The Horned Man BOOK review



Book Reviews
The Horned Man BOOK review
By
Jun 1, 2002, 14:34

THE HORNED MAN by James Lasdun; W.W. Norton & Co. 2002

The Horned Man is an engrossing read though some aspects could've benefited from one last rewrite. This brief (193 page) novel is a slowly unwinding self-revelation by a lunatic, who is perhaps most frightening for his utter banality. In its initial scene setting and establishment of the protagonist/narrator's personality, it is eloquent and effective in painting a vivid tableaux. Lawrence Miller is an English-born professor of gender studies who teaches at an undistinguished suburban college outside of NYC, a staunch supporter of all things status quo. He occupies a nondescript office on campus, sparsely decorated by standard bric a brac left behind by his predecessors: coffee mugs, a few old books, PC, faded art prints, etc. The mise en scene is wholly normal, deadly dull.

Almost imperceptibly, circumstances shift—or at least appear to. Bits of the office effluvia seem to get moved around or go missing. Miller has the odd memory lapse, experiences cases of mistaken identity. All these phenomena are explainable; none are especially significant on their own. But the tide gradually rises and Miller begins to see patterns in the happenstances. Then he posits a shadowy adversary, a former faculty member who'd previously inhabited his office. Then he reveals that he's been deliberately with holding information from his psychologist that he believes she couldn't understand. He describes an intensely traumatic incident from his youth, grows more and more paranoid and obsessive about interpreting random events as meaningful, attributing them to his postulated nemesis. His actions are increasingly dictated by his peculiar perspective and grow ever more bizarre. It becomes apparent that the universe of tragic incidents he moves in is possibly coherent after all, coherent because it revolves around his own past and present behaviors. The book's ending is not pretty.

For me, where The Horned Man falls short is by not eventually defining consensual (“objective”) reality with the subjective. We see that Miller is deeply disturbed as he encounters more and more horrific events while grasping his relation to them less and less. But the reader is never, ultimately, shown what is fact and what is fantasy and so it's impossible to gauge whether he's a harmless kook or a serial killer. That doesn't squelch the overall kicks encountered, just leaves out the punch line.

-Howard W.

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