Seven Lies

By James Lasdun. W.W. Norton, $23.95.

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<strong>Rating: </strong>0/5

Stefan Vogel is an East German migr settled in upstate New York with his wife, Inge, once an actor in the couple's home country and now something of a recluse. He's contemplating suicide, but first, he hopes to explain his predicament in writing, intimating that it hinges on an incident in which a stranger hurled a glass of wine at him at a party.

The wine-tossing scene, which opens James Lasdun's Seven Lies, is charged with spy-novel intrigue. But while the book's structure seems intended to generate suspense, the revelation that explains Stefan's disintegration is not that suprising (neither is an additional twist). The novel's more serious merit is Lasdun's superb depiction of Vogel as a passive youth in whom "anxiety" developed into "a kind of substitute imagination" and drove him to build his life, and consequently Inge's, around a series of expedient falsehoods. From childhood until the brink of self- annihilation, Stefan says: "When faced with a choice between a healthy and a harmful course of action, I had the distinct sensation of the harm having already been done."

The talentless Stefan plagiarized his career as a dissident poet, but every page of this narration bears examples of Lasdun's own poetic mastery (he has written several books of verse). Ornate and economical, his metaphors are at once apt and original. The imagery with which he imparts physical descriptions, frequently macabre, is shockingly vivid: He describes "a thumb so fleshy and nail-bitten it looked like one of those pastries where the risen dough all but engulfs the dab of jelly at its center."

The collapse of Stefan's edifice of deceit is less gripping than its construction, yet it too is vivified by Lasdun's language. Describing a New York City streetscape, he notes that all of its features resemble "metal regressing to its stone ore." Such phrases encapsulate Lasdun's talent and the overall feel of Seven Lies, which simultaneously evokes hard physical images and a dense psychological atmosphere.—Jonathan Taylor