In Parade, Rachel Cusk Turns a Harsh Eye to the Art World

Throughout her career, Rachel Cusk has been a forensic chronicler of her own middle-class neuroses. Parade, her latest novel, transmutes the brutal self-examination that she perfected in her memoirs into fiction.

Canadian writer Rachel Cusk in Paris on November 7, 2022. (Stenphane de Sakutin / AFP via Getty Images)

With the publication of each of the books that would make up Rachel Cusk’s loose trilogy of memoirs — A Life’s Work, The Last Supper, and Aftermath — she was greeted with a flurry of outrage and condemnation. Critics charged her with being both middle class and a narcissist — qualities so close to universal for writers that it’s confusing why they even merited mentioning. The novelist Jane Smiley said of Aftermath that Cusk’s account of her divorce from the father of her children “reads like a tantrum — an erudite and eloquent tantrum, but a tantrum nonetheless.”

In that book, Cusk complained of having to offer financial support to her husband, who’d abandoned his career to raise their kids, and maintained that she was entitled to sole custody. She resented having to be both the man and woman in her relationship, later wondering if what she ultimately wanted was “male authority.” Aftermath is angry and unreasonable, contradictory but also one-sided. In other words, she captures her own subjectivity — a literary feat so difficult to pull off it might only be possible because of Cusk’s lack of self-awareness. “I perceived in the sentimentality and narcissism of motherhood a threat to the objectivity that as a writer I valued so highly,” she said soon after completing Aftermath.

A Life’s Work, Cusk’s account of early motherhood after the birth of her second daughter, was similarly controversial. In a lengthy Guardian article, the author responded point by point to her critics — the wave of harsh reactions to her work had clearly irked her. One charged Cusk with damaging the reputation of motherhood and lambasted her for “confining [her daughter] to the kitchen like an animal.” Cusk herself seemed undecided about how austere the whole experience was. At points she described the country home in which she and her daughter were “confined” as both bucolic and serene only to go on to write, without skipping a beat, that “adversity” was the central experience she sought to capture. The adversity in question was having to move between an attic and a local vestry to find writing space. It is true that daily life, even in its most suburban form, is full of mundane hardship and suffering, and Cusk pins these down with razor-sharp precision, precisely because she is so completely un-self-aware of her circumstances.

But despite her own self-confidence, the response to the trilogy seems to have shaken Cusk profoundly. The backlash made her feel that “fiction was fake and embarrassing.”

Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous. Yet my mode of autobiography had come to an end. I could not do it without being misunderstood and making people angry.

The critics demanded of Cusk that she turn away from the kind of introspection that was her strength — a near impossible ask for an author who is their own best subject. She followed up her trilogy of memoirs with a trilogy of fiction. The Outline series, published between 2014 and 2018, which have made Cusk a household name, marked a shift into the cerebral “philosophical fiction” for which she is now known (her debut, Saving Agnes, which won the Whitbread first novel prize in 1993, is a Bridget Jones–esque account of post-Oxford life in London with a Roman Catholic protagonist called Agnes Day). The Outline trilogy also announced her arrival as part of an innovative tradition within the English canon, for eliminating the narrator and, mostly, plot; the story unfurls through long conversations with strangers, friends, and family, recounted by the protagonist, Faye.

These novels are often praised for having killed the narrator, but in truth they construct a neat universe in which Faye is “judge and jury,” as the critic Patricia Lockwood put it in the London Review of Books. Despite remaining in the background, Faye is the arbiter of right and wrong, right being the way she sees the world and wrong being those who run afoul of her moral and aesthetic tastes. The novels’ style — recounting long conversations with others without commentary but filtered through the narrator’s consciousness — is the perfect vehicle for this: even when Cusk is writing about others, she is still writing about herself.

Split into four chapters of almost exactly the same length, her latest novel, Parade, begins on ground well-trodden in the Cusk universe. Her subjects are bourgeois writers and artists, all named “G,” and she is concerned, once again, with what she perceives to be the inherent violence between men and women. The stories of the artists have the effect of spreading the novel’s narration across characters — though all of these characters feel like they could be versions of Cusk. Central to the parallel stories that make up Parade is the idea that there are different forms of creative self-expression available to men and women — a possibility that troubles and animates Cusk’s writing.

In the second half of the novel, a Louise Bourgeois–inspired artist’s retrospective is overshadowed by a man who commits suicide in the gallery: the act of male self-destruction overshadowing a woman’s life’s work. What concerns Cusk isn’t necessarily new, and her musings on gender sit on the unfashionable side of identity discourse. But Cusk’s forensic attention elevates the genteel middle-class squabbles that have become an obsession for her into something timeless, like an academic who’s devoted their whole life to a single subject.

Parade also achieves what the Outline series could not: the narrator here is truly absent, other than when she is talking about herself. In those moments, the animus of Cusk’s autobiographical writing carries over to her fiction in a way it hadn’t in previous novels — she shows us exactly how she sees herself: as the gravitational force at the center of her environment. The action reaches its climax when the narrator is violently attacked in the street. She is hit on the head by a disturbed stranger — another woman. Instead of producing a reaction — screaming, cursing, trying to hit back — she attempts to observe herself from the outside. The motivations of her attacker do not interest her; the episode is interesting because through it, she has been transformed into an art object. “She [the attacker] had stopped on the street corner and turned around, like an artist admiring her creation.”

In the wake of the attack, she fantasizes about the woman — who she begins to call, hilariously, her assassin — obsessively but is only able to engage with her as a version of herself, her “dark twin.” The whole episode unleashes a desire for violence in her, and looking in herself for a comparable experience, she is reminded of the animal state of childbirth. “Why did it make sense for a woman to hit me?” she wonders, before concluding that “it was as though a violence underlying female identity had risen up and struck.” That it might have been something else, a fundamental difference between the two women that cannot be explained according to her own logic, does not occur to her.

In the final chapter of Parade, the narrator returns, and recounts the story of her mother’s death. She does not flatter her mother or herself. “She had many pregnancies and had steadily become debilitated by excess weight and sedentary habits,” she says. The narrator’s mother was, we learn, a compulsive liar about her own life and a stifling presence on her children. “For a while afterwards,” she says of her funeral, “there was a feeling of lightness, a feeling almost of freedom.” Describing her mother’s death is the closest the narrator gets to the act of violence that fascinates her in her attacker. In these passages Cusk has shown that she has been able to tie together the loose ends of her earlier work, transmuting the brutal self-examination that she perfected in her memoirs into fiction.