Rachel Cusk recently wrote a piece for the Guardian describing her short-lived membership of a book group: ‘As if for the first time, I understood that reading is a private matter.’ Her co-readers’ inadequate responses to Chekhov provoke some grim reflections on the inadequacies of contemporary readers and writers. ‘Generally the greatest writers have written about what they’ve seen around them, about – in the parlance of creative writing schools – what they “know”.’ She quotes John Gardner saying that ‘great writers tell the truth exactly – and get it right.’ But, she says, ‘for the modern British – more to the point, English – novelist, this notion of truth is a little obscured and inaccessible.’ Historical novels and ‘books on “important” subjects’ are popular because they allow readers and writers to ‘evade the question’ of lived experience:
What we do not like are books about private life alone. There are writers who talk about modern men and women, their daily lives, their relationships, but we’ve invented a ribald category for them: lad and chick-lit. For an English writer with pretensions to greatness, and with no story of otherness or ethnicity to tell, nothing could be further from their intentions than to address the unadorned matter of life in a modern household, on a modern street.
She wonders what the book group would make
of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, or Raymond Carver, or Richard Yates’s reissued Revolutionary Road, a whole novel about a married couple arguing. What about Alice Munro? Could she attract them, truthful, small-scale and brilliant as she is? Or would they not have it, the clear reflection of the quotidian, the visceral, redeeming pain of recognition? As I wrote my novel I thought of them: I wanted to woo them and yet I couldn’t. I don’t believe I could ever have explained to them how difficult it is to make things life-like: they would ask me why I bothered.
Cusk is chiefly preoccupied here with ‘the question of subject-matter’: ‘the most feeble and fallible’ index of greatness, ‘the place in which a good writer is most likely to be mistaken for a bad one and a bad writer for the latest wonder’, as she puts it. Even so, it’s surprising to find her praising understated American realism, because her own writing is about as far from that tradition as possible. Self-conscious and sometimes excessively self-referential, her novels are more concerned with mood and gesture than such illusionistic effects as natural-sounding dialogue, unobtrusive plot development or the matching of narrative voice to character. Her protagonists are almost always grotesques, either crippled or made monstrous by self-absorption, while her supporting casts contain a number of caricatures familiar from Richard Curtis movies. And although she focuses on middle-class private life, it’s rarely represented ‘unadorned’: there’s usually a literary model in view. Raymond Carver said that John Gardner ‘helped me to see how important it was to say exactly what I wanted and nothing else; not to use “literary” words or “pseudo-poetic” language’. For Cusk, a silly name is an ‘appellatory misfortune’. A small kitchen isn’t small but ‘exiguous’. Her characters are routinely ‘fatigued’ or ‘imbued . . . with exigence’.
In other words, she overwrites – and not just in terms of vocabulary. At her worst, she seems to approach novel-writing as a composition exercise in which marks are awarded for periphrasis, complicated sentence-construction and abstract language. A man ponders his dislikeable girlfriend’s pregnancy: ‘The trajectory of his responsibilities was long, its demarcation unmistakeable, and although he had sufficient memory of small desertions in the past to know that the stuff of self-interest was within him, escape from the current crisis required a crime larger than he was able to commit.’ A young woman decides that feminists can wear make-up: ‘She created herself daily, and did not want to know – or others to know, for that matter – what murky truths lay behind her finery. That by disguising these smaller truths she was merely uncovering several larger ones was clear only to those who threatened to address the defect of her superficiality; but what to them was a disorder, was to Agnes the very thing that kept chaos at bay.’ Later, she sets about ‘letting herself go. The phrase did imply a certain freedom from imprisonment, but its effects were far from captivating.’
Cusk can sustain this kind of performance more or less indefinitely, and when she limits herself to one point of view the effect is claustrophobic. Her first novel, Saving Agnes (1993), is a study of an insecure Oxford graduate who lives in North London and worries about ‘how easy it would be to sink without trace into a world of strange men and nasty magazines and squalid flats in Tooting’. In the end, Agnes realises that the only thing she needs to be saved from is her debilitating obsession with being saved. The Country Life (1997) is an excursion into rural cod-gothic along the lines of Cold Comfort Farm in which Stella, the narrator, flees London to take up a job with a posh Sussex family. Stella is fluent in Cusk-speak (‘The thing I disliked most about driving was its contingency’), and, when not having comic encounters with hedges or drooling gamekeepers, she slowly reveals that her odd behaviour and relentless self-analysis are the results of a recent nervous breakdown. She teeters ‘on the brink of an abyss of self-consciousness – a void into which I often fall’. And so does the novel, ‘surfacing from character for a swift second before plunging back into the drama’. Stella is often ‘assailed’ by a ‘strange symbolical sense of my own activities’.
