In “Afternoon of a Faun,” James Lasdun Mixes Autofiction and Psychological Thriller
“Whatever flaws I have in my moral makeup,” claims the unnamed narrator of James Lasdun’s brilliant new book, “Afternoon of a Faun,” “the self-exculpatory urge has never been among them.” The narrator, like Lasdun, is a writer and professor from a bourgeois-bohemian English family who is now living in upstate New York. He unfolds the “ordeal” of his friend, Marco Rosedale, also a British expat, a television journalist whose “longish news features … usually about political conflict” were “almost always pervaded by an atmosphere of danger that, intentionally or not, cast him in a glamorously intrepid light.” As the novel opens, Marco learns that a former colleague is writing a memoir in which she accuses him of sexual assault. Marco insists that he is being falsely accused; he may not remember everything about that drunken night, forty years ago, but he knows that he would never have raped anyone.
The novel takes place in late 2016, not long ahead of #MeToo and in the last days of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign. (Lasdun’s patriarch-in-chief is “a weird, ivory-gold colossus” who “brought to mind those slabs of pallid humanoid flesh in Francis Bacon’s paintings, enthroned on toilets in arid rooms . . . Everything about him seemed at once gleaming and effluvial, like some Freudian idol we’d set up in order to load it with the qualities we most abhorred about ourselves before driving it out into the wilderness.”) The narrator’s loyalty wavers between his friend and his progressive ideals. When Marco confides in him, he feels both empathy and self-protectiveness, a desire not to be “recruited in support of some defunct male prerogative.” It helps that Marco seems so self-aware, so credible. He is respectful when the narrator’s wife asks him what actually happened, nodding “as if to say he welcomed the question.”
The narrator casts Marco under forgiving lighting, where he seems to embody a pure and carnal notion of manhood—not the satyrs of Greek legend but the fauns, which “have something more shy and elusive about them. They live in enchanted forests …. You could say they represent male desire in its youthful, innocent form.” Which is all to say that boys will be boys. Julia, Marco’s accuser, also takes on a mythic stature. An old family friend of the narrator’s, and his teenage crush, she suggests Artemis, as drawn by Camille Paglia: “She has nerve, fire, arrogance, force. . . . She is pristine. She never learns.” The narrator makes her a “significant motif” in a novel that he considers writing. Meanwhile, Marco succeeds in getting an excerpt of Julia’s memoir pulled from a newspaper, and he torpedoes her book contract by unearthing an old proposal in which she appears to be praising a Nazi pilot.
Caught between these two larger-than-life forces, the narrator searches for the truth—which is, in this situation, less an object to uncover than a decision for characters to make. There is no proof, only rival accounts of the same night. The narrator seeks Julia out in her London home, asks about the incident forty years ago, and then tries to dismantle her story, even though he believes her entirely. Their conversation is a chilling transcript:
“You don’t believe it was rape, do you, even if everything I say is
“I do,” I protested, trying to sound like myself. “Of course I do.”
“You don’t. Not real rape. Not in a way deserving of real
consequences. You think I should just shut up about it, don’t you?”
“Not at all,” I said with a weird, glib feeling, as if I’d become my
own communications director. “But I don’t think it’s going to be easy
to find a publisher, with those documents doing the rounds. They’re
Lasdun’s writing spreads implication like condensed flavor crystals that dissolve in water. By the end of the novel, he has examined every corner of the narrator’s conflicted psyche and surveyed an ever-shifting social question without once resorting to cliché. The book achieves a state of suspension that is at once fascinating, draining, and dismal—one imagines oneself, along with the narrator, vacillating forever, doubting, arguing both sides, weaving and unweaving webs of justification and delusion.
But an objective truth does exist here, and, finally, Lasdun reveals it. The shock of this moment owes to how tightly the book’s psychological mechanisms are wound. It also owes to “Faun” ’s autofictional elements. Biographical echoes invite us to read the narrator—and, to a lesser extent, his foil, Marco—as alternative-reality versions of Lasdun. At times, “Faun” feels squarely in the space of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and others. But here, Lasdun marries autofiction to the more obviously stylized genre of the psychological thriller, deploying cliffhangers and the trope of the unreliable narrator. This is a neat idea: autofictional garnishes on a suspense novel can create a sense of claustrophobia, or become an eerie extra quotient of human consciousness, as if another pair of eyes were watching.
The autofictional creepy-crawlies of Lasdun’s fiction are perhaps intensified by his own, well-known travails: in his 2013 memoir “Give Me Everything You Have,” he writes about being stalked for five years by a former student, who accused him of stealing her work and of playing a shadowy, ill-defined role in her long-ago rape. Reviewers at the time were beguiled and disturbed by parallels between Lasdun’s experience, as described in the memoir, and the plot of his 2002 novel “The Horned Man,” about a creative-writing teacher (another British transplant) who believes that a former colleague is trying to frame him for sex crimes. Taken together, “Give Me Everything You Have,” “Afternoon of a Faun,” and “The Horned Man” form a triptych: a meditation on being falsely accused.
Or do they? In “The Horned Man,” the initially sympathetic narrator soon undermines his story with memory lapses and a febrile paranoia. Reality, in all three books, turns out to be more slippery and up for grabs than the reader may at first realize. “Afternoon of a Faun” opens with a female voice explaining the concept of “epistemological assault”—what she calls the “brazen denial,” following a physical assault, “that anything untoward took place.” “It isn’t enough to violate the woman’s bodily autonomy,” this speaker says, at a lunchtime talk on an exhibition about rape. “Her version of events must also be seized and subjugated.” As the Marco-Julia saga illustrates, authors and men who prey on less powerful women share in common the privilege to determine the final, “official” version of events. In the last accounting—I won’t spoil the book’s ambiguous, twisty ending—“Faun” might be an act of exorcism or masochism or dark curiosity, an alternate history of an incident whose truth can never be known. Another form of epistemological assault, of course, is to write fiction.