… he gazed at her steadily

From the library I’ve taken four books by Rachel Cusk: first the memoir, Aftermath, which I loved the brutality of; and now the trilogy of novels culminating in Kudos, which I’m reading first, out of order.

I’m excited by Cusk’s work, by her particular form of literary ambition, which is to alter and undermine the narrative expectations we bring to fiction, to do in English what Thomas Bernhard and Max Frisch and Ingeborg Bachmann long ago did in German, what Natalia Guinzberg did two generations ago in Italian and what Annie Ernaux has been doing for a long time in French–to replace story with person I suppose is the easiest way to describe it. To rely for the reading momentum not on incidents or the hope of change or plot clues strung along like hints in a treasure hunt but on the power of the human voice in describing a certain reality, a reality that might well be static or dotted with events that do not relate and lead to no coherent conclusions. There are, obviously, many other authors of the more innovative type besides those named, even authors in English. Nathanael West comes to mind; so does Evan Connell. But the post-Edwardian, lyrical-realist novel, in English far more than in the other major languages devoted to the form, hangs on like a bad cold that’s gotten into the chest and lingered.  English-speaking book buyers like such novels, they expect them; such books sell, they rarely challenge anyone unduly, and they often convert quite nicely to our preferred narrative format, film. But–the more comfortable we are with such narrative modes, the more interesting it is to see them assaulted.

Unfortunately Cusk shares a disease prevalent in British fiction, one that weakens her attack. Like a host of others, she sees nothing wrong with using the most hoary and feeble conventions of narrative gesture. Such as the one, taken from late in Kudos, that I copied over as a title for this post.

           … he gazed at her steadily. 

Why, at this late date, type this phrase? If you must tell us that someone gazed at someone else, if it means something, if it’s important, then write it to say how it matters. “He looked at her with some intent that held her eyes and unnerved her, left her uncertain whether she was seeing anger or desire or, as so often happens, the coincidence of both.” Or: “The way he looked at her, eyes full of entreaty, bored her; men had been looking at her that way since she was twelve.” Or or or… The standard version is, make no mistake, typing: it’s not creating, it’s not writing, it’s not in the least presenting a challenge to each sentence to be necessary as well as true. It’s the use of the keyboard to insert pre-cut slabs of wood into the structure to hold it aloft. The great challenge of writing prose, the most exhausting challenge in it, is to make each sentence matter. No filler. No shrugs and sighs and smiles and frowns that don’t matter in the highest and most intense meaning of that word. The phrase he gazed at her steadily is not one that needs to exist. And if it doesn’t need to exist we shouldn’t write it.

Of course we will write it anyway. Who the hell is strong enough to put in several hours per day producing sentences or trying to produce them while shutting out all the noise our junk-saturated brains throw up at us. So such phrases do slip in. But then the job is to catch that shit, as does the sieve at the water treatment plant, before it makes into the next stage of the work, or worse, as here, into the final stage, which ought be a cool and limpid glass of water, bright with necessity.

I’m going on with the Cusk–she’s that interesting, still. But such sentences, now that I’m sixty and have been at the job for a long time, usually assassinate any desire to keep reading the work before me. It’s like having to ride in an elevator with someone who’s used a deodorant concocted to smell like a days-old sweaty shirt. Why would you do that? Who would  buy such a product and use it? Only a writer, apparently.

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