An East German boy, Stefan, falls in love with a beautiful actress. He has a history of posing as a poet in order to gain acceptance. He did so to gain the approval of his mother's arty friends and does so again to gain the love of the actress. They escape to New York prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1980s New York, he trades stocks and his life falls apart and he wants to commit suicide (you will find most of this out in the first 20 pages of James Lasdun's Seven Lies, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything).
The book is written in an arty, self-conscious tone that I tried hard to believe was the narrator's voice, but the character's poetry is a lie that he writes in desperation to please the guests at his mother's soirees, so that doesn't really make any sense.
Tech and telecom stocks tumbling again. Good year on that front at least: accounting scandals, fear of terrorism, current administration's economic policy, all battering nicely at the markets. Even Intel's sinking. I shorted it at forty and again at thiry; now it's under twenty. Feels like betting on gravity, or on death.
Fantastic freshness in the air up at the quarry. This autumn vigor that feels so like the energy of life, growth. Trees still a dusty, steely, end-of-summer green, but on a slope below me there was a single maple with half its leaf dome turned scarlet - splash! - like some trendsetter's bold new fashion statement; this year's embroidered shawl or silk pashmina.
Awful alliteration starts the paragraph again. Lasdun's writing always made me aware of Lasdun, not of Stefan, and so it struck a false note with me pretty much through the entire novel. There actually was an interesting plot here, but the language held me at arms length from it. The review quotes didn't help:
"Combines the knuckle-whitening tension of a thriller with..." reads the quote on the cover. Huh?!
The plot explored many things -the disappointment of relying on other people or circumstances to give your life meaning, the taking on of roles in a family, the difficulty of living a lie, but a knuckle-whitening thriller it ain't.
The strength of this brief novel is its plot. I especially loved the relationship between Stefan and his brother Otto. Their mother makes allusions to Stefan's love of writing at one of her parties - this is a character she has invented for him out of wishful thinking. The result is that one of the guests asks to hear the poetry. Stefan gets a reprieve until the next party and he steals a few bottles of liquor from his mother to bribe his building's superintendent, so that he can get access to poetry books stored in a trunk in the cellar. He adapts them to produce the poems he reads at his mother's arty parties. Meanwhile, the missing bottles are discovered and Otto, having been discovered drunk on the bathroom floor on two occasions is blamed, even though the crime was not his. Stefan says nothing as it will expose his lie. In that moment each of them are cast in roles that are not their own and they live in the wake of those lies forever afterward. a perfect example of how narrative can define character in life as well as fiction.
In returning to the books in the cellar again and again to perpetuate his lie, Stefan knows he cannot rely on the liquor any more and he ends up performing sexual favors for the super. But it is related in such distant, poetic terms that I hardly know what he's talking about:
This state of affairs continued for perhaps a year. I was aware that it was unhealthy, to say the least, but at the same time it seemed inconceivable that it could be otherwise. It had come about by a process of invicible logic. on e that I myself was complicit in, even if I hadn't initiated it, and for all its unwholesomeness, I recognized in its textures, its particular twists and turns, something that felt peculiarly me-like. I had created this strange, convoluted, existence, as a sea creature creates the shell peculiar to itself. The distinguishing feature of this particular shell - to pursue the analogy - turned out to be its steady strangulation of its inhabitant. By the time I was feed from it, I was more dead than alive.
Unwholesomeness? He sounds like an aging Edwardian dowager.
All in all, I was taken enough by the story to keep reading, even though the style of the writing held me at a frustrating distance. If you're at all interested by some of the themes Lasdun explores in this novel, it's a quick read and you find may find the story he weaves around them compelling as I did, but my advice would be, don't read the review quotes. Just read the book.