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Rachel Cusks Parade investigates the lives of artists

Rachel Cusks Parade investigates the lives of artists
Rachel Cusks Parade investigates the lives of artists

 


New novel by Rachel Cusks, Parade, is an experience that brings the theme to the forefront, hitting its notes on gender, artistic creation, motherhood, freedom, death with force. Like a musical composition with a recurring melody, it features a number of visual artists from different times and places, men and women, all named G., and anonymous narrators (us and me) who go to museum exhibitions, are attacked in the street, and cry, or mourn their lack of grief, when their mother dies.

The first G. is a painter who turns his canvases upside down and, in doing so, accidentally exposes something essential, his wife thinks, about the experience of femininity. Cusks' characters often struggle with or feel imprisoned by gender binaries so exaggerated, even atrophied, that they become a kind of camp. In Parade, the women seethe with private domestic anger, or they agonize over the non-existence that necessarily underlies female art, which demands, in the absence of an inviolable self, the body of the artist. Yet this inviolable self turns out to be a fantasy that men too must pursue. The last G. is a writer turned filmmaker who dreams of being nothing more than a recording eye. Why was it impossible to create without identity? he asks himself, and the very form of Parade, with its many Gs, is an answer to this question.

Like Cusks' latest novel, Second Place, Parade is an investigation into the lives of artists. However, the way using art is something of a feint. Many passages analyze fictional works of art or assert what they mean, but these assertions are not overly grounded in description or attention to the material, in which art looks as. One of the things that interests me about G's work, a character says, is that she treats both sexes as condemned by gender, as almost interchangeable in that sense, so that a third sex emerges in which man and woman merge into each other. other and become neutral.

Such a dynamic is familiar to Cusk's readers, who may recall her assertion, in her memoir Aftermath, that she and her ex-husband had each become half man and half woman. But the idea doesn't help the reader see the work of art in their mind's eye or understand how a work of art might mean these ideas. It's not because Cusk doesn't have the ability to describe. (Soon afterward, the narrator notices that the dull black sky was mottled like a greenish blue of light.) This is because in Parade, art is primarily a vehicle or support for ideas that Cusk already has elaborated. The novel does not give the impression of discovering these ideas along the way but of demonstrating them, even exhibiting them.

Cusk has been widely celebrated for her Outline trilogy, which abandoned the wrought iron architecture of her early work for a narrator who listens to others speak. These three novels are elegant reductions that revolve around ideas, but do not remove character or story. These are feats of both, and the occasional presence in Parade of an intrinsically interesting situation or event, around which the characters gather as if by a fire, reminds us of what we're missing. What is most remarkable about the book are the moments where Cusk's use of figurative language cuts through the thicket of ideas and abstraction. From a capitulation of the Gs to the norms of marriage: from the second or third meeting with her husband, she was ready to go out, like the suspect stuck in a film, with her hands in the air. When a man looks at his dying mother: he walked around her face as if it were a government building finally open to the public. Only a master of literary technique can allow himself to strip the characters down to their bare and indelible gestures, engraved with a needle and bathed in acid, like etchings.

Much of Parade philosophizes about the difficulty of making art as a woman and mother, and the impossibility of ever freeing oneself from one's parents. If motherhood is a trap for the female artist, perhaps it is a necessary compromise, as Cusk has argued elsewhere, for its power to impose limits and the opportunity it offers to work against them , childhood is a trap for everyone. A G., a painter, leaves the house but continues to call her parents to receive their discouragement and insults; she has so confused shame and love that she marries a man who controls and denigrates her. Like a dog stealthily returning to a cruel master, she responded to the call of her disgust.

Mothers who eat their young have stalked Cusk's work since her first novel, Saving Agnes, in 1993, where the theme was delivered most forcefully not in the form of the protagonist's real-life mother, callous but ambivalently redeemed , but under the image of a rabbit which consumes its hairless young shortly after giving birth. (She seemed to get bigger the longer they watched. She ate a third baby and a fourth. Her eyes grew dreamy.) Like that hungry leporid, the mothers in Parade gorge themselves on deceptions and inventions. The adult children of one such mother remember that she preferred them when they were little, before our will and character began to get in the way of her will and character. She once said that her favorite thing was being pregnant. Pregnancy was a kind of reverse fatherhood, where work began after publication and the suspension of disbelief occurred before the story began. Death does not lose its power and does not lead to separation; for Cusk, so sensitive to power relations, one is either subsumed or subsuming. After her death, the children experience a disconcerting integration, realizing that she was in us, as once we were in her.

Parade, too, penetrates inside the reader, despite or because of Cusk's refusal of the usual contracts between the (female) writer and the reader. He does not flirt, titillate, entertain or amuse; it is not maternal; he neither cares nor consoles him; and this certainly does not sympathize. Part of this feels like arguing with someone who is nowhere on the page. But midway through the novel, some encounter the detritus of a real parade, which left a snow of trash and broken glass in the streets. In the dark hours following the parade, a museum director reflects on the disruptions in reality that seem linked to the power of disruption in G's work. The work of the brosmes also has this power to disturb, to destabilize, to subtly reorganize the space of the mind.

Christine Smallwood is a contributing writer to Book World and the author of the novel The Life of the Mind.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 198 pages. $27

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