It isn’t until the halfway point of The Fall Guy, James Lasdun’s thrillerish new novel, that we are treated to its first overtly criminal act: breaking and entering. This book is about boundaries – emotional, social and moral – and it is with characteristic obliqueness that Lasdun gives us this first, long anticipated transgression: though the act strikes the reader as insane in its audacity, its import barely registers on Matthew, the book’s protagonist and the perpetrator of the crime. ‘He didn’t appear to be afraid,’ Lasdun writes, in a striking departure from the book’s otherwise airtight third-person limited, as though Matthew has briefly taken leave of his body and is observing himself from a distance. Even as he creeps through the house he has invaded – the house of his cousin’s wife’s secret lover – Matthew feels detached. ‘Even though he was here,’ Lasdun continues, ‘he was still in some mysterious way longing to be here; as if inside the A-frame there should have been another A-frame, with another doorway and another key.’
This kind of puzzle is Lasdun’s bread and butter. His novels are about intellectually and emotionally fastidious men who blind themselves to others’ motivations, and ultimately to their own. The Horned Man (2002) gave us an absent-minded professor whose confidence in the unknowability of the self masked deep corruption; Seven Lies (2006) offered a damaged liar mixed up in international intrigue. The book of Lasdun’s that I recalled most intensely while reading The Fall Guy was his 2013 memoir Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked. It chronicles his relationship with a student – a promising Iranian-American writer, Nasreen – whose initial friendliness gives way to intense behaviour that at first excites, then alarms, then terrifies him. The book is a great riff on the meaning and malleability of reputation in the information age (Nasreen attempts to destroy Lasdun professionally), but it also has much to say about the ways we flatter and deceive ourselves. The Lasdun of Give Me Everything allows himself to enjoy his student’s overtures, then is forced to reflect on his role in his own near downfall. ‘I began to find myself drifting occasionally into a courtroom fantasy,’ he writes, ‘in which I was defending myself against Nasreen’s various charges.’ He imagines what his friends and colleagues must think, receiving her accusing messages: ‘Surely something as black and billowing as these emails must indicate that I was guilty of something.’
This alternate-universe Lasdun – not the innocent victim of a mentally-ill stalker, but fully guilty of the sexual aggression and plagiarism he is accused of – is a dramatically compelling figure, and he lurks creepily in the background of Give Me Everything. In The Fall Guy that figure, or one like him, takes centre stage. Matthew is a fascinating protagonist, created to elicit our sympathies – and then betray them.
As the book opens Matthew is on his way upstate from New York City, riding shotgun in his cousin Charlie’s Lexus. The children of sisters, the two come from money, but circumstance has shunted them onto very different paths: Matthew’s solicitor father absconded with his clients’ millions and vanished, abandoning Matthew to a life of rebellion and drug-dealing, and then an intermittent career as a chef. Now 39, he’s between jobs, waiting for life to tell him what to do. Charlie, on the other hand, has made a fortune as an investment banker, earning himself a luxurious Brooklyn apartment, the holiday home upstate, and Chloe, his wife, a comely photographer whose attention Matthew craves, and whom he has struggled ‘to come to an accurate understanding of his feelings for’. Charlie and Chloe have invited their needy cousin and friend to spend the summer with them outside the quaint town of Aurelia.
An hour into the journey north, Charlie pulls over. He’s forgotten his anniversary present to Chloe. Matthew agrees to take the train back into the city and retrieve the gift from Charlie’s apartment; in the morning he’ll return to the house and slip Charlie the gift, and Chloe will be none the wiser. These early pages are pregnant with details that turn out to be red herrings; Lasdun uses them to charge the narrative with sinister potential:
Charlie wrote down the burglar alarm code for the house and the combination numbers for the safe.
‘I’ll have to kill you, obviously, as soon as you get back tomorrow,’ he said, handing Matthew the scrap of paper.
‘Seriously though, tear this up when you leave the house.’
‘I’ll swallow it.’
‘And be careful at the Port Authority tomorrow. We don’t want you getting mugged with a ten-thousand-dollar bracelet.’
Pages later, when Matthew opens Charlie’s safe, he discovers the bracelet ‘in front of some stacked blocks of cash’ that we will later learn add up to a significant amount.
But nothing happens. Charlie does not kill Matthew, Matthew is not mugged at the train station and the transfer of the bracelet transpires without difficulty. Matthew doesn’t even seem to remember the money in the safe, which the narrative glosses over as though it’s of no importance whatsoever. With Charlie and Chloe’s daughter away at camp, the three soon settle into a seemingly comfortable routine of summer leisure. The scene, however, plants a series of motifs in the reader’s head that will prove tough to dislodge: class, money, theft, violence, paranoia. The novel dispenses with these non-clues the way Matthew dispenses with his untoward emotions: his jealousy of his cousin, his anger at his father, his obsession with Chloe. It passes lightly over, tucking them away, leaving only echoes.
