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Parade by Rachel Cusk review – a brilliant and unsettling feat

Parade by Rachel Cusk review – a brilliant and unsettling feat

One of the women in Rachel Cusk’s new novel confesses to an ability to shock that is “instinctive and unconscious”. This could double as a description of Cusk herself. To be controversial is second nature to her (think of the articulate effrontery of A Life’s Work, her book about motherhood, or The Last Supper, her fascinating memoir about living in Italy, which was nonetheless pulped after someone described in it sued, or Aftermath, about the breakdown of her marriage, which led to a critical mauling in the press). And yet she continues to refuse to pull even a wisp of wool over her own – or anyone else’s – eyes. Self-consciously original, inward and undeterred, she has become ever more persistently determined to write about life precisely as she finds it, and in Parade pulls off a brilliant, stark and unsettling feat.

It was with Outline (2014) that Cusk pioneered a new approach to writing, a way of grafting fiction to autobiography with a fluency that made you wonder why more novels were not written this way. And the answer to that question can only be that she is a one-off, an acquired taste worth acquiring: no one else can do what she does in the way that she does it. Parade takes her experiment further: it pursues and deepens her lifelong interest in the relationship between art and life in a narrative sequence that also explores fraught alliances between men and women, the nature of gender and the complications involved in losing a parent. Each subject is approached with an intellectual intensity that suddenly struck me as being French in character (Cusk lives in Paris, which might have lent extra encouragement).

Her stories overlap, suggestive at times of a less amorous version of Schnitzler’s La Ronde, and she writes about several different artists who, whether male or female, are each referred to as “G” – no need for the soft furnishing of full names. We meet at the outset a male G who paints everything upside down – a playful idea about which she is in earnest (she doesn’t do jokes). She describes the wife’s reaction as she looks at G’s topsy-turvy paintings: “The feeling of everything seeming right yet being fundamentally wrong was one she powerfully recognised: it was her condition, the condition of her sex.” Looking at the portrait her husband has painted of her, she feels diminished: “She sees the spectacle of her own unrealised life.” Cusk encourages us to consider the tyranny of representation and its scope for betrayal. And what is then frustrating but, at the same time, convincing is that the wife does not voice her objections. This is because, we are given to understand, the painting is her achievement, too – through the borrowed kudos of being the famous artist’s model/wife.

Soon after this, another woman – Cusk has now switched to writing in the first person – relates: “One morning, walking along a quiet sunny street where people sat at pavement tables drinking coffee, I was attacked by a stranger who hit me forcibly in the head. My assailant was a woman, deranged by madness or addiction, and this fact of her gender caused difficulties both in the recounting of the event afterward and in my own response to it.” When the narrator comes to, she spots her attacker looking at her from a distance, “like an artist stepping back to admire her creation”. It is hard to dismiss the thought that Cusk’s writing is like this too: speak out – stand back.

She goes on to suggest that the victim has become an exhibition piece. A crowd gathers to stare at her. We are in a foreign city we assume to be Paris: the imprecision is willed. The atmosphere is unnervingly off-kilter and the city is filled with children who seem always to be crying. There is a controlled ferocity to Cusk’s take on the women she describes. She is prepared to be critical of women (including herself) as well as to champion them. She is keenly aware of how ruinously often women incline towards self-effacement and sets us to wondering about feminine capitulations and grotesque missteps. She tells us the reason why one woman is perversely drawn to her future husband: “It was his disapproval that seduced her.”

Throughout, she is interested in showing the ways in which we all – women most of all – are performing as ourselves, our homes our stages – and believes it possible that most of us continue to behave as if we were being observed even when on our own. She is interested in the pitfalls of performances and the risks of exposure and what arises most urgently is the yearning for invisibility, which she describes as the ideal state for an artist.

It is fascinating how by noting what it is Cusk dares to broach, one keeps identifying new taboos. About love’s complicated relationship to freedom: “Often we received the confusing impression that love disliked freedom and at the same time sought to impersonate it.” On death and not feeling what you are supposed to feel: “At the news of her death we felt nothing, and understood that to have felt nothing was the greatest tragedy that could have befallen us, for its effect on us could only be to reveal greater depths and breadths of non-feeling, such that it almost seemed to cancel us out.” She also outlandishly and provocatively notes in the wake of her mother’s death: “Suddenly we could not tolerate capitalism. We found its presence in our lives, of which it had insidiously made a prison, repellent. Was our mother a function of capitalism?”

Towards the end of the novel, in the section that describes the mother’s death, the prose changes as the earlier “I” is replaced by “we”. It gathers momentum in what becomes an exalted and excruciating confessional testament, an exploration of pain, entrapment and loss. While Cusk’s painter concentrates on painting the world upside down, Cusk keeps turning it inside out.

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  • Parade by Rachel Cusk is published by Faber (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com