It's Beginning to Hurt

It's Beginning to Hurt

by James Lasdun

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The stories in this remarkable collection—including "An Anxious Man," winner of the National Short Story Prize (UK)—are vibrant and gripping. James Lasdun's great gift is his unfailing psychological instinct for the vertiginous moments when the essence of a life discloses itself. With forensic skill he exposes his characters' hidden desires and fears, drawing back the folds of their familiar self-delusions, their images of themselves, their habits and routines, to reveal their interior lives with brilliant clarity.

In sharply evoked settings that range from the wilds of Northern Greece to the beaches of Cape Cod, these intensely dramatic tales in It's Beginning to Hurt chart the metamorphoses of their characters as they fall prey to the full range of human passions. They rise to unexpected heights of decency or stumble into comic or tragic folly. They throw themselves open to lust, longing, and paranoia—always recognizably mirrors of our own conflicted selves.

As James Wood has written, "James Lasdun seems to be one of the secret gardens of English writing . . . When we read him we know what language is for again." This collection of haunting, richly humane pieces is further proof of the powers of an enormously inventive writer.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429923330
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 08/03/2010
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 211 KB

About the Author

James Lasdun was born in London and now lives in upstate New York. He has published previous collections of stories, books of poetry, and novels, including The Horned Man, which was a New York Times Notable Book. His story "The Siege" was the basis for the Bernardo Bertolucci film Besieged.
James Lasdun was born in London and now lives in upstate New York. He has published novels, including The Horned Man, as well as several collections of short stories and poetry. He is the author of Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked. He has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and short-listed for the Los Angeles Times, T. S. Eliot, and Forward prizes in poetry; and he was the winner of the inaugural U.K./BBC Short Story Prize. His nonfiction has been published in Harper’s Magazine, Granta, and the London Review of Books.

Read an Excerpt

It's Beginning to Hurt

By James Lasdun

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2009 James Lasdun
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2333-0



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."

"Joseph, please."

"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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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