I've read a couple of sources that claim James Lasdun is the "best writer you've never heard of." These are from people who want us to read his new collection It's Beginning to Hurt: Stories, but the form of his praise is ambivalent. An author's finest quality, in other words, is the fact that you haven't read him before.
However, the key endorsement is from critic James Wood, who writes a nice blurb on the back cover. A few pages into the collection it becomes clear why Wood likes Lasdun so much, and not just because they're both Brits transplanted to the US. In each story in Lasdun's collection there are two or three sentences so perfectly made, so true, that they deliver a shock of recognition.
Lasdun brilliantly conveys a way seeing particular to vacillating and temporizing middle class white men. Lasdun's men are the kind of guys who've never really resolved the extra crispy or regular recipe dilemma. After watching his modest hopes crumble through his own inaction, the main character of "An Anxious Man" observes, "Whatever you did, it seemed you were bound to regret doing it, or not having done it sooner . . . It was as though some malicious higher power, having experienced the workings of the human mind, had calibrated a torment for it based on precisely the instincts of desire and caution that were supposed to enable it to survive." (Ellipses in original)
The sentence neatly sums up the man's predicament: watching other people screw up his dreams. The sentence's effect is exactly what Wood means by effective realism, and by extension great fiction. The sentences ring true in the sense that they seem plausible, for a middle class white male reader, at any rate. Lasdun does not have a talent for vivid metaphors--note how abstract those sentences from "An Anxious Man" are--so his insights rely heavily on the cultural knowledge of the reader. I wonder how exchangeable the experiences are in Walter Benjamin's sense of a transmitting an experience from afar through storytelling. Would a reader deeply effected by Jhumpa Lahiri's stories be equally moved by James Lasdun's?
Lasdun shares at least one common quality with Lahiri: neither seems capable of writing a bad sentence. It's been a while since I've met a writer like that. I'd long ago accepted the clumsy, overreaching sentence here and there as the price of good writing elsewhere. Sometimes I want to ask the author, did you read that on paper before you submitted it for publication? Because that sentence doesn't work. It may have worked on the screen, but here in real paper it stinks.
This isn't to say Lasdun doesn't have some other limitations of the quality realist. His characters may be keen in their perceptions, but the force of sudden emotional clarity comes at the cost of a lot of muddled thinking, and misreadings of other people. The insights are about locking someone into place in the grand scheme of things, but rarely do they involve penetrating insights into other people, or worse, decisive or even interesting action. His men are passive receptacles of social miscues. Lasdun's men exist in a fixed point in the universe, but they have no agency. They are uncertain in their being. The more intimate their experiences, the more likely they will be in the past tense. This is the tragic dimension of realism: wisdom comes, but always too late.