When Afternoon of a Faun, the new novel by James Lasdun, landed on my desk, I knew only two things: that this was a #MeToo novel about rape allegations written by a man, and that this man had already written a nonfiction book denouncing a woman for trying to ruin his reputation. Needless to say, these conditions boded ill.
Lasdun is best known for his 2013 memoir, Give Me Everything You Have, an account of his stalking by a former student, whom he gives the pseudonym Nasreen. She wreaks havoc on his life with wildly abusive emails, ranting voicemails, and attacks on his character that eventually extend to his family and professional contacts, including prospective employers. She accuses him of stealing her work and selling it to Jewish-Iranian writers, and of playing some unspecified role in her rape (though she never actually accuses him of raping anybody). Veering between proclamations of love and hate, Nasreen—who is Iranian-American—frames their relationship as one of structural oppression, Jewish man against Muslim woman. Give Me Everything You Have is a meditation on brushing against another person’s pathology, one which frays the boundary between fiction and real life.
How would such a searing experience affect a novel about #MeToo? Biography is not usually the business of literary criticism. A critic ought to be interested in people qua people, and literature qua literature. But the eerie parallels between Lasdun’s novels, his memoir, and Nasreen’s own writing demand that we read Afternoon of a Faun in an unusual way—with one eye on the page, and one eye on the real world.
Like Lasdun’s previous novels, Afternoon of a Faun is a psychological thriller about men fated to misunderstand life. The book opens with an unnamed narrator recalling how his old friend, the rakish Marco Rosedale, had become obsessed with “these sexual harassment dramas in the news.” Like Lasdun himself, Marco and the narrator are both middle-aged expat Brits in New York. The reason for Marco’s sudden interest in rape headlines? A British newspaper had told him that it planned to run an excerpt from a memoir by an old colleague of his named Julia Gault, in which she accuses him of raping her in the 1970s. Marco succeeds in staving off the excerpt’s publication. Then he does one better: After finding out that Julia had once written a book proposal that arguably praised a Nazi collaborator, he contacts her publisher and has her contract yanked. He, prospective cancellee, becomes the canceller.
Lasdun’s oeuvre, which includes the novels The Horned Man, Seven Lies, and The Fall Guy, is remarkably consistent in its themes: paranoia, inept masculinity, stalking. His fictional male protagonists fail to breach the gulf between themselves and other people; in particular, they are incapable of interpreting women’s reactions to them. These protagonists’ shortcomings make for excellent narrative material, since the reader is left parsing information on their behalf, forced to reinterpret the evidence (mystery objects, strange communiqués from other characters) that the men cannot.
Uncannily, those themes also cross over into Give Me Everything You Have. Because Lasdun’s stalker is obsessed with his work, his own novels shape her invective against him. For example, she accuses him of using his wife to build a “fortress” around himself, just as Lawrence, narrator of The Horned Man, writes of his own marriage. Nasreen reads Lasdun’s story “The Siege,” and becomes convinced it is about her; she proceeds to lay siege to his life. It is as if one of the un-self-aware paranoiacs of Lasdun’s fiction has come to life and begun speaking back, determined to exact revenge. Knowing that Lasdun has a lease on a Manhattan flat that he isn’t using, she writes: “I really firmly believe that you need to absolve your guilt by giving me your keys….(I hope I’m scaring you slightly. That would be exciting.)”
When Nasreen accuses Lasdun of basing a character on her, he realizes that he is really being accused of “appropriating some kind of echo or semblance of Nasreen’s ‘essence,’ for literary purposes.” This accusation then serves as a pretext for life to imitate art, the two reinforcing each other in a disturbing feedback loop, “with Nasreen exhibiting symptoms of a disturbance as deep as that of the woman in my story, and doing so more vividly the ‘more closely she identified with her.’” The pair are trapped in a literary dyad, negotiating the foggy space between them with language.
Under her real name, Nasreen has written a book about her life that includes the stalking phase. You can find it via Lasdun’s own website, given a little detective work. In it, she describes a painful childhood, including her family’s difficult transition to American life after fleeing Iran. She says her cousin was murdered by a racist during the hostage crisis in 1979. She says two of her sisters are severely mentally ill. Her account of stalking Lasdun is rooted in a medical explanation: after being raped, her undiagnosed bipolar disorder was mistakenly medicated with SSRIs, which launched her into a delusional psychosis that spurred, among other things, an ugly anti-Semitism. She believed that Lasdun was conspiring with some kind of Jewish mafia to ruin her chances of a literary career.
