This book started very strong, took some questionable twists and turns, and left me feeling intellectually challenged and emotionally shortchanged.
Let’s start with this: there is no question that Cusk is brilliant. Some of her achievements from a technique standpoint are nothing short of astounding — especially in her presentation of the narrator, a cool and removed and detached presence about whom, at the end of the day, we know very little. Hers is a kind of anti-narrator who seems to elicit and absorb the stories of all those around her (quite literally, when teaching a writing seminar, but also more informally, in her social relationships and happenstance encounters with strangers) and yet who seems reluctant or unwilling or unable to share her own. After all, at the book’s end, we know she has children but know very little about them or her relationship or devotion to them, we know she is divorced but know very little of the details, and we know she is a professor but know little beyond that except what we might piece together from he seemingly fast and loose academic technique during a seminar (which is, incidentally, volubly critiqued by one of its students — but even then, we know very little about how she received that criticism). At the end of the novel, I found myself reflecting on omission, suppression, silence: what’s said versus not in a novel, and by whom. It’s hard not to transfer this conversation into a gender studies realm, though there was not quite enough meat on the bone for me to form a complete thought there, as there seem to be many wounded birds in this novel, male and female alike.
Most of the novel reads placid, almost deadpan, in its delivery, but I had a creeping sense of doom as she alighted the boat with her “neighbor” and he accelerated recklessly and without warning. When he started playing with his pocket knife!? I was certain we were in for a sudden change-in-tack and steeled myself for violence. Nothing ensued, but it seemed to me deeply implicative of the kind of sudden eruptions of violence people endure — how even in spite of a very controlled, suppressive narrator, we can occasionally be shocked by the cruelty and inhumanity of a change in events. This is echoed later when another character talks about being assaulted and then being unable to control aspects of her life in the aftermath (specifically, eating — to me, a proxy for communications of other sorts). And so again I was left thinking about voice/silence, violence/intimacy, control/abandon. These all seem to be off a cloth for her.
At times, the book felt like an academic exercise — especially in the middle bits, where she is teaching her class and we swing from random story to random story and suddenly are wondering who is saying what and it all feels a bit like Russian nesting dolls, or a house of mirrors. Here we are, reading a fictional story within a fictional story by a fictional character being described by another fictional character. It’s an elaborate and showy gesture toward the destabilization of narrative that leaves you scrambling: what is a story? what is a narrator? what is a plot line? do we care, or why do we?
These kinds of interrogations exhaust and rankle. It feels like Roland Barthes, who famously said: “The author is dead!”, all over again and ehhh. I read for intellectual stimulation but more often than not want to have my cake and eat it, too — I want to enjoy the experience as much as I want to learn from it. So, the bits that were heavy-handed in their dismantling of narrative conventions left me short-tempered.
On the whole, though, I think this was an impressive book. Fresh and different — I’ve never read anything quite like it, especially in its presentation of the narrator — and Cusk is exceptionally elegant with language (sometimes overwrought, but I tend to favor a flourish anyhow).
I would give this book a four out of five stars.
What did you think? (Claire, will be waiting with bated breath for your input in particular.)
+Currently reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. My SIL recommended it to me as “a modern Gothic” which — know I have written about a million times — is one of my absolute favorite “genres” or “modes” of writing.
+I shared this in my review post earlier this week, but I am taking a break from Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost because I think it is causing me to break out (others have reported the same reaction — sigh). I was originally going to go back to Belif’s Aquabomb BUT am instead going to try another highly-recommended French pharmacy moisturizer (thanks to many Magpies who suggested this brand!): Avene.
+Love love love this print for a pillow.
+How amazing is this black and white dress?! Mod-turned-modern.
+As I mentioned in my apartment progress update earlier this week, we’ve officially become adults: we now own house plants. I’ve been on the hunt for chic indoor planters. Why does it feel like the vast majority of them are midcentury modern?! I’m eyeing this, this, or this.
+While looking for stylish indoor planters, I did come across this outdoor planter which reminded me of the ones we had in our old Chicago house. Sad!
+Into this look with sneakers for the weekend. What I imagine a chic Frenchwoman would wear, along with a straw basket, at the farmer’s market.
+Chic neutral sweater on clearance for only $25.
+Own and love this marble-and-wood cheeseboard. Such a pretty way to display snacks — even when it’s not a cheese/meat plate! Dips with a scattering of crudite and crackers, or rows of diced fruit look just as elegant. It weighs a ton — you’ve been warned.
+DROOLING over this Loewe bag for summer.
+This mock-neck sweater jacket comes in such great colors!
+For your next ball (ha)…Cinderella redux. STUNNING.
+Chic over a swimsuit or with jeans for a boho moment.