Rachel Cusk – Domestic Disturbance

Interview with the prize-winning novelist from Sunday Business Post 20/09. Cusk’s new book, Bradshaw Variations is out now and well worth a read.

Carl Jung never defined an archetype of the domestic goddess, but then again the Swiss psychoanalyst never spent an afternoon in the company of Rachel Cusk. Still stunningly attractive at 42, the bronzed Canadian-born mother of two marries a catwalk model’s figure and poise with the sharp intellect and caustic wit of a prize-winning novelist. Nigella Lawson she most certainly is not.

rachelcusk1It is late afternoon when we meet in her small, stuffy hotel in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, not far from Charlotte Square, where, the following morning, Cusk will read at the city’s prestigious book festival. She has come north to publicise her latest novel, The Bradshaw Variations, a slight but engaging account of a year in the life of three brothers and their respective families.

If the train journey from Brighton has tired her out it doesn’t show. She is alert and loquacious, talking about everything from the rather hideous brown leather sofa she perches on – ‘It’s like someone’s sitting room, isn’t it?’ – to why, after seven novels, she is still writing about the minutiae of ostensibly humdrum everyday life.

‘It is seen as a political choice to write about domesticity but really it isn’t. I just refuse to make things up. I don’t write about drug addicts or people that are underprivileged because that is a kind of life I know nothing about. My material is what is around me at a given time, and that is what I have to use.’

Cusk’s prickly defensiveness is understandable. This is one domestic goddess unafraid to speak her mind about affairs of the heart, or the home. Until A Life’s Work – a dark, unsettling account of impending motherhood written around the time of the birth of her first child – was published she was a moderately successful, well-respected literary writer. After, she became the scourge of Middle England, particularly its female half.

‘I was completely harangued by these women journalists who were all trying to shut me up, suggesting that I was some sort of evil, child-hating mother,’ she says, nervously running spindly fingers through her long, dark, shiny hair.

Cusk is not alone in writing less than enthusiastically about motherhood and child-rearing – recently Ayelet Waldman, novelist and wife of Michael Chabon, stoked controversy in the US by expressing similar opinions – but why do these views provoke such opprobrium?

‘The very same people who got so angry at me for saying these apparently dreadful things about having babies and looking after babies, my guess is that they were really much angrier than me about it. That they hated it more than me. That this taboo emanated from their own worst fears about themselves: that they would not be able to conceal their profound ambivalence about the whole thing.

‘I think the fear is that if anybody started giving these women encouragement who knows what they might do? Chop off their children’s heads, murder their husbands, run away from it all,’ she smiles winsomely.

She is adamant that the reaction to A Life’s Work ‘didn’t change my writing’, but it is hard not to see 2006’s Orange-prize shortlisted Arlington Park as something of a rejoinder to her detractors. In a vision of suburbia that owes more to John Updike than JG Ballard, the novel follows the lives of five young women in a leafy ‘burb over the course of one rainy day: all are married, all are well off, and all are crushingly frustrated.

For Cusk, art alone offers a viable route out of this insidious, middle-class ennui. ‘I think of art as the home of certain things that are indispensible to life and if you never find them, if you never meet them, then that is a sad life to have lived,’ she says. The Bradshaw Variations is peppered with characters searching, but rarely finding, creativity in their lives. As such, the novel is less a story in the traditional sense and more a protracted, thought provoking, character-driven interrogation of what it means to live well.

The question of what constitutes a good life (or a bad one) has clearly vexed the writer throughout her adult life, so much so that at times our conversation feels a little like Greek Philosophy 101. She is most comfortable speaking in a veiled language of Platonic abstractions; nouns like ‘form’ and structure’ recur endlessly, especially when she talks about middle-age, a time of life she shares with her new novel’s central characters, Thomas Bradshaw and his wife Tonie.

‘The real difficulty and beauty of middle-age is that you are trapped in a form, and that form is your family. The parameters of that form are very fixed, and you can’t go outside them because it you do you have violated family life and you have ruined it. So you have to express yourself within this confined structure if you want your life to be beautiful.’

For a writer renowned for compassionate, often painstaking renderings of domestic life, when it comes to discussing her private affairs Cusk is remarkably reticent. I know from my research that she is married to photographer Adrian Clarke (her second husband), with whom she has two daughters, but my questions reveal almost nothing concrete about her family – except, that is, for her parents.

