In the literary realm, much attention is paid both to the dramatic windup and the brutal aftermath when a character's life goes off track. But not enough writers make time for an equally important psychic process: the unpleasant twinge that signals the great calamity to come. Such forebodings are the specialty of the poet and novelist James Lasdun, whose third book of stories, "It's Beginning to Hurt," shows us again and again that the world doesn't end with a bang but simply keels over with the merest tap.
Lasdun's characters are moneyed sophisticates whose problems, likely as not, unfold in the rarefied landscape of the sumptuous country house. There's the recent divorcee rusticated to her ex-husband's charming cottage; a Citroen-driving son who gets lost on the way to his father's wedding; a husband on vacation consumed with his wife's stock picks; a man so envious of his friend's sexual prowess on a trip to Greece that he realizes his marriage is over without actually cheating on his wife.
Given the proper soundtrack, most of these situations could fit smoothly into your average Hugh Grant romantic comedy. But Lasdun has his sights set on problems money has never been able to solve. Take "Peter Kahn's First Wife," a devastating story about a jewelry salesgirl who falls in love with the man who, on a near-yearly basis, has her try on his glittering purchases for a succession of wives. It sounds like a role built for Doris Day, but when the character finally decides to end her abusive marriage to pursue this passion, we are sobered by Lasdun's portrait of their failure to connect with each other, the willful blindness with which we stumble though our lives.
In "Caterpillars," Lasdun takes that idea a step further. A woman watches silently as her boyfriend cruelly berates his son on a hiking trip, then is unable to help when the child has a dangerous allergic reaction. Repulsed and fascinated by her mate's anger, the girlfriend tries to make sure the boy is safe. But Lasdun subtly lets us know that in fact her fruitless mission is -- and will thereafter be -- to save the father.
Like the settings of his stories, Lasdun's pointed prose is deceptively delicate, concealing a real sliver of malice beneath. In "The Half Sister," a guitar teacher observes that a woman's face is "very strange -- large and oval, with a propitiatory quality, like a salver on which certain curious, unrelated objects were being offered up for inspection." It's a startling image, even more so when we learn she really is being served up: as a candidate for a wife.
Or take "An Anxious Man," in which a man's worry over his wife's inheritance manifests itself in the fear that he has lost his wife and daughter. After they turn up, he flirts with another woman at a dinner with the neighbors. "She caught his eye, giving him a sly, unexpected smile. Then she placed the living lobsters on the grill. Joseph had never seen this done before. The sight of them convulsing and hissing over the red hot coals sent a reflexive shudder of horror through him, though a few minutes later he was happily eating his share."
It's the ability to delude ourselves that Lasdun keeps coming back to, knowing it can lead only to a more horrible moment: when we realize that we should have noticed sooner how we were going wrong. (That's perhaps truly clearest in "The Old Man," where a fiance has the dreadful realization that he's about to marry a murderer.) Most moving is the moment in the title story when a man recalls with despair his mistress dismissing him: "Marie never asked him to leave his family, and he had regarded this too as part of his luck. And then, abruptly, she had ended it. 'I'm in love with you,' she'd told him matter-of-factly, 'and it's beginning to hurt.' "
In this marvelous, masterful collection of such unexamined moments, that minor character is the only one who ever sees it coming.