These echoes find a resonance when a new plot element arrives a few weeks and about fifty pages in: Matthew, running errands in town, spies Chloe’s Lexus where it shouldn’t be. Curious, he follows it to a motel where Chloe meets an unfamiliar man. Later that night, alone in his guesthouse, Matthew wonders if he should tell Charlie what he’s seen. ‘How the hell could he not tell Charlie? … Wasn’t that his responsibility as Charlie’s cousin and friend?’ Instead of answering the question he turns the interrogation onto himself:
he became aware of something minutely false in presenting the problem to himself in terms of friendship and cousinly duty: a sheen of spuriousness overlaying the formula. It wasn’t how he’d seen it this morning … but somehow an emergency measure, conceived purely to expunge the intolerable reality from his own mind, had morphed into something more altruistic, a ‘duty’, and he didn’t trust altruism, or not when it fronted his own impulses.
Here is the crux of Matthew’s psychology. Too smart for his own good, he second-guesses every impulse, and then, confident he’s got himself figured out once and for all, moves on to the next impulse without noticing what he’s doing.
The Fall Guy wouldn’t be a thriller if each of those impulses weren’t more ill-advised than the one before it. Matthew decides that he needs ‘more evidence’, but doesn’t seem to understand what is obvious to the reader: that his moral compulsions are merely by-products of his own prurient interest. He could elect to tell Charlie what he saw, or not, but it doesn’t occur to him that no amount of evidence will give him an adequate reason to settle the issue, because it isn’t evidence he wants, but the spectacle of his own fantasies being acted out.
At this point, The Fall Guy becomes a kind of detective story, with Matthew the misguided gumshoe, and Chloe and her lover the quarry. After encountering the lover at a supermarket, Matthew tails him to his rental house, the A-frame; in the days that follow, he actively seeks the lover out, observing his mundane existence with mild disgust, and eventually talks to him in a bar. He tells himself that he isn’t seeking more evidence of Chloe’s guilt, but evidence ‘that might, in spite of all indications to the contrary, exonerate Chloe’. But a page later, he’s rifling through her underthings, ‘his heart slamming in his chest. Jesus Christ, he thought. This was not what he wanted to want.’
Matthew’s disconnection from his baser impulses is a running theme. Lasdun pushes into his path a series of temptations and intimidations that tweak his desire and challenge his masculinity: the omnipresence, of course, of Chloe, but also her lover’s ‘unrefined if not crude forcefulness’, a know-it-all male dinner guest, and a male-dominated hippie cult. As these forces begin to threaten Matthew’s self-control, memories of his vanished British father bubble up from the depths. He recalls his father asking what ‘jerking off’ meant; after Matthew’s embarrassed explanation, his father replied: ‘That’s something I hope you’ll never do.’ The incident ‘infected Matthew with an irrational disgust for the act’. He also remembers looking at the marginalia and highlighting in his father’s books, some of which suggested an obsession with suicide and a craving for public humiliation.
His relative poverty, and the sense of victimhood resulting from his father’s disappearance, have made Matthew cling to a sense of moral superiority, particularly in comparison to Charlie, whose wealth, achieved at Morgan Stanley during the years preceding the 2008 financial crisis, he regards as ill-gotten. But it’s Charlie, the reader comes to understand, who possesses the novel’s real moral compass; he has left his job in order to find ways, as a consultant, to counterbalance the ethical failings that made his wealth possible. He feels guilty for his complicity in the banking industry’s false promises, and he both pities and fears Matthew: he has asked him to spend the summer upstate in a spirit of obligation and self-preservation.
Matthew learns this in dramatic fashion: he breaks into Chloe’s lover’s house, searching, again, for ‘evidence’, and ends up trapped there, hidden behind a balustrade, when Chloe shows up unexpectedly. The lover soon follows and the two have sex, then talk about Matthew while he struggles to remain silent in the next room. Matthew is stunned at what he hears; the reader, by now, probably isn’t. (We also learn something Matthew certainly knows but has failed to tell us: he’s short. ‘I could lose weight if I wanted to,’ the burly lover observes, ‘but he’ll never gain height.’) Revelations are followed by a series of dramatic events that culminate in a sudden act of violence. But soon Matthew is comfortably ensconced back at Charlie’s, placidly preparing himself ‘an omelette of duck eggs and aged Gruyère with some leftover Romesco sauce’. He doesn’t think about what he’s done until later, and his recollection is accompanied by a strange memory from his teen years: a sexual experience with an older woman, during which she invited him to burn her buttocks with a lit cigarette. This image, of the young Matthew’s hand pressing the object into the woman’s flesh, echoes the previous night’s violence and serves as a displaced expression of the toxic masculinity that has intimidated and motivated him throughout his life.
Matthew means to fake his way through the book’s final third, dodging and dissembling until he can reach a place ‘radically elsewhere, under a hot blue sky in some place well out of reach’. The reader remembers what Matthew can’t: that this vision looks a lot like the life he had imagined his fugitive father to be leading. By this point, Lasdun has deliberately and methodically undermined our sympathy for his protagonist, but I have to admit that I was still rooting for him, right up to the final page. His blithe confidence, a response to anger, shame and selfish arrogance, is infectious. We all wish we could erase, obscure, or even simply accept the past. Perhaps the message of The Fall Guy is that, however extreme our mistakes, we will still regard them as aberrations, bizarre swerves away from our true selves, rather than what they really are: the purest expressions of our prejudices, fears and desires.