It's Beginning to Hurt
Entitle your book of short stories It's Beginning to Hurt and you can assume this at least: that your readers may dive into your 16-course banquet of angst with the expectation of drama, intrigue, despair, and all the kinds of hurt that hit hardest. What James Lasdun has going for him from the start, then, is the element of surprise. Unconcerned with showy unhappiness, Hurt is an exploration of a more insidious phenomenon: It's an examination of ennui in our modern lives.
On the one hand, Hurt's subtleties are what recommend it; there's something to be said for a series of stories that command the intricacies of human emotion rather than dealing merely in sensationalism. But in attempting to create an intensely realistic world--in which the tipping point into unhappiness can occur as easily while you're making a tuna salad sandwich as while you're contemplating the nature of the universe--Lasdun has maybe made his world too motionless. He sets Hurt in a universe where nothing ever seems to go wrong in a big way.
Throughout, the book is an attempt to underwhelm, and most of its stories don't appear to deal with anything--they pretend to go places but, in the end, fail to arrive anywhere. "The Incalculable Life Gesture," for instance--the story of a middle-aged man feuding with his sister who suddenly becomes convinced he has lymphoma--is in many ways stagnant, the man ending his journey mere steps away from where it began. And almost all of Lasdun's other stories suffer from the same problem to one degree or another.
More than anything what Lasdun suffers from is indecision--equal parts his own and his protagonists.' Stories such as "The Natural Order," "The Half Sister," "The Old Man," and "Oh, Death" all end on precipices--their final scenes depict men frozen, paralyzed, standing motionless for minutes trying to make a choice. The choice is what Lasdun never shows; and maybe that's the point. Maybe we're supposed to make the choices ourselves.
Better us than Lasdun's narrators, mostly cut from the same cloth: middle-aged, nervous, on the brink of committing the act of adultery, mild-mannered, and endlessly hesitant. They're easy to lose patience with, especially given that their uniformly non-confrontational natures are what create many of their problems.
It makes sense, then, that the stories in which Lasdun departs from his formula--male narrator, placid plot--are the most interesting. In "Annals of the Honorary Secretary" he details the experience a group of paranormal enthusiasts have with a young woman possessing a peculiar gift, and his writing style proves unexpectedly well suited to the story's fantastical nature. "Cranley Meadows" and "Caterpillars" are also set apart from the bulk of the book because they possess more direction--"Cranley Meadows" features a twist so exquisitely timed it managed to provoke an unprecedented reaction, and "Caterpillars" features one of the book's most infuriating and thought-provoking characters. And these stories's abilities, at least, to elicit a response is unfortunately underrepresented in much of the collection.