Parade by Rachel Cusk review – cold visions of chaos

Rachel Cusk’s repeated attempts to exterminate the novel while still writing one are genuinely impressive. Ten years ago, frustrated by what she called the ridiculous act of “making up John and Jane”, she wrote Outline, followed by Transit and Kudos, a compelling trilogy in which the narrator, whose biographical circumstances seem to match Cusk’s, reveals almost nothing about her life or feelings, and instead recounts the monologues of people she encounters. In an interview in 2018, after the publication of Kudos, Cusk told the New Yorker:“I don’t think character exists any more.” She then wrote Second Place, about a detached, Cusk-like character who opens her glorious marshland home to a destructive artist. And now there’s Parade, an icy thought experiment in which an unnamed narrator, whose scant biographical details map Cusk’s, moves between nameless European cities, visiting exhibitions and thinking about artists.

The narrator’s thoughts are woven with stories about various artists, all called “G”. Among them is G, the famous painter who decides to represent the world upside down (he is surely based on the German artist Georg Baselitz). There’s G, the major artist with a wild past, now trapped unhappily in marriage and motherhood and haunted by shame; and G the film-maker, who discovers that people are often “baffled or angered” by his work: instead of the “strange authority of the camera’s prying eye”, he offers neutrality, an “absence of what might be called leadership”. The narrator, meanwhile, reveals almost nothing about herself. This artistic absence of “leadership” is central to Parade.

The novel is divided into four parts (The Stuntman, The Midwife, The Diver, The Spy), each of which examines the complexities of artistic identity. There are mini-essays on the relationship between art and subjectivity, art and madness, dreams, terror, violence, the female body, marital politics, mother-child entanglements. Sections have appeared in print elsewhere: a version of The Stuntman was a 2023 New Yorker essay; an iteration of The Spy appeared last year in Harper’s Magazine. There is a definite feeling that the novel has been stitched together from vignettes, stories, articles and musings.

Early on, the narrator is violently knocked on the head by a stranger as she walks down a city street (Cusk has previously written about this happening to her in Paris, where she now lives). The female assailant flees, pausing briefly to observe the pain and confusion she has created. The notion of the artist as an observer runs through Parade: the artist is a spy, hidden, invisible, effaced. The act of observation isn’t straightforward, though – nothing is with Cusk. The watcher/artists perceive the world upside down, at an angle, or partially, through windows or lenses. And the world itself is off-kilter: midwives are murderers, the child contains the mother, the storyteller offers not clarity, but confusion.

Intellectually, these thoughts can be exhilarating. Instead of plot or character development, Cusk offers a gimlet-eyed analysis of what it is to be the creator of a world in which nobody really exists, not even the creator. Novelists who question the point of novel-writing are hardly new, of course (“It’s a bad habit, writing novels,” Virginia Woolf once wrote, “it falsifies life”). What’s odd is that, as with the Outline Trilogy and Second Place, this Cuskian narrator’s voice – cold, detached, judgmental, excoriating – emerges as a dominant and distinctive energy, an individual. Has Cusk’s attempt to expose “character” as an artificial construct – both on the page and in real life – failed because this voice feels so distinct? Or is Parade an acknowledgment that no matter how hard a novelist works to redefine the act of putting words on the page, those words will inevitably cohere into a shape that we, the ignorant, grasping reader, will insist on identifying as “character”?

There is no way to know because Cusk withholds cohesion. She makes no concessions to the reader’s desire for clarity, or to the limits of our knowledge. Some thoughts feel true, a few are even funny (the narrator looks back on mothering “in a fatigued kind of amazement, like a retired general recalling past battles”). Others are puzzling and convoluted. This can be anxiety-inducing, but also infuriating. Occasionally, I wondered if a passage of tangled thinking was flawed, or perhaps even meaningless. Or was it simply a sign that I’d reached the limits of my knowledge – of art, obscure film, European literature, French philosophy? Destabilising the reader is, of course, the whole point: we are the dimwit victims, Cusk the clever assailant.

In the last section, the narrative “I” multiplies to “we”, in vigil at their mother’s deathbed. This “we” could be a mad and fractured self, it could be inclusive, universal – it could be both. The narrator notes that people expect “a storyteller to demonstrate his mastery and control by resolving the confusion and ambiguity of reality, not deepening it”. This deepening of chaos is Cusk’s artistic project here, and she delivers it coldly. No doubt she’s pausing now to observe our pain.

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Parade by Rachel Cusk is published by Faber (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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