There are fewer greater pleasures in literature than watching a serious writer of fiction wade into the denigrated waters of genre and emerge with something exquisitely written yet propulsively entertaining all at the same time. Yes, Graham Greene produced enduring novels about British colonialism, but were any of them better than Brighton Rock, a tale of a gang war in a resort town in southern England just before World War II? I deeply love Denis Johnson’s Angels and Jesus’ Son, but try putting down Nobody Move, his gritty hardboiled noir, before you’ve read through to the last page. And then there are those writers like Patricia Highsmith and Richard Price who made careers out of smuggling sophisticated literary themes into the ostensibly anodyne forms of detective novels or murder mysteries.
We should add to this list James Lasdun, author of the new literary thriller The Fall Guy. Lasdun, who has won international awards for his poetry and short fiction, teaches creative writing at Columbia University, and is a regular contributor to highbrow publications like London Review of Books, made headlines a few years ago with Give Me Everything You Have, an account of his experience with an ex-writing student turned stalker. If Lasdun’s memoir was a dense, hearty stew of literary allusion, psychological analysis, and cultural commentary, The Fall Guy is as comparatively light and airy as a merengue, less a serious work of literature than a product of popular culture, what Graham Greene would have called “an entertainment.”
Or so it would appear at first glance. In actuality the novel continues to explore themes present in Lasdun’s memoir — namely obsession, stalking, and the difficulty of self-perception. “All decompositional forms and textures fascinate me,” Lasdun wrote in the memoir, Give Me Everything You Have, “and I have come to think that I belong to the category of creatures that have an innate, organic affinity with the downward stroke of nature, the implosive cycle.” His stalker, Nasreen, also belongs to this category—his memoir is, in part, an attempt to understand her. With his new novel, The Fall Guy, he has created another character submerged in the process of dissolution, this time an obsessive former chef whose fixation on his cousin’s wife leads him, involuntarily, to stalk her.
The chef, Matthew, has found that he has begun to withdraw from everything: his personal relationships, his professional desire, the material aspects of the world at large. “A curious lassitude had taken hold of him lately,” Lasdun writes, “a feeling of being adrift, and of not quite having the willpower to do anything about it.” When his cousin Charlie, a wealthy investment banker, invites him to spend the summer cooking for him at his country home upstate, Matthew calculates that he can use the profits from subletting his apartment to subsidize his future rent.
He has another motivation, however: his cousin’s wife Chloe. To say that he harbors a clandestine crush on Chloe would be to vastly understate the case. He quite plainly loves her: “[They had] a sense of almost supernatural kinship that exists often between people who seem on the surface quite unalike but whom life conspires to unite by a succession of small affinities, creating a bond that exists in a world of its own, requiring neither comment nor confirmation in this world.” It’s bombastic stuff—and our first clue that the world inside Matthew’s head may deviate in certain important ways from the world outside it. Is his connection with Chloe mutually felt and reciprocated? Or is he engaging in self-deception? Part of the pleasure of the novel is trying to decipher how closely Matthew’s perception of reality hews to the perspectives of the people around him.
Not incidentally, this question preoccupied Lasdun’s memoir, Give Me Everything You Have, as well. A professor of creative writing, Lasdun had struck up what he believed to be an innocent correspondence with an ex-graduate student, Nasreen, that carried on over many months. When he began to sense romantic undertones to the e-mails, he gently chided her, affirming his loyalty to his wife. When the advances continued, he stopped writing to her altogether. In retaliation, Nasreen initiated a campaign of online abuse, impersonating him in e-mails to his agent, making false claims to his employers, leaving malicious reviews of his books on Amazon, and even threatening his wife and children. He was at first stunned, then angered, then frightened and confused. In one way, the memoir can be read as a document of self-defense, an attempt to show the ways in which he was wronged.
In another, more intriguing way, though, it reads as an admission of guilt — even if he is not quite able to identify the crime. “The last thing we learn in life is our effect on other people,” he wrote in the memoir, quoting George Eliot, and certainly he comes to believe that he was negligent in understanding his effect on Nasreen. Had he subconsciously made her an object of sexual fantasy, thereby communicating romantic desire and subconsciously leading her on? Perhaps he underestimated the idealization young writers often feel for their mentors — he certainly did the same when he was her age. Did abruptly cutting off communication hasten her psychological decline? In the end, he doesn’t know. “Is there something about myself,” he asks, “that I simply don’t see?”
The question appears late in Lasdun’s memoir, and surfaces again in the novel, this time incorporated into the consciousness of Matthew. “Is there something in me I don’t see?” Matthew asks himself, but by this time he is in dire straits indeed: he is hiding in the house of Chloe’s lover while she talks on the telephone below. He learned of the affair when he saw her driving and followed her to a motel; the discovery disturbed him to his core. “He believed in her and Charlie’s marriage almost as an article of religious faith,” Lasdun writes. “It was something he considered absolutely right and absolutely fixed.” His faith shaken, he began to follow her, check up on her, question her when she returns.
Matthew, like Lasdun in his memoir, is capable of impressive spurts of self-knowledge: some of the best passages in the book are the winding inner monologues that drill deep into the recesses of Matthew’s consciousness. He believes in the virtue of self-interrogation, since, as a psychotherapist had taught him years earlier, the psyche “was autonomous. You couldn’t alter its inclinations, however much you might want to, so there was no point in trying. You could, however, avoid being tyrannized by them, and the better you understood them, the easier this would be.” He knows quite a lot about his psyche’s inclinations, as it turns out. He knows “the large number of disparate components in the general feeling of enchantment” that he experiences around Chloe, feeling for as a father, a sibling, a lover, and friend. He knows the complex feelings he has for Charlie, fellowship and jealousy as well as idealization and resentment. And he knows the intense anger that he feels for the man with whom Chloe has begun the affair.
What he can’t do is convert his self-knowledge into moral action; he becomes a stalker even still. If “the unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates said, the examined life is bound to be flawed, Lasdun retorts. “Is there something about me I can’t see?” asks Matthew. Yes, Lasdun implies in these books — not only for Matthew but for Lasdun. And not only for Lasdun.
As Matthew’s visits to Chloe’s lover’s house become more frequent, he edges towards catastrophe. Yet we cannot help but feel sympathy. We know that he as tried to resist the darker inclinations of his psyche. He has simply failed.
The Fall Guy can be read, easily enough, as an elevated thriller. Part made-for-Netflix thriller, part lifestyles of the rich and famous (Lasdun’s descriptions of the high-end food Matthew cooks for Charlie and Chloe are worth the price of admission alone), I can imagine it more naturally faced out at an airport bookstore than shelved in the stacks of a university library. Placed beside Lasdun’s memoir, however, it becomes something more: a journey into the psyche of a stalker by someone who has been stalked. “I want to understand this tormentor of mine,” Lasdun wrote in the memoir. “I want, as St. Augustine said, to ‘comprehend my comprehender.’” With The Fall Guy, he has made one last effort to understand a saga that has haunted him for years. The rewards are all ours.
Born and raised in Seattle, Alex Gallo-Brown is an essayist and poet whose work has appeared in publications that include Los Angeles Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, Vice's Motherboard, Tahoma Literary Review, and Pacifica Literary Review. He is a former contributing writer for City Arts magazine.
Follow Alex Gallo-Brown on Twitter: @AlextheGB