Afternoon of a Faun by James Lasdun
Writers can come to define an area they choose to inhabit, either physically, or in their imagination. Consider Washington Irving’s relationship to the Catskills, or William Kennedy’s choice to return to his native Albany from the West Indies.
One of the Hudson Valley’s best and most consistent literary figures of recent years is the British-born author James Lasdun, known as much for his poetry and non-fiction work, as his short stories and novels. He’s shifted between full and part-time life on the mountain slopes outside Woodstock, but found ways to not only set narratives, factual and fiction, in our area, but define his cool intellectualism as a key character of the region.
His latest novella, Afternoon of a Faun (Norton, 2019), engages the complexities of the “Me Too” movement via a writer/narrator’s attempts to come to terms with an old acquaintance’s ties to a rape charge from a woman the narrator had once had a crush on, and tells a story of male manipulation and her own years of insecurity. Power plays, privilege, maleness, and the attempt to stay coolly objective in one’s truth-seeking all come into play. Most importantly, everything plays out in the autumn of 2016 during the surprise rise of our current president—“a weird, ivory-gold colossus who brought to mind those slabs of pallid humanoid flesh in Francis Bacon’s paintings, enthroned on toilets in arid rooms…Everything about him seemed at once gleaming and effluvial, like some Freudian idol we’d set up in order to load it with the qualities we most abhorred about ourselves before driving it out into the wilderness.”
Among Lasdun’s earlier books was a first novel, The Horned Man, with an untrustworthy narrator accused of horridness towards women, and the 2013 memoir “Give Me Everything You Have,” where the author examines his being stalked by a former student for years. Some are calling the three works a trilogy; what’s certain is that Lasdun has taken on a theme—sexual politics—that’s as key to our age as industrialism was to Dickens, or male dignity was to so many 20th Century American writers.
“The truth might be hard to bring to light. But that didn’t mean it didn’t exist, because it did exist,” Lasdun’s narrator in Afternoon of a Faun observes about halfway through the book—like an ardent Democrat wondering why the Mueller report ended up as it did. “Fixed in its moment, unalterable, and certainly not a matter of ‘belief.’”
Except that in the end, it’s more that moment of Trump’s existence than any fictional denouements and twists that characterizes the truth Lasdun reaches. Which makes his years of observation from our hills and forest (which included a grippingly complex nonfiction account of Kingston’s “bad dentist” murder case in the New Yorker) so key to all this author does with, as a reviewer in that same magazine put it, “his extraordinary powers of observation in so many areas, his literary intelligence and discernment, his often goose-bump-inducingly good prose, and his fundamental decency.”
Can’t wait until he someday tackles race and gentrification.