James Lasdun’s Afternoon of a Faun is a cool novel about a hot topic. The prose is masterfully controlled: the diction precise, the syntax unhurried, the tone measured. But the story that Lasdun coolly relates—the revelation of a long-ago sexual assault, or at least the accusation of such—is incendiary. The abuses documented by the #MeToo movement have shown what happens when lust and power go unchecked; Afternoon of a Faun is an excellent #MeToo novel precisely because it keeps its combustible story so tightly restrained.
The novel’s unnamed narrator is an urbane, mildly successful writer. Born in England, he now lives in upstate New York and occasionally teaches in the city. (In all these ways, he resembles Lasdun.) The narrator prides himself on his composure—his ability to remain “noncommittal” (a favorite word) as he listens, observes, considers. Good writerly qualities, we might think. But, the novel asks, is such reserve the right stance when dealing with accusations of sexual violence—accusations in which reputations, even lives, are at stake, and where remaining noncommittal favors those with more power? When does withholding judgment actually render a tacit verdict? When does coolness become cruelty?
The novel opens in 2016 with an accusation. Julia Gault, a one-time “current affairs presenter on a popular but serious TV show,” has written an as-yet unpublished memoir about sexual mores in the 1970s British media world. In it, she accuses her former colleague, the “gloriously intrepid” conflict-zone reporter Marco Rosedale, of sexually assaulting her while the two were reporting from Northern Ireland. Marco claims with absolute certainty that the relationship was consensual. But he also knows that “it was the kind of thing that, once said about you in public, rendered you permanently suspect—at best.” And it’s the kind of thing that, barring contemporaneous evidence, becomes a battle waged largely through narrative: Whose story is more believable or titillating? Which side is more appealing to one’s political commitments?
Lasdun’s narrator finds himself caught between the warring camps. Julia used to be a family friend. The narrator had a youthful crush on her—he even considered working her into an earlier novel—but has since lost touch. As for the accused, the narrator declares in typically guarded fashion that he and Marco are “good friends—pals.” Though they’ve known one another for decades, they’ve become close only in the last ten years. They admire one another’s liberal politics; they share a background (“our fathers had both been prominent figures in the London we’d left behind”); they both possess minds that are “detachedly curious and cheerfully unillusioned.”
Because of this, the narrator becomes the “impartial judge to whom Marco can reveal “his ‘ordeal’ (as he’d taken to calling it),” putting aside the mantle of palhood and instead playing the role of confessor and confidante, “armored in the sanctioned iciness of the role.” The narrator believes that the truth is out there, “fixed in its moment, unalterable, and certainly not a matter of ‘belief.’” He can discover what happened but only if he remains scrupulous, a good listener rather than an ardent defender—hence his “usual noncommittal expression” as Marco rails against his accuser; hence the cool style and careful syntax.