She grew up in LA, she tells me, where her father was an accountant – ‘Have you seen the Godfather? I reckon that is quite close to what it was like to be an accountant in LA in 1972.’ At the age of 8 her English parents, ‘Catholic, stuffily brought up people who went to California to let their hair down but found it frightening’, decided to move Cusk and her three siblings to rural Sussex. ‘They had this idea of England as an idyllic place,’ she says, staring off into the middle distance as if to emphasise an unbridgeable detachment from her past.

‘My childhood was so peripatetic. We were uprooted an awful lot and in mind I always had this idea that living in the same house for your whole life would be a wonderful thing to be able to offer your children,’ she says. Surprising sentiments given that in her adult life Cusk has lived in London, Brighton, Oxford, Bristol, and, last year, decided to move her entire family to Italy.

‘I was desperate to get away. I felt the walls were closing in on me and I wanted, needed, a good wander,’ she remarks of the three months in Tuscany that became The Last Supper, before adding, ‘but then I wanted to get back. Now I see the benefits of being a bit more stable.’

Domesticity, it seems, has not come as naturally to Rachel Cusk as initial impressions might suggest. She talks of ‘a very strong compulsion to know about ordinary life,’ but in the next breath reflects regretfully that she has not kept her life ‘as free’ as the artists she most admires; Virginia Wolff, WG Sebald, DH Lawrence.

Nevertheless, she maintains that great writing can, and does, emerge from the quotidian. ‘There are felicitous combinations of talent and available experiential material, like DH Lawrence, and that is amazing. But much more often the writer is a Henry James figure: a person that is socially ambitious living among and writing about other socially ambitious people,’ she says.

Socially ambitious she may be but after her Italian experience Rachel Cusk has no intentions of abandoning her style or subject matter anytime soon. ‘The idea of going and living in a place where I can’t understand the social structures from the very core of my being. I don’t think I could do that.

‘I think, if you are me, you are best off where you come from. That is my meat and drink, even if it is painful, even if it annoys other people, even if it annoys me. I don’t know what I would do otherwise. I might have to go and write brief, stylish novels about French people.’

Biography

Born: 1967

Background: Cusk studied at St Mary’s Convent in Cambridge before going on to read English at Oxford. She began writing Saving Agnes at 23, with her debut winning the Whitbread first novel award. She continued publishing throughout her 20s, winning the Somerset Maugham Award in 1997. ‘Back then I didn’t know where novels came from,’ she says. ‘The transformation was realising I had to bind together my own emotional experience with what I was going to write and that those two things had to be one and the same thing.’ Her personal exploration of motherhood, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, proved extremely controversial when published in 2001, and she has developed her interest in family dynamics and domestic life in her subsequent novels. Now living in Brighton she teaches creative writing at Kingston University, London.

Novels: Saving Agnes (1993), The Temporary (1995), The Country Life (1997), The Lucky Ones (2003), In the Fold (2005), Arlington Park (2006), The Bradshaw Variations (2009)

Non-fiction: A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother (2001), The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (2009)

Review: Fiachra Sheridan – The Runners

Review of Fiachra Sheridan‘s debut novel The Runners from yesterday’s Sunday Business Post:

Dublin’s north inner city has never had it easy, but the 1980s were particularly deleterious.Unchecked urban decay, vertiginous unemployment figures and a deadly influx of cheap heroin made it a decade to forget for many of the capital’s poorest and most vulnerable.

But for Bobby Ryan and Jay McCann, the vivacious, impetuous 13-year-olds at the heart of Fiachra Sheridan’s debut novel, The Runners, the inner city in 1985 offers everything a boy could want – and more. Growing up in Ballybough, under the shadow of Croke Park, they fish in the Tolka river, swim at the pool on Sean McDermott Street and race each other past the Sunset House in Summerhill.

the runnersThis is primarily a novel about adolescent friendship. Written from the perspective of Bobby, it maintains a laudably naive tone as it follows the boys’ youthful japes, from robbing the local store to jumping the fence at a packed Dalymount to watch a Paolo Rossi-inspired Italy defeat Liam Brady’s Ireland.

While their friendship crosses class divisions – Jay comes from the flats while Bobby’s parents, despite surviving on welfare, own their home – social distinctions are never fully transcended. Bobby, we are told in typically simple prose, ‘‘was envious of Jay living in the flats. He had a real claim on being a Ballybough boy. Bobby pretended he was from the flats.”

The most important adult in the boys’ world is not a parent or a teacher, but Anto Burke, their Stardust fire scarred boxing trainer. A decidedly ambivalent character, Anto both instils discipline and determination in the headstrong youths and uses them to ferry drugs around the inner city, with predictably disastrous consequences for all.

