Category: Patricia Lockwood

Rachel Cusk takes off

Patricia Lockwood for the London Review of Books
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Patricia Lockwood on Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, for the London Review of Books.

The observation that some people do not like Rachel Cusk is so omnipresent in criticism of her work that it’s surprising no one’s ever led off a review with ‘I, too, dislike her.’ These observations are generally accompanied by photos or illustrations of her in which she looks at you both directly and flinchingly, almost always with a strand of hair in the centre of her forehead, with a smile somewhat like Edna O’Brien’s – another writer who seemed to rouse hatred for her disarranged hair as much as for her books, another writer who went to convent school. This is the sort of education that can unfit you afterwards for normal conversation, that can make the suburbs seem beyond your power of understanding as you drive home past them from the locked-in place. You suspect that even from the other side of the frame she is noticing you, and people who notice are inconvenient, if not uncivilised. It would, after all, be uncomfortable to be on a ferry with Cusk as she visibly or invisibly observed that you had the ‘face of a withered Memling damsel’. That is, in the language of one of the places where Cusk grew up (LA), ‘way harsh, Tai’.

Cusk has glimpsed the central truth of modern life: that sometimes it is as sublime as Homer, a sail full of wind with the sun overhead, and sometimes it is like an Ikea where all the couples are fighting. ‘I wonder what became of the human instinct for beauty,’ she writes in The Last Supper, ‘why it vanished so abruptly and so utterly, why our race should have fallen so totally out of sympathy with the earth.’ A line like this is both overwrought and what I think myself when I look at these scenes. Why must we live in these places? Why must these be our concerns? Why do I have to know what McDonald’s is? It is a dissociate age and she is a dissociate artist. She is like nothing so much as that high little YouTube child fresh from the dentist, strapped into a car going he knows not where, further and further from his own will. Where is real life to be found? Is this it?

An anecdote: when I was a teenager a doctor prescribed me pills for anxiety, and when I stopped taking them abruptly I experienced a severe and unexpected and prolonged withdrawal. During that time I hated everything I read to a degree that I cannot reread those books now, or even think of them dispassionately. The feeling in my brain was like the one you have when you’re climbing the stairs and are expecting another step and you set your foot down so hard on nothing that reality ruptures. ‘This is my house,’ I had to say when I entered my house; ‘this is my bedroom,’ I had to say when I entered my bedroom. Reading Cusk I have that feeling all the time. When I came to the line in her memoir, Aftermath, ‘It is as though I’m expecting there to be a step down and there isn’t one,’ I was not so much surprised as relieved: she felt it too.

Outline landed with such a bang that it’s hard to believe it was published in 2014. Transit followed just two years later, written almost at the clip of reality. Now Kudos, just out from Faber, brings an end to the tremendously wilful project of these passive novels. In description nothing about them seems particularly out of the ordinary: each instalment is composed of a series of conversations – with strangers, with old friends and ex-lovers and her hairdresser, with her two sons. But as they unfold it becomes clear that they are fantasies in which the infinitesimal openings of small talk eventually drill down to the centre of the earth. What would happen if you let one of those cursory exchanges, brief or irritating or banal, either way trespassing on your solitude and peace – what would happen if you just let it go on?

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It was gold

Patricia Lockwood for the London Review of Books
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For the LRB, Patricia Lockwood returns to Joan Didion’s works alongside the new Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold (directed by Griffin Dunne), evincing the ‘pointillism’ of Didion’s style.

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To revisit Slouching towards Bethlehem and The White Album, in the paperback editions just released by 4th Estate, is to read an old up-to-the-minute relevance renewed. Inside these essays, the coming revolution feels neither terrifying nor exhilarating but familiar – if you are a reader of Joan Didion, you have been studying it all your life. Read ‘Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)’ and see if you do not recognise the man in the modern scene. ‘Actually I was interested not in the revolution but in the revolutionary.’ Where things are moving too fast she fixes a focal point. She captures the way the language becomes more memetic, more meaningless just as the ground begins to swell under the feet – as if the herd, sensing some danger, must consolidate its responses. Her adept turn to political writing in the 1980s and 1990s showed the same prescience; if you are tuned to where the language goes strange, you will anticipate the narrative they’re going to try to sell you.

She herself is now powerful, runs the criticism. There is a danger in her, and it is the same danger she suggests in ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’: that the stories first tell us what it was like, and then they tell us how to live. Like the desert, she imposes a style. ‘Our favourite people and our favourite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.’

There is something to this. Her essays take place, for many people, in some innermost hotel room. We are there as she unpacks the items on her iconic list, sets the bottle of bourbon on the desk, calls home to check the time, lies down in the dark when the aura comes. Why are we closer to her? Why do we feel, along with her, the shaking of the hand narrowing down and down to the steadiness of the pen? A peculiarity of my own: among all her books, I had not read The Year of Magical Thinking, because my own husband, whom I married very young, on whom I depend and in whom I store half of my information, has a family history of heart attacks – to be more specific, the men on his father’s side all drop dead in their homes at the age of 59. ‘As long as I don’t read it,’ I often thought to myself, and thought no further, though I kept the book on a low shelf. Whenever the swimming-pool colour of the spine caught my eye I saw a kitchen, and a telephone on the wall with a long curling cord, and my own hands not knowing what to do. ‘As long as I save it, against that day.’

This is personal, but we have seen both the deep personal and the wide diagnostic in her, it is all tied together: South and West, the fracturing 1960s, a line of ancestry across the country. The earth rucking up like a dress bought where, bought when. The wagon train and the plane rides of the sentences. Someone’s on track. The assay scales and the choosing of the words. Her grandfather a geologist, herself a seismograph, her daughter sobbing ‘Let me be in the ground.’ The cowboy and the one who strides beside him, the Broken Man, the childhood bogeyman Quintana and she so feared. These things are together in our reading. Through long investigation into fracture she has brought them together, and somehow we are there in the centre of her thinking, in the place where she is working it all out. We are told it does not hold. It holds.

Perhaps she promises that synthesis, even of a time like this, is still possible. ‘I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.’ Perhaps she offers the feeling that if you write the facts down, the facts might somehow remain standing at the end, after the end. There is a small, unobtrusive reporter in the corner. She has outlasted everything else.

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