Paula Fox is the undisputed master of the short, spare, eerie tale of contemporary white urban disquietude, in which a seemingly nice individual's life starts to go off the rails as a result of some tiny yet resonant bit of trouble. Her "Desperate Characters" defines the genre, if genre it is, but James Lasdun is a worthy practitioner of the art. His new novel of low-key disintegration, "The Horned Man," comes with Fox's recommendation printed on the back.
"The Horned Man," for better or worse, is a less delicate example of the form. Lasdun's narrator, Lawrence Miller, a professor of gender studies at a small college just outside New York, lives in the East Village apartment he once shared with his estranged wife. When not preoccupied with pining for her, he serves on the faculty's sexual harassment committee, and comes nose-to-nose with one Bruno Jackson, a cocky, skirt-chasing lecturer who, like Miller, is an expat Englishman. The committee's discussion of the Jackson problem prompts a fellow member to reminisce about the college's worst offender, a Czech named Bogomil Trumilcik, who "made passes at practically every woman he taught" and went raging mad and disappeared when confronted by the administration. Something about this tale captures Miller's imagination. Eventually, he becomes convinced that Trumilcik is secretly living in his office, scrunched into an alcove between two desks, and intent on ruining his life.
At first it appears natural that Trumilcik should fascinate Miller. The Czech let his predatory impulses run riot, while Miller is bullied by the noisy widower who lives upstairs and worries so much about his attraction to a student intern in the department office that he can hardly stand to have a conversation with her. He knows that sexual harassment committees have by now "become the stock-in-trade object of satire in popular plays and novels," but he feels obligated to "follow through on my intellectual principles." He's something of a milquetoast, so why wouldn't the notion of his polar opposite speak to his suppressed anger?
Gradually, though, more mysteries and minor catastrophes cluster around Miller than can be adequately explained as the work of even a fiendishly malevolent derelict. He starts lying to his shrink. A colleague appears to think he is sending her amorous messages of one kind or another. He follows a sexy woman into Central Park. He steals his neighbor's glass eye. He has no idea where his own mother is living. He thinks a lot about the Shakespeare play "Measure for Measure," in which a seemingly supervirtuous magistrate threatens to kill a virginal novitiate's brother if she doesn't sleep with him. Miller thinks he's discovered evidence that his wife has been carrying on with Jackson. He disguises himself in drag to infiltrate a battered woman's shelter in search of one of Trumilcik's shadowy female victims.
You know Miller's heading for some kind of crackup from the very start; he's too tightly wound and too much of a goody-two-shoes to make it to the end of any novel unruptured. But Lasdun uses the very real paranoia and isolation of metropolitan life as the hard surface on which to break him, and so the entire city becomes Miller's tormentor. From the smirking sex radicals of the underground theater scene to the cyber-cafe where "well-heeled-looking kids in neat black sweaters and slacks" with their "slim, angular limbs moving elegantly between keyboard, mouse, beverage, Palm Pilots" and "discreet brushed-steel headsets, adding to the general entomological appearance" suggest "a detachment of plutocratic ants," the city's denizens make him feel profoundly alien. A piercing flashback from his youth, his years as the stepson of an aloof aristocratic father who married Miller's vulgar secretary mother and lived to regret it, indicate that this is far from a recent development.
When Miller's personality finally begins to unspool, we learn in a rush that even the truths we'd snatched a glimpse of through the increasingly demented reasonableness of Miller's facade don't tell the whole story. This, like David Searcy's masterly and underappreciated "Ordinary Horror," is Poe for the 21st century, a brainy chiller that finds the most terrifying monsters are those within.