Monday, February 06, 2012

[Books] Book Look: It's Beginning to Hurt

Book Look: It's Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun: Since we're relating things to Ready Player One (above), I'll say that this book is the polar opposite. It is a book of quiet short stories featuring characters coming to terms with weltschmerz. Weltschmerz is the sorrow that arises when you realize the real world can never meet the idealized image you have in your mind. When you are young you can simply acknowledge this intellectually without it really affecting you. As you age and the images of life in your mind become more realistic and essential, coming to terms with not meeting them has more force. As you get even older and you find yourself without time to make even the struggle worthwhile, it is gut wrenching to say the least.

I have never been attracted to short stories. They are marvelous writing exercises: to build character and scene, conflict and resolution in a few pages -- it's a challenge to say the least. They are inherently impressionistic, though, which makes me think of them as a sort of a sigh, as if they all come down to a kind of primordial "alas". They are often designed to leave you with a certain feeling rather than relate a narrative. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But as you can guess, when trying to face down existential weltschmerz, short stories work well because it's all about the feelings. The stories here are filled with characters coming to disappointing realizations, about themselves, about loved ones, and about the paths they have taken with confidence only to find doubt and uncertainty. They react in various ways, usually ineffectually. It's Beginning to Hurt is an apt title.

Critically there is a really little more to say. Lasdun is a confident and clean stylist with no discernible affectation. If you are of an, ahem, certain age you will feel a palpable familiarity in these stories. Lasdun has clearly "been there" and has expressed it assuredly. Moreover, an aspect I found truly admirable is that there really are no fringe presonalities here. The characters are middle-class normals. Long time readers know one of my hobbyhorses is how writers have a bad habit of focusing on the edges of humanity. Deeply abused victims or perverse hedonists or violent criminals get lots of coverage at the expense of the drama of normality. Lasdun bucks the tend, which alone makes him a stand out author.

Should you read It's Beginning to Hurt? It won't cheer you up. There is no "action" in the common sense. Just quiet anxiety. It will touch the emotionally mature only.