Review: Rachel Cusk’s Parade: a daring work of experimentation that strikes out against conformity

Scarlett Baron
Scarlett Baron

Dr Scarlett Baron (UCL English) described Parade, Rachel Cusk’s latest experimental novel, as "daring and difficult book" in The Conversation.

Rachel Cusk is an author some British reviewers love to hate. Take her new book for example, one reviewer at  the Times  derided the author as "one of our truly world-class misérables", trivialising and reviling what she calls "a plotless, introspective book about how hard it is to be Rachel Cusk".

Leaving aside the conflation of the author with her many different and notably self-effacing narrators, the reviewer’s impatience betrays a demand for ideological and formal conformity. Why, she implies, can’t Cusk just write happily about the things - marriage, children - women should be happy about?

Parade is a searching book written against conformity. It is an exploration of the role of gender in the genesis and reception of art - a novel in which selfhood, creativity and family relations are submitted to unflinching analytical scrutiny.

Cusk’s examination of these subjects is conducted through a kaleidoscope of narratives, told from different points of view, in which the same themes crystallise and dissolve again and again.

The book’s four chapters focus on the lives of artists, each of whom is referred to as "G". "The Stuntman" tells the story of an artist who, "perhaps because he could find no other way to make sense of his time and place in history, began to paint upside down". "The Midwife" tells the story of an artist who paints "horrible, pornographical and gleeful" works as a visceral response to her parents’ disapproval and neglect.

"The Diver" assembles a cast of academics and art professionals around a restaurant table. Together they discuss a major exhibition of this chapter’s G, which has been cancelled, after a man jumped to his death from the museum. "The Spy" tells the story of a writer turned filmmaker who, working under cover of a pseudonym, discovers that cinema will allow him "to see without being seen: for [him] there was no better definition of the artist’s vocation".

The third-person chronicles of these artists’ lives are interwoven with strands of first-person narration - occasionally the first-person singular but, with increasing prominence, the first-person plural. "The Stuntman", for example, interlaces the story of its G’s inverted painting with a first-person description of an assault suffered by an unnamed female narrator.

"The Midwife", likewise, interlaces the unfurling of its G’s career with an account of trips taken by an unspecified "we" to a strange farm in a foreign country. In the final chapter, the narrating "we" reasserts itself, its numerous repetitions lending a mesmerising, almost incantatory rhythm to its tortured meditations on the life and death of an unloving mother.

In the novel’s closing pages, the abstraction of "we" gradually expands to encompass all the various artists and narrators encountered in previous chapters - the evocative roominess of "we" ultimately broadening to include all’humanity. The daring of such stylisation, and such implied universalism, recalls the "we"s which throng the soliloquies of Virginia Woolf’s characters in  The Waves , her modernist masterpiece.

These shifting pronouns, along with the book’s changes of location and biographical focus, constitute a key aspect of its challenge to standard modes of interpretation. The effect of Cusk’s artful construction, with its enigmatic symmetries and juxtapositions, is to sharpen the reader’s awareness of the many different perspectives the book assumes and explores.

The obliqueness of the stories’ relation to each other echoes the disjunctiveness prized by the modernists, and their use of structural tension (between, say, the five parts of The Waste Land or the 18 episodes of Ulysses) to engage the reader in the work of interpretation. It is for us to provide the coherence that the fragmented book itself withholds.

Parade’s name and chapter titles contribute to the mystery surrounding its meaning, and recall the conceptual one-word titles of her  Outline trilogy  (Outline, Transit, Kudos), written between 2014 and 2018, which marked a new phase in Cusk’s experimentalism. Each seems suggestively suspended between the literal and metaphorical, its surface simplicity accruing darker shades of irony as the novel unfolds.

Even more obviously riddling is Cusk’s choice to anonymise the artists in her parade. In an earlier version of " The Stuntman " published in the New Yorker in 2023, the artist Louise Bourgeois, writer Norman Lewis and painter Paula Moderson-Becker appeared by name. In  interviews , Cusk has named painter Georg Baselitz and film director Éric Rohmer, in  an interview  I conducted with her, as two of her other models for the figures in this book.

In Parade, however, all such identifiers are erased. There is something dream-like and allegorically resonant about this masking of identity, this cryptic condensation of ostensibly distinct human personalities into a single character - "G".

The nature of the self has long been a preoccupation for Cusk. In Parade, the artistic self takes centre stage as she ponders what  Freud called  "the riddle of the miraculous gift that makes an artist". On the one hand, the book seems to tease us with the notion that correctly naming one of Cusk’s "G"s might elucidate the work’s tantalising opacities. Who are these artists? Where among them is Cusk? Who is the narrating "I"- Who the narrating "we"

On the other hand, the author’s narrative strategies seem to bring the reality of identity into question. How else to explain the striking similarities between the life stories of her chosen artists? In this parade, in which power, violence, loss and corruption emerge as leitmotifs, how different, really, is one from another?

In its themes and forms, Parade is a daring and difficult book, one in which Cusk embraces abstraction, pursuing formal innovations which she knows risk alienating readers on a quest for less demanding narratives. Yet the challenges of Parade appear to be a matter of principle.

In the opening chapter, the first-person narrator ponders "the virtues of difficulty", observing "how far people have been prepared to run the risk of not being understood". This is a risk which Cusk, in this taut, haunting, exalting book, shows herself willing to take.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on 12 June 2024.

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