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1 June 2024

The insular world of Rachel Cusk

The novelist’s fans revere her ruthless restraint – but in Parade it leads to a narrative dead end.

By Megan Nolan

A recurring criticism of Rachel Cusk’s fiction is of its relentless misery, and the gilded circumstances said misery is attached to. Even her most passionate readers will sometimes point out this quality, perhaps in order to avoid having it pointed out to them: they know it might be deemed obscene to dedicate such space and attention to the unhappiness of wealthy, successful, intellectual artists and academics. The critic Johanna Thomas-Corr, in a cutting Times review of Cusk’s latest novel, Parade, highlighted this as one of the book’s major failings, writing: “I have admired, sometimes loved, all of Cusk’s books even as I have found myself recoiling, even laughing, at her hysterical descriptions of unhappiness. Is life really so cold and harsh?”

Personally, I don’t find an inclination to burrow down into unhappiness to be an inherently alienating quality in literature. I also don’t believe that one should have to describe the most abject extremes of human experience to have the right to explore unhappiness. Yes, there is something unseemly about endlessly elucidating the everyday ennui of the privileged when countless others are experiencing terror, genocide, famine and brutality. But it is also true that different people experience near-identical circumstances in vastly different ways.

One person’s annus horribilis is another’s season in the sun. One of my closest friends, a person I speak to every day and see multiple times a week, once asked me how I could be so unhappy, a question so simple and enormous there was no way to respond to it except with defensive outrage. He and I have lives that are roughly similar despite emerging from different backgrounds. We are extraordinarily privileged by general standards, if less so than many of our current peers; free of dependents; unusually flexible in how we arrange our time. Yet he is largely unbothered by life, and I am largely bothered. Is this because I am less grateful than he is, or more blind to our luck? In a sense, yes, but only insofar as we are two different people who metabolise everything differently to one another.

Material reality is relevant, but our capacity for unhappiness is not dictated solely by surroundings. To insist on clear justification for the elucidation of misery would not only eliminate a great many brilliant novels, but also force us to disregard the truth of mental illness or the fundamental fluctuations of the human mind itself. All of which is to say, I have nothing against the documentation of misery, by Cusk or anybody else. But I do struggle with expressions of emotion that feel inorganic and bloodless, which Cusk’s sometimes do, despite the intensity they contend with.

I have never quite broken through this difficulty with Rachel Cusk. The 57-year-old British novelist is the author of 17 books, including two bracing memoirs, of motherhood (A Life’s Work, 2001) and divorce (Aftermath, 2012), and the celebrated trilogy of “autofictional” novels: Outline (2014), Transit (2016) and Kudos (2018).

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I, too, have admired her work, but I have never loved it. Into each life a little bafflement at a particular genius must fall. Many of the writers and readers I trust and respect the most in this world are Rachel Cusk fanatics: like her, they are chic, semi-frightening women in creative fields, and they await her latest books with an uncharacteristic, almost adolescent enthusiasm.

There have been moments when I have glimpsed what her admirers prize. Cusk is a writer of soaring intelligence. The precision of her physical descriptions and damning character summaries are, if not always exactly funny, often written with the sort of cruel specificity which draws a gasp of appalled admiration. When her work has left me cold, I have tended to assume it was a failing on my part. I was missing something; perhaps my lack of personal experience of the tension between raising children and making art meant I could not grasp her full importance. But reading Parade, I was left with less self-recrimination and more frustration. No doubt there are things I am missing but, having trudged through Parade once, I read it again, and so can be confident that it is my least successful encounter with Cusk yet – and not for lack of trying on my part.

Parade is described in its blurb as setting loose a carousel of lives. “It surges past the limits of identity, character and plot to tell a true story – about art, family, morality, gender and how we compose ourselves.” Having picked up the book with optimistic anticipation, I was filled with a great weariness when I read that sentence. I quite like identity, character and plot, I thought ruefully, having somehow forgotten that Cusk has been disavowing the concept of character for many years.

The novel is in four parts – “The Stuntman”, “The Midwife”, “The Diver” and “The Spy” – told from erratically varying perspectives and involving different artists all referred to as “G”, who appear to be drawn from amalgamations of actual artists, writers and directors.

The artists all known as G are, variously, the painter we meet first – a black artist who learned to draw by copying pictures from library books in Harlem, whose work was sidelined in his lifetime and after death shown alongside women artists “as though marginality were itself an identity”; a woman artist producing large-scale, ambitious works, whose desire to live an unorthodox life is tested by her husband and child; and a writer and film-maker who doggedly tries to erode the “I” from the art he produces. This final G’s mother dies in the book’s fourth section, in the most convincing, moving and propulsive moments in the novel. First-person narration slips in and out of the Gs’ third person, as well as collective narration.

Cusk’s brilliance on a sentence level is as dazzling as ever. This is a book made to be annotated (and not only to assuage confusion). In the first part, “The Stuntman”, the artist G has taken to painting upside down, which both disturbs and exhilarates his wife, whose sense of self is provoked by his artwork and her inclusion in it. “His wife’s freedom,” Cusk writes, “so partial and malformed, had a crippling effect on him.” Shortly afterwards, the narrator, now speaking as “I”, says: “To be a mother is to live piercingly and inescapably in the moment. The artist who is also a mother must leave the moment in order to access a moment of a very different nature, and each time she does it a cost is exacted, the cost of experience.”

This is Cusk at her most exciting: capturing succinctly relations between people that are usually both too generic and too complex to summarise. Such sentences are almost aphoristic, but not at all glib – instead completely specific. Her work is littered with such striking moments, clear and fine as the chime of a bell, but the reader must endure a great deal of white noise to find them. Much more of my time was spent despairing at Cusk’s intentionally opaque approach to storytelling. I frequently muttered aloud with irritation at receiving hints of some narrative occurrence or illuminating episode, only to be denied further details. For instance, in “The Stuntman” the father of the upside-down painter has committed notorious acts of wrongdoing, which are never revealed. The novel as a whole is characterised by an atmosphere of deliberate withholding, which feels more tiresome and wasteful than provocatively disruptive.

“The Diver” concerns the aftermath of the suicide of a man who jumped off a museum balcony. It is told largely through the ensuing conversation between the museum director and some of the guests who were invited to speak at G’s exhibition, before the incident halted everything. There are several intriguing interpersonal dynamics referred to in this sequence – the man whose poet wife is compelled at last to get a job, the woman whose ex-husband hates her with such force that she believes him to be incapable of dying – were Cusk to turn her ruthless, all-seeing gaze towards them. Instead, she glides over such curiosities without allowing them to redirect her course.

Such unyielding restraint is admirable in its way: it doubtless requires profound self-control and command of narrative. And there is something resonantly lifelike about it, all this glimpsing and surging and mysterious withdrawal. But these side glances of compelling characters and snatches of overheard anecdote reminded me of those metafictional sequences when a novel is recounted at length within a novel, a device almost always bound to fail – the interior novel being either duller than its surrounding mother novel, or more interesting than it, both outcomes bad for the reader. Reading Parade is like reading a novel within a novel – self-consciously literary, insular and ultimately unsatisfying. The reader is left wondering, too often, when the real story will begin.

Parade
Rachel Cusk
Faber & Faber, 208pp, £16.99

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[See also: Colm Tóibín’s genre trouble]

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