Sunday, January 27, 2008

"Dani the girl is singing songs to me beneath the marquee...of her soul..." *

Cusk’s glory is her style, cold and hard and devastatingly specific, empathetic but not sympathetic. - Los Angeles Times

“…the twenty-first-century version of Austen or Thackeray…” – Baltimore Sun

Her prose is called stunning (Christian Science Monitor); evocative and elegant (London Times). Unerring. Masterful. Pitch-perfect.

I wangled a free review copy of Rachel Cusk’s latest novel about a group of mothers in a tony London suburb. I vaguely recalled not liking her previous outing In the Fold but figured that might just be a fluke, a plot that didn’t grab me or unsympathetic characters.

I sat down with Arlington Park Thursday evening.

The first chapter – all five pages – described a rainstorm. In minute, excruciating, painstaking detail. I felt like perhaps I had wandered into a modern-day setting of a horror film like Dracula, or perhaps a supernatural thriller of some sort - surely something dramatic and horrific was going to occur, and soon. But by the end of the chapter, I felt sorry for the poor rain – it had been tortured and twisted and corkscrewed into submission. (I suppose she gets a point or two for anthropomorphizing the rain so successfully…)

When three pages into the next chapter, a character “asseverates” something, I knew I wasn’t going much further. Why merely assert when you can asseverate? When you can use all the big words you know to let your readers know how very SMART you are. (I started making a list of these SAT words that pissed me off, but gave up halfway through chapter four.)

And why skip describing a single detail when you can pad your book with gloriously useless and irrelevant sentences like the following:

…glimpsing the armoured forms of the big, expensive cars crouched among the shadows in driveways all along the park, she had a sort of oceanic sense of malevolence, of a great, diffuse evil silently undulating all around them in the darkness. In the Milfords’ own driveway an enormous glittering Mercedes crouched on the gravel on giant, ogreish tires. Its tinted windows seemed to cast on everything their shuttered, annihilating gaze. Juliet had felt a force of pure aggression emanating from its metal surfaces..

Never mind all the indiscriminate descriptions of pointless details which a better author would know did not pertain to the story in any way, shape, or form, OR add to the atmosphere.

He liked to bathe the giant sixth-formers in the sound of the early English composers.

”I just love coming here,” Christne expostulated, surveying the brutal grandeur of the car park, where the sky still hurled down its unsteady shafts of light and the morning’s rain stood in beads on the coruscating metal of cars and made them look reborn.

(It was about here that I started feeling perhaps Cusk missed her calling as a luxury car salesman or a high-end auto mechanic.)

This particular blurb made me physically nauseated; Cusk describes the stuffed animal lovey of one of the children in the book (and by the way, every single child is completely annoying and unlovable, but you would be too if you had one of these cold automatons for a mother):
Robbie was grey and worn out with Ella’s need for him. He looked shapeless and insensate with the drudgery of love.


Cusk writes like a talented college sophomore who hasn’t learned yet that less is more, that leaving things out is ok, especially if all those details merely overwhelm your story and your character development.

She needs more than a good editor, however; she needs to be less in love with the sound of her own words, with the detailing of Every. Single. Thought. That flits across her mind.

Why do I get the feeling that she writes her first drafts with a fountain pen, in longhand, perhaps on curling sheets of foolscap stacked untidily on the corner of her writing desk? Just a guess...

Her prose is not cold or hard – although most of her characterization is – but neither is it florid or flowery. You can see and feel every gear turning, every cog sliding into place. It’s steely and mechanical and ugly - rather like a (well-constructed) Rube Goldberg contraption.


*"By the Way," Red Hot Chili Peppers


Anonymous said...

I could not finish this book for exactly the reasons you describe!

Sarah Louise said...

BB, have I told you lately that I love you? You had me cackling for your sheer annoyance for this book.

Hope all is well.



(who now, rebelliously, wants to read the book, to see if she agrees.) (I sort of like the phrase "drudgery of love.")(I AM a little crazy, but you knew that...)


Did you see that it's snowing?!

Badger said...

I have never heard of her, but I absolutely hate hate HATE books like that. HATE.

Jess said...

I hate books that read like the author is saying them out loud to herself, enjoying the sound of her own (SMAHT) voice.

(And sometimes I have to check my own writing, 'cause I can get swept away like that. But I have NEVER gone on for pages about a rainstorm.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you!

It is sitting forlornly under my night table, discarded in a fit of boredom and now I can shove it under the bed and away from its accusatory stare.

So many loved it, I felt it had to get better. Glad to hear I don't have to waste my time waiting.

Jess said...

Why is it so much more entertaining to read a bad review than a good one?

KPB said...

It's the fact that writing such as this gets published that makes me so depressed that my own words will never see the light of (published) day.

Gina said...

I have nearly stopped reading "real" book reviews unless they come from people I know/like/trust. Emperor's Children, anyone? Special Topics in Calamity Physics? Spare me.

Caterina said...

Oh my.

lazy cow said...

Don't even attempt to read her whiny, self-indulgent take on motherhood. Bleach. However, I do have a soft spot for The Country Girl.

lazy cow said...

I meant Bleuuuch, not bleach.