Ironically, she was obsessed with the idea of her reputation being tarnished—precisely Lasdun’s own motivation for writing about the episode. She hoped to punish him for both romantically rejecting her and for disregarding the novel she was at work on. Of stalking Lasdun, she writes that she had “developed a Pavlovian response to pain, which still signaled my brain to think of James whenever I was emotionally overwhelmed.” She thought that they would find love together, but after that dream curdled, “all that remained was the coldness of his abrupt departure from my life. I wanted to inflict all the pain I was experiencing onto James tenfold.”
If you know all this context, you cannot help but approach Afternoon of a Faun wondering: Will this fiction treat historic allegations of abuse in good faith, or not? We do not learn whether the accusation at the heart of the book is true until the novel’s end, although it is treated as false by most of the characters throughout. Marco ropes in the unnamed narrator as a kind of passive accomplice, speaking to him ceaselessly about what he calls his “ordeal.” It turns out that the narrator knows Julia, who was an old friend of his family’s and the object of his own youthful crush. When his mother dies and he goes to London for the funeral, he takes the opportunity to drop in on Julia, to ask her the truth. She insists that the rape took place, and he returns to New York as confused as ever. He staunchly maintains an inner neutrality, although he is “aware of something suspiciously convenient” about his refusal to take a side.
Marco, the accused, is a talented but self-regarding man, the sort who likes to strike up conversations with waitresses who have no choice but to flatter him. Julia is sane and credible. When the narrator suggests that she has brought forth her claim simply because so many other women are doing the same, she makes the wise rejoinder, “What ... exactly ... is wrong with that?”
Afternoon of a Faun succeeds because its villain is our narrator. He is not a villain the way Lasdun’s other men are—he is neither mad nor oblivious. He does nothing illegal, nor even anything obviously wrong. He is a kind, contemplative, loyal man, the sort who hates the idea of harming anybody. When his wife derisively tells Marco that she has had sex “reluctantly” plenty of times in her life, the narrator agonizes over memories in which he may have pressured her into sex unwittingly.
But his complacency and his assumption that the truth will out has disastrous consequences. At the core of his motivations is a certainty: “The truth might be hard to bring to light, but that didn’t mean it didn’t exist, because it did exist: fixed in its moment, unalterable and certainly not a matter of ‘belief.’” However, his desultory investigations lead nowhere, except to further introspection. While he muses on the unalterable truth, a vicious war rages around him, precisely because the truth of the past is inaccessible.
At the heart of Afternoon of a Faun, and every one of Lasdun’s novels and his memoir, and Nasreen’s memoir, is this problem: The truth exists as a social phenomenon, agreed upon by group consensus. But gender, for one, divides us from one another, makes it harder for us to communicate and to mutually understand. Under those epistemological circumstances, the “truth of what happened” becomes an elusive, almost mythical notion. And when madness is involved, the line between truth and fiction goes up in smoke entirely.
Nasreen’s memoir is a valuable companion text to Afternoon of a Faun, because they are two books about the same thing: the impossibility of knowing another person’s truth, and the impossibility of ever really being able to communicate what it’s like to live inside your own head. In the style of Charlie Kaufman’s movie Adaptation, which blends lurid fiction with the real-life story of Kaufman’s attempt to adapt Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, the contents of Lasdun’s fiction took on a strange new life, as part of Nasreen’s mind. So it feels exactly right to read a memoir beside a novel; to read Nasreen along with Lasdun; to mix up events and books and media in the grander project of trying to understand just how badly and how consistently human beings fail to communicate with one another.
The Afternoon of a Faun is a highly conscientious novel, elegant in its execution and almost humble in its refusal to grandstand, or to turn a story about rape allegations into some didactic allegory. The title is taken from Mallarmé’s poem L’Apres Midi d’un Faune, the story of a just-woken creature who lusts after a nymph. But I thought, too, of Vaslav Nijinsky, who turned that poem into a much more famous ballet of the same name and wrote a book, the Diary of Vaslav Nijinksy, composed over a period of six weeks as he descended into psychosis. “I seek truth in a book and not the subject,” Nijinsky wrote. Is that a pathological way to see the world? Perhaps. But there is a reason that Lasdun has returned to fiction after his traumatic real-life experience, of which he seemed so certain that the truth was on his side. There may be no clear borderline between the real and the unreal, after all—or at least, neither dimension has a monopoly on the truth.