September 2002

Jessa Crispin


The Horned Man by James Lasdun

The word “I” has power over a reader; you tend to believe mostly everything the narrator chooses to relay. It’s easy to accept a narrator as repugnant (Holden Caufield, every Philip Roth narrator), but it’s not as easy to believe he or she has been lying to you. There is opportunity in a first-person narrative to play tricks on the reader, and it is sometimes disappointing that more authors don’t do much with the trust readers grant them.

James Lasdun, however, takes that potential and runs with it in The Horned Man. Lawrence, an English college professor at a small university in New York City, tells us his story. It begins simply enough. He is separated from his wife. He is in therapy. He sits on the college’s sexual harassment committee.

But small things seem out of place to Lawrence. He opens a book at the bookmark to read a few sentences. When he returns to this book the next day, the bookmark has moved. Lawrence’s explanation? There must be a man living under his desk who moved it. The reader may be alarmed at this running leap in logic, but he’s the narrator. He seemed so very rational up to this point, so… Yes, of course. There must be a man living under his desk.

After a while, however, you notice Lawrence seems to latch onto these far fetched theories much too easily, and the way he presents himself to the reader is incongruent with some of his actions. The book isn’t the murder mystery it pretends to be. There is indeed a murder (that takes place before the actions of the book), but the most interesting mystery is who this man is. Can I as a reader trust him to be telling me the truth? After all, why would he lie? He’s the damn narrator.

There comes a point where the reader must decide whether or not to trust him, and then you’ll spend the rest of the book - and long after you’ve finished it – questioning your decision. The ending, while startling at first, will make you wonder where his story and reality split.

The Horned Man is a fascinating book that winks at you from the margins. Whatever Lasdun does next, I am definitely following.

The Horned Man by James Lasdun
Published by W.W. Norton
ISBN: 0393003361
193 Pages