mission desk or Federal-era sleigh bed merely by standing in its presence for a moment, was less sure of himself when it came to human beings. He tended to like them on principle, but his sense of what they were, essentially, was vague, unstable, qualities he suspected might be linked to some corresponding instability in himself. Whereas Elise, who had little interest in material things (and who had been altogether less unsettled by her inheritance than he had), took a keen, if somewhat detached, interest in other people and was shrewd at assessing them.
Even as their elevator began descending from Dowell's office, Joseph had found his sense of the man beginning to falter. And by the time they got home it had reversed itself entirely. Of course, he had thought, picturing the man's tanned smile and sparkling armbands again, what an obvious phony! A reptile! He shuddered to think how easily he had been taken in.
"You know what? You should invest the money yourself," he had told Elise.
"That had crossed my mind."
"You should do it, Elise! It can't be that hard." He was brimming with sudden enthusiasm for the idea.
"Perhaps I will give it a try."
"You should! You have good instincts. That's all that matters. These money managers are just guessing like anyone else. You'd be as good as any of them."
And this in fact had appeared to be the case. After biding her time for several weeks, Elise had made her move with an audacity that stunned him. It was right after the September 11 attacks, when the shell-shocked markets reopened. Over ten days, as the Dow reeled and staggered, she bought and bought and bought, icily resolute while Joseph flailed around her, wrenched between his fearful certainty that the entire capitalist system was about to collapse, his guilty terror of being punished by the gods for attempting to profit from disaster, and his rising excitement, as the tide turned and he could see, on the Schwab Web page over his wife's shoulder, the figure in the Total Gain column swelling day after day in exuberant vindication of her instincts. An immense contentment had filled him. Thank God she had kept the money out of that fiend Dowell's clutches!
But then the tide had turned again. The number that had been growing so rapidly in the Total Gain column, putting out a third, a fourth, then a fifth figure, like a ship unfurling sails in the great wind of prosperity that had seemed set to blow once again across America, had slowed to a halt, lowered its sails one by one, and then, terrifyingly, had begun to sink. And suddenly Elise's shrewdness, the innate financial acumen he had attributed to her, had begun to look like nothing more than beginner's luck, while in place of his contentment, a mass of anxieties began teeming inside him ...
How exhausting it all was. How he hated it! It was as though, in investing the money, Elise had unwittingly attached him by invisible filaments to some vast, seething collective psyche that never rested. Having paid no attention to financial matters before, he now appeared to be enslaved by them. When the Dow or NASDAQ went down, he was dragged down with them, unable to enjoy a beautiful day, a good meal, or even his nightly game of checkers with his daughter. Almost worse, on the rare occasions when the indices went up, a weird stupor of happiness would seize him, no matter what awful things might be going on around him. And more than just his mood, the management of his entire sense of reality seemed to have been handed over to the markets. Glimpsing in the Times business section (pages that would formerly have gone straight into the recycling bin) an article on mutual funds bucking the downward trend, he had seen Morton Dowell's Sovereign Fund among the lucky few and felt suddenly like a fool for having allowed what at once seemed an act of astoundingly poor judgment to steer him away from that sterling, agile man ...
God! All that and the nightmarish discovery that you could never get out once you were in anyway, couldn't sell when you were ahead because you might miss out on getting even farther ahead, couldn't sell when you were down because the market might come surging back the next week, leaving you high and dry with your losses, though of course when it merely continued tanking, you wanted to tear your hair out for not having had the humility to acknowledge your mistake and salvage, sadder but wiser, what you could ...
Whatever you did, it seemed you were bound to regret doing it, or not having done it sooner ... It was as though some malicious higher power, having inspected the workings of the human mind, had calibrated a torment for it based on precisely the instincts of desire and caution that were supposed to enable it to survive. One could no more help oneself than the chickadee that nested in the lilacs outside their living room could stop attacking its own reflection in the window all day long every spring, however baffling and terrible every headlong slam against the glass must have felt.
Wearily, Joseph climbed out of the car.
In the kitchen, as he unpacked the grocery bags, he made a conscious effort to fight off his gloom. Four days into the vacation, and he had yet to relax. It was absurd. The weather was perfect, the rented house peaceful, the freshwater pond it stood by clear as glass, the ocean beaches beyond it magnificent. And at three hundred dollars a day for the house alone he couldn't afford not to be enjoying himself ...
His hand made contact with a soft, cold package inside one of the bags. Ah yes. Here was something one could contemplate with unequivocal relish: a pound and a half of fresh queen scallops for the grill tonight.
He had bought them at Taylor's, while Elise and Darcy shopped at the produce store next door.
Taylor's was one of the glories of the Cape, and as always, it had been packed that afternoon, vacationers crushed up against the zinc slope, anxiously eyeing the diminishing piles of snowy-white bass fillets or glistening pink tuna steaks, guarding their place in line with one foot while peering ahead to see what sandy gold treasures lay in the day's salver of smoked seafood.
