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Book review

Tales of unresolved anxiety, self-doubt

By Karen Campbell
Globe Correspondent / November 4, 2009

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James Lasdun has an uncanny ability to conjure up ordinary lives with extraordinary perception. Without hyperbole, hysteria, or even profound drama, he creates fascinating, compelling characters who are richly complex, yet generally not so different from you or me.

In his new story collection, “It’s Beginning to Hurt,’’ Lasdun introduces us to a variety of these ordinary souls as they teeter on the cusp of seminal moments in their lives, grappling with some kind of shift in the psychic landscape. With prose that is stunningly clear, direct, and incisive, he gives us a series of startling, provocative snapshots that resonate well beyond the page.

In “Cranley Meadows,’’ Lasdun examines identity and parenthood, as an aging professor with twins on the way gets laid off from his job. “A Bourgeois Story’’ pits a successful lawyer against a long-lost Marxist friend from his college days, the latter’s dissolution casting a pall over the attorney’s cushy existence.

In “The Anxious Man,’’ Lasdun creates a character both pathetic and uncomfortably recognizable, as he deals with the “volatile forces’’ unleashed by his wife’s unexpected inheritance and subsequent investment in the stock market. “In investing the money, Elise had unwittingly attached him by invisible filaments to some vast, seething collective psyche that never rested. Having paid no attention to financial matters before, he now appeared to be enslaved by them.’’

A cancer scare sends a teacher into a morass of introspection and self-doubt that shifts his whole life perspective, if only momentarily, in “The Incalculable Life Gesture.’’ Lasdun writes about this transformation with vivid descriptive clarity, charting the character’s new perception of “shade trees that had outlasted several generations of humans: the weeping willows, the giant and festive blue spruce, the sugar maple and horse chestnut standing close to each other, their branches interlaced. All just as he had left them an hour and half earlier and yet charged with an air of circumspection now, as if the news had already reached them.’’

In “The Natural Order,’’ a happily married man’s travels with a flagrant womanizer prompts him to question his life choices. Is he deliberately, contently monogamous or merely “passively acquiescent?’’ When the occasion arises to connect with another woman, he finds himself looking for validation. “Life offered up so few human beings you could contemplate any intimacy with that to turn your back on one seemed an insane and profligate waste.’’

Some of the stories unfold as enigmatic puzzles, like the funny and sad “The Woman at the Window.’’ This tale portrays a woman in search of some kind of human connection whose broken door lock prevents her from leaving her apartment. From her window, she lures men to come up and rescue her.

But mostly Lasdun’s stories reflect a middle-age male point of view. While the scenarios differ, the prevailing commonality is men in the throes of midlife anxieties and regrets, confronting innermost fears and questioning long-held assumptions, expectations and choices, all of which the author dissects with lethal clarity and precision, revealing the sometimes stultifying ambiguity that clouds the decisions we make on issues big and small, life-changing and banal.

Though Lasdun’s tone of wry, unsympathetic detachment can make it difficult to really care about the characters or feel for their plights at times, there is something so uncomfortably familiar in their self-doubt, their individual quandaries that we can’t help but see ourselves. But Lasdun provides no easy answers and few clean, pat endings. The beauty of these stories is revealed mostly in the aftermath. The stories don’t stop at the end of the page, but propel the reader forward, wondering, “What happens next? And what does it mean?’’

Karen Campbell is a freelance writer based in Brookline.

IT’S BEGINNING TO HURT By James Lasdun

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pp., $23

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