In The Temporary (1995) and The Lucky Ones (2003), on the other hand, the presence of more than one tortured consciousness lets Cusk stretch her limbs as a psychological novelist. The Lucky Ones – a series of interconnected short stories revolving around marriage and children – is the least overwritten work of fiction she’s produced so far. Though highly mannered, The Temporary also turns a sharp eye for self-deception on the relationship between its two central characters. Francine Snaith – ‘the tarty temp from Tunbridge Wells’ who sets out to ensnare the hapless Ralph Loman, driven by a mixture of boredom, malice and neediness – is a fairly memorable figure. But the elevated style in which Cusk describes her low-level manoeuvres is better suited to projecting ironic distance than to conveying sympathy or ‘the clear reflection of the quotidian’. Francine’s cultural shortcomings are viewed with snobbish revulsion, as when Ralph has a sudden insight into her mind: ‘its accumulation of junk, its piles of magazines from whose covers trapped, vacant beauties stared, its reels of bad films, its numbing hours of television; all these broken, abandoned versions of reality strangling her soil, clogging her consciousness’.
In the Fold returns to the solipsistic territory of The Country Life. Michael, the narrator, is perplexed by what he calls ‘the business of human encounter’. Even a phone call home turns out to be ‘a pointless, self-referential act by which I had succeeded only in illuminating myself as an object’. And, as in The Country Life, an illustrious precursor is invoked. This time the distant model is Brideshead Revisited. As a student, Michael is entranced by his friend Adam Hanbury’s upper-middle-class family, who live in rackety splendour on a Somerset farm known as Egypt. Impressed by the sheer panache with which the Hanburys deliver such lines as ‘I need somebody to fucking fuck me!’ or ‘white wine is a non-alcoholic drink,’ he seeks out and marries a woman called Rebecca, whose parents, Rick and Ali, are similarly pseudo-bohemian types. But Michael and Rebecca’s marriage starts to fray when they have a child, Hamish, who as a baby resembles ‘a big, exuberant, bad-mannered amphibian, or a laughing, androgynous cleric’. Rebecca grows distant and New Agey; also ‘moon-faced, farouche’. When Adam invites him to Egypt to help with the lambing season, Michael accepts, taking Hamish along. Egypt is sadly changed, however, and his gradual realisation that the Hanburys are deeply bogus prompts Michael to reassess his need to belong.
The novel is both sillier and more affecting than a plot summary makes it sound. On the debit side, the writing is indescribably overblown:
At night I lay beside her and the presence of her still, coiled body was as exigent and declarative as that of a stranger on a long journey, someone dozing in a neighbouring seat; a person captured in a ceaseless act of self-manifestation, whose absence, when it comes, will be felt, in the failure to maintain a hold on even a remnant of her humanity, as a kind of death.
Rebecca’s baby-management technique is ‘by turns prim and infantile, and then, as time went on, intermittently burdened, disgusted, recondite, submissive’. ‘Given that you always claim to feel so powerless,’ Michael says to his wife, ‘I don’t see why you cleave to theories that make a virtue out of passivity.’ And so on. Why does Michael think and speak in this way? No explanation is given, and as a result it’s not easy to tell if we’re meant to see him as a neurotically unreliable narrator or to experience ‘the visceral, redeeming pain of recognition’.
Either way, Cusk’s combination of middle-class stereotypes and sharp-edged despair has an undeniable power to depress. While the characters are fuzzy, the themes come through with frightening intensity: social and intellectual snobbery, frustrated ethical impulses, emotionally devouring parents and children, failed communication. Cusk’s grammar nearly always checks out, her cluster-bomb metaphors are rarely mixed, and, even at its most extreme, her writing never degenerates into total nonsense. So it’s strange to see her choosing to write in such a wooden and inert manner. As Stella puts it in The Country Life, ‘Our mouths were moving; our words roughly conformed to the principles of verbal exchange; and yet our discourse merely mimicked conversation, in the way a mannequin does a human body.’