There had been an incident: two women had each laid claim to the last pair of lobsters in the tank. The woman who was first in line had been distracted, searching for something in her purse, when the teenage server came over. The other woman, tall and bronzed, in an outfit of some tissuey material slung weblike between thin chains of beaded gold, had silently held up two fingers and pointed to the lobsters, which the boy was already weighing for her when the first woman realized what was happening. She protested that she had been first in line, but the other woman simply ignored her, handing the boy several bills with an intense smile and telling him to keep the change, while the boy himself stood in a kind of paralysis that seemed as much to do with her immaculately constructed glamour training itself upon him at full beam as with the awkwardness of the situation. "We'll be gettin' more in later," he had muttered lamely to the first woman. "Well, gosh ..." she had said breathily as the other woman, still smiling, strode serenely out, the two live lobsters swinging from her hand in their bag of crushed ice.
Joseph, who had observed it all, had felt vaguely that he ought to stand up for the woman in front. But nobody else had stirred, and it didn't after all seem a matter of great importance, so that in the end he had done nothing, a fact of which he had felt fractionally ashamed as he left the store.
At any rate he had his scallops — huge, succulent ones, with their delicate-tasting pink corals still attached. Lucky he'd bought them before hearing the day's numbers, he thought, smiling a little. Otherwise he might have balked at the astronomical price Taylor's charged per pound. He stowed them away with a feeling of minor triumph, as if he had snatched them from the very jaws of the NASDAQ.
There was no sign of his wife and daughter when he made his way down to the pond. He stood on the small private jetty that came with the house, wondering if he were being punished for his comment about the timing of Elise's investments. Elise did have a punitive streak, and his comment had undoubtedly been offensive. Still, it was unlike her to vanish altogether without telling him.
A slight anxiety stirred in him. He fought it: he had noticed a growing tendency to worry recently, and he was aware that he needed to get a grip on it. They must have gone off to pick blackberries, he told himself, or maybe they had decided to walk over the dunes to the ocean. At any rate he would have his swim — across the pond and back — before he allowed himself to become concerned.
He stepped into the clear water, walked out up to his knees, then plunged on in, drawing himself forward with leisurely strokes. The top few inches of water were sun warmed; below that it was abruptly cold. There were no other people around. Thumbnail-size water skimmers teemed on the surface ahead of him: thousands of them, jetting twitchily in every direction.
The "pond" (he would have called it a lake) was a quarter mile wide. It took him twenty minutes to cross it, and by a determined effort of will he managed not to look back once to see whether Elise and Darcy had returned. At the far shore he climbed out to touch land, then turned around, half believing that he would be rewarded for his self-control by the sight of figures on the jetty below their house.
There were none.
Easy now, he instructed himself as he waded in again. There was still the journey back before he was officially allowed to worry. But knowing that in twenty minutes you were going to legitimately succumb to anxiety was not very different from succumbing to it right now. He could feel in advance how as he passed the halfway point on the pond, he would be seized by a mounting anger at Elise for not informing him of her plans and how as he swam on, the anger would change gradually to fear, which was worse because it indicated — did it not? — that one's mind had reached some limit of reasonable hope and switched its bet from her and Darcy's being perfectly, if irresponsibly, safe somewhere to their being caught up in some disaster ...
How wearying, how humiliating it was to have so little faith in anything, to be so abjectly at the mercy of every tremor of fear in one's mind ... Unballasted by any definite convictions of his own (convictions, he liked to joke, were for convicts), he appeared to have gone adrift in a realm of pure superstition. If I avoid listening to Marketplace for three days, the Dow will miraculously recover: it did not. If I close my eyes and hold my breath for seventeen strokes, Elise and Darcy will be there on the jetty ...
They were not.
He swam on, thrusting out violently from his shoulders, ropes of cooler water slipping around his ankles as he kicked back and down, as hard as he could, in an effort to annihilate the drone of his own thoughts.
The sun was low in the sky, banding every ripple he made with a creamy glaze. The light here! That was something else to relish. In the early morning it seemed to glow from inside the trees, spilling out from one leaf after another as the sun rose: a rich, gold-tinted green. In the afternoon it turned to this creamy silver. Then it was the light itself one became aware of, rather than the things it lit. Right now, in fact, as Joseph looked across the pond, the glare of direct and water-reflected light was so bright he could no longer see the far shore. This seemed propitious, and he deliberately refrained from trying to squint through the dazzle, surrendering to it. He had caught this moment once or twice before on the pond, and it did have some mysterious, elevating splendor about it that took you out of yourself. Everything seemed purely an occurrence of light: the water streaming glassily as he raised each arm for its stroke, bubbles sliding over the curving ripples ; the water skimmers registering no longer as frantic insect hordes but as careening saucers of light; the whole glittering mass of phenomena so absorbing it emptied your senses of anything but itself, and for a moment you had the impression you could not only see the light but taste it, smell it, feel it on your skin, and hear it ringing all around you like shaken bells.
Excerpted from It's Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun. Copyright © 2009 James Lasdun. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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