Fascinating only in the sense that this was a great example of a fiction writer I admire wholeheartedly whose non-fiction prose shuddered me to sleep. Her lovely writing style is on display here but it simply doesn’t work with her personal tales of family, art or book criticism. I thought surely I would love the first essay, Driving as Metaphor, about the traffic that builds up and clogs her tiny village by the sea, how cars are completely irrational and ruining the world, but I had to force myself to keep turning the page. None of the following essays redeemed her.
The magical world of Rachel Cusk continues to buoy and delight. Her writing seems effortlessly beautiful, putting description and philosophy and questions about modern life and poetry into the mouths of the characters that buzz around the main narrator, an author traveling to a literary festival where she speaks, meets her publisher, meets her translator, meets sundry other authors, has “interviews” with people who end up gabbing their time away in lieu of asking her questions. She gets away with covering a lot of territory without much action, like the TV journalist’s feminist rant during sound check, “there was nothing worse than to be an average white male of average talents and intelligence: even the most oppressed housewife is closer to the drama and poetry of life than he is…” This interviewer goes on to mention her thesis on British artist Joan Eardley who I’d never heard of, another forgotten woman to wrest from the ashes of history. There was another bit where the narrator is talking about “a feeling of homesickness even when you are at home… a sorrow that has no cause,” which reminded me of something in Lost Connections that I need to go look up. Something else that resonated with me was the discussion of the renovation of an older European city previously neglected but now new shops and restaurants pouring in, only they were “the same shops you saw in town centres around the world and the bars and cafes were touristic versions of themselves in the same inevitable way as everywhere else, and so this regeneration begins to look a little like a mask of death. Europe is dying and because every separate part is being replaced as it dies it becomes harder and harder to tell what is fake and what is real, so that we might not realise until the whole thing has gone.”
As much as I like Rachel Cusk’s writing, her earlier work is not as good. This was her third novel, a bizarre tale of a woman fleeing her week-old marriage by taking a job as an au pair in the country, leaving her entire life behind. She quickly gets sunburned, falls down stairs, nearly gets heatstroke, almost dies of hunger from not being fed properly, drinks large quantities of wine and gin. All the markings of a proper country tale, indeed. Her name is given as Stella Benson, which is odd, and then later she discovers a book by the real Stella Benson in the cottage she’s living in. Attempts at creating some sort of mystery about the farm she’s on arrive in furtive bursts, pamphlets pushed under her door, whispers at the post office (by something called the Creature that daubs her sunburn and fixes her bruises). It may have all been a clever joke that I missed the point of. The writing shines briefly and patchily, but I suppose it’s a comfort that even the best writers had to have their years of practice and mediocre books.
If I could, I would burrow deep into a Rachel Cusk book and never come out, completely escaping the world forever. Her writing continues to stun, mesmerize, delight. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is, or to draw attention to one specific example or phrase. It’s more the feeling that as you’re reading, her words wash over you with the peacefulness of waves calmly lapping you with warm soothing water. Her characters get into lengthy complicated dialogues that don’t seem such; the lack of “quotes” helps make the conversation seem deeper without jarring your ear with fragments of talk.
For just a sip, here’s the narrator interposing a question after pages of intense reveal from a woman she just met at a mutual friend’s house: “I asked her whether she still had the feeling of unreality, and why she thought it had come in the first place… ‘I like it that you ask these questions,’ she said. ‘But I don’t understand why you want to know.’ ”
The story involves a woman with two children newly free from her marriage, moving to London where she’s able to buy a bad house in a good neighborhood and then sink tons of money into repairs. Her downstairs neighbors are nicknamed trolls by her sons, an evil-spewing older couple who bang incessantly on the floor with their broom, tell neighbors outrageous lies about her, and cook abominably stinky food that reeks through the floor. The narrator is a writer, runs into her ex-boyfriend taking his daughter to school, goes on a jaunt to read her work, teaches creative writing and counsels a student named Jane about not spending her time writing about the painter Marsden Hartley. She meets a man, she visits friends in a fog-enshrouded country home. It’s all quite magical.
My previous exposure to Cusk was in Outline, wherein I describe being “pummeled” by her work. Now ready to read anything and everything by her.
I’m considering a month of only reading books that are shortlisted for prizes, especially after getting delightfully pummeled by Rachel Cusk’s work last night. Outline is on the shortlist for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize out of Canada, along with the always amazing Heather O’Neill. This novel is a series of conversations held with the narrator, a newly-divorced London mother of two who travels to Athens for a week to give writing instruction. She chats with her plane seat-mate who details his regrets and failed marriages (later confessing to a third failed marriage while they are tooling around in his boat), a fellow writing instructor–Ryan–who simply blathers one-sidedly, meet-ups with various friends she knows in Athens, and the woman who’s come to stay in the apartment the narrator is also staying in. Fabulous writing and intriguing structure.