Has Rachel Cusk gone too far?

One of Cusk's many 'G' characters was based on Louise Bourgeois, whose sculpture Spider is pictured
One of Cusk's many 'G' characters was based on Louise Bourgeois, whose sculpture Spider is pictured - Edouard Fraipont

Speaking earlier this year at a literary event in Paris – her home since 2021 – Rachel Cusk recalled how, when she was 11 or 12 years old, the diary she was keeping was discovered by her mother, who read it, then burned it. The incident only opened Rachel’s eyes to the power of writing. “I thought there must be something in it,” Cusk recalled. “I guess it’s always what I thought my duty was, as a writer – to produce those burnable texts.”

Maybe that’s why, although she began publishing novels in 1993, Cusk was long known chiefly as an unsparing memoirist, first of child-rearing (A Life’s Work, 2001), then of divorce (Aftermath, 2012). That changed with her eighth book, Outline (2014), in which a Cusk-like author, seen only in silhouette, who has gone to Athens to run a writing workshop, listens in near-silence to people talking to her about art, gender and selfhood. Coolly analytical, decluttered of plot and scene-setting, it inverted the then-hot genre of autofiction – Cusk was an early admirer of Karl Ove Knausgaard – by keeping the protagonist out of the picture. (The retreat gave critics of Aftermath, of which there’d been many, the silence they’d seemed to want.)

Together with Transit (2016) and Kudos (2018), which completed a trilogy, Outline transformed Cusk’s reputation, not least in America, where – having previously made little mark with her satires of middle-class Englishness – she inspired a flourishing vein of novels in which barely-there narrators, their emotions visible only between the lines, waft through European cities and engage in philosophically fraught reflection (see Jhumpa Lahiri, Katie Kitamura, Ayşegül Savaş).

But to judge from what Cusk has since published, the trilogy’s success only gave her a taste for even bolder experiment. After dragging a 1932 memoir of DH Lawrence into the Covid era – Second Place (2021), a novel even stranger than it sounds – she recently told the critic Merve Emre of her desire, fed by the experience of reading fiction in French, to make time “go very, very, very slowly in a book”. Whatever else she does in her perplexing new novel, she has certainly done that.

Parade comprises four discrete segments. Three of these splice potted narratives about artists – all of whom are known only as “G” – with first-person testimony from a shadowy “we”. This latter, who aren’t always the same “we” either, variously are evicted from a flat, holiday at a farm, dine with the staff of a museum, and gather at the deathbed of their domineering matriarch. Along the way, there’s plenty of highly-charged chat about sex and creativity, with no shortage of sinister moments, as when one G dreams that her husband – “a composite of all the men she had known” –  is raping their daughters.

Cusk now lives in Paris, and engages intensely with French fiction
Cusk now lives in Paris, and engages intensely with French fiction - Moment RF

When parts of what would become Parade were first published in American magazines, Cusk named the various “G”-s, from spider-sculptor Louise Bourgeois to upside-down painter Georg Baselitz, or gave them different initials. But her ruthless excision of place-names and detail – even a reference to the “paintings of Edward Hopper” has become merely “paintings” – strips us of any bearings. As Cusk yo-yos between Gs and “we”, her slippery sentences afford little foothold: “We had envisioned a life here in this city and then we had gone about trying to make the vision real, and in that process the role of imagination appeared especially ambiguous, appeared to have exposed something we hadn’t known about our relationship to reality itself.”

The result is a puzzle of an anti-novel, mixing austerity with florid rhetoric. A mountain’s “glinting rectilinear faces” are said to be “diabolical”; the random street attacker who assaults one of the book’s speakers is an “assassin”. One page pithily informs us that “the ageing bourgeois couple trapped unto death in their godless and voluntary bondage is the pedestrian offspring of history” before proceeding to describe a city full of crying children: “In the park, in the supermarket, on the buses and trains, their sounds of lamentation fill their air, like those of seers who have glimpsed some unspeakable horror about to befall us.” When someone welcomes the arrival of their food order at a restaurant while deep in conversation – “Even the most thrilling dialectics on feminism and art... can’t hold me when I’m hungry” – it counts as a joke.

Parade isn’t otherwise playing for laughs. When someone leaps from a balcony, an incident loosely knitting two of the novel’s segments, their corpse is taken away under a tarpaulin: “Carried like that, the man seemed to have attained a shocking freedom. He had become a shape, already abstracted by the stiff blue shroud that wrapped him.” At one point, a family playing on some grass blurs disturbingly in someone’s vision to “just a patch of colour and texture... the burden of their humanity extinguished”.

Is it hyperbolic to see this as a type of death wish? Parade isn’t a burnable text so much as a self-immolating one, Cusk’s most audacious experiment yet in starving a novel of its usual sources of life. Easy reading it isn’t, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t intrigue – thrills, even – in its relentless stress-testing of the form’s elasticity. Maybe Cusk’s interest in visual art left her frustrated with the presumption that prose ought to be transparently communicative; when someone wonders of one “G” whether his painterly abstraction is “a mechanism of escape”, you hear the rare jangle of a key being handed to the reader.

Parade is published by Faber & Faber
Parade is published by Faber & Faber - Rii Schroer for DT

In a 2015 New York Times essay discussing her adaptation of Medea, staged at London’s Almeida Theatre that year, Cusk wondered whether the play’s climactic bloodshed might leave its cast “liberated [from their] familial identities... reborn as individuals, as their true selves”. She has two daughters herself, and once answered a question about her writing routine from the Danish journalist Tonny Vorm by saying “I’m a woman... my time has not been my own”. Still, Parade suggests that her notion of a self free of obligation, which is a fantasy that has bubbled under her glacial prose since A Life’s Work, has less to do with the demands of mothering than those of being mothered. In that same 2015 essay, Cusk said her own mother gave her “a tense, interior fear that expressed itself in extreme self-criticism and doubt, as though she lived inside me and could see everything that went on there”.

Given her record as an autobiographical writer, she must know it won’t seem coincidental to her readers that the “we” of Parade’s final part – a section first published more or less identically in Harper’s magazine, albeit an essay – remarks of their dying mother that “nothing we did wrong [in childhood] could be forgotten, and so as we grew older we felt more and more uncomfortably weighed down by our characters, which seemed to have been imposed on us.” Stronger than anything else in the book, these deathbed passages – damningly ambivalent about parental loss – sharpen the psychological stakes of Cusk’s embrace of opacity. They’re intercut with an account of the book’s final G, a novelist who switches to film, a medium that lets him stay out of the picture: “A novel was a voice, and a voice had to belong to someone... He remembered how exposed he had felt as a child, as his mother steadily built a panorama of cause and effect around him. He was publicly identified with everything he did and said, as well as with what he did not do or say. Writing seemed a drastic enlargement of this predicament.”

Parade, even more than the Outline trilogy and Second Place, is a disappearing act, an attempt to shed voice, to evade being pinned down. By the end, it’s impossible to deny the emotional logic: this novel, not answerable in any sense of the word, is a kind of prison-break from the confines of legibility. I don’t doubt its necessity for Cusk; but as a reading experience, it smacks less of liberation than limbo.

Parade is published by Faber & Faber at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books