Sheridan is a writer with an impressive family pedigree – his father is playwright and director Peter, uncle Jim is a serial Academy Award nominee – and The Runners is not without literary merit. The boys’ boxing and football-filled milieu is believably rendered, and the novel is studded with memorable scenes from their young lives, most poignantly when Bobby’s alcoholic father buys him a bargain bin England jersey instead of a Liverpool shirt for his birthday. (‘‘A fiver was all he was worth.”)

Sheridan employs a deliberately pared-back style but, at crucial points, particularly in the opening 50 pages, the story feels underwritten and slightly one-paced. The author seems to know the narrative he wants to tell so well that he neglects to put the hard graft into setting it up properly.

The demotic opening paragraph, with its description of ‘‘Dublin’s north inner city, one of the poorest parts of Dublin’’, reads more like the intro to a lazy news feature than the opening gambit of what is essentially a well realised, well crafted novel.

Sheridan’s narrative improves as Bobby and Jay’s childish innocence and their hopes and dreams are destroyed by the nefarious world of drugs and addiction that lives on their doorsteps. But the author’s determination to write in single-clause sentences and unembellished, flattened prose does leave some genuinely dramatic moments feeling strangely empty and stilted.

The engrossing, rather chilling denouement suggests that, with a little more verve, ambition and editorial work throughout, Sheridan might have had a real gem of a debut on his hands. Nevertheless, this intimate account of inner-city life is a respectable introduction for a writer with a bright future ahead of him.

David Simon: Journalism's Loss, Television's Gain

Interview with the multi-talented Wire writer from this month’s issue of the Scottish mag The Skinny.

America does not have, and never has had, a fair system – or so says David Simon, daylight illuminating his swanky hotel room: “So much of what ails the US is systemic. It has been engrained from the very beginning, from the constitution.”

david simonLike many of The Wire’s central characters, Simon never shies away from life’s less palatable side. It was this commitment to veracity that made his critically acclaimed series a dazzling, almost Dostoyevskian tale of law and disorder on the streets of his native Baltimore, one of the most compelling dramas in television history. That a show about police and thieves in a relatively peripheral American city has garnered a significant cult following on this side of the Atlantic is testament to the realism of Simon’s writing, much of it based on personal experience.

On graduating from the University of Maryland, where he edited the college’s daily paper, Simon became a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, covering the crime beat with almost religious zeal for over a decade. While still a reporter, he spent an entire year with the police department’s murders unit. The result was Simon’s first book, Homicide, published in 1991. Two years later he took a second sabbatical to research The Corner, a forensic dissection of one year in the inner city, written in collaboration with former Baltimore police detective Ed Burns and told through the prism of a single street corner, and the addicts and dealers struggling to survive on it.

Simon is currently promoting The Corner’s release in the UK and Ireland – some twelve years after it first appeared in the States. “Homicide didn’t sell well at all over here. Then when it came to The Corner I just couldn’t get it published.” It is hard to understand why it wanted for a backer. The book is a remarkably in-depth account of the lives of rich, complex characters such as Gary McCullough, a once prosperous businessman lost to heroin addiction, and his son DeAndre, a dealer who starts taking drugs himself. It’s almost academic in its rigour and attention to detail but written with a novelist’s eye for scene and characterisation. “I was interested in telling a story, in narrative as a journalistic tool,” Simon explains.

Irnoically, Homicide and The Corner spelled the end of his career as a reporter. “I imagined that I would write books and work for the paper. I imagined one thing informing the other, not writing myself off the paper. But by the time I came back from doing The Corner bad things were happening. The paper had been taken over and the things I valued as a newspaper man the newspaper stopped valuing. So I knew my time there was over.” What he calls the ‘prize culture’, clearly still aggrieves him. Discussing The Baltimore Sun’s decline Simon sits bolt upright, looking less than relaxed for the first time: “These guys came in from another city. They were going to be in Baltimore for three, four, maybe five years. They were going to try and win a couple of prizes and then get to a better newspaper. It was all a pyramid of ambition but it totally lost the community. If you really love journalism that’s pretty disappointing.” he says.

But journalism’s loss was television’s gain, as Simon could draw on his extensive research to create The Wire’s intricate, absorbing world. “The power of The Wire is that you get to tell a story with a proper beginning, middle and end. But while The Wire is drama it is also rooted in a journalist’s impulse,” he says of the relationship between the two. “The writers working on [The Wire] were more interested in issues than in sustaining a television drama.” Certainly Simon has never shied away from the day’s big political issues. His last HBO series Generation Kill was based on a Rolling Stone journalist’s account of being embedded with the US marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq; currently he is working on a television show about a group of musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans entitled Treme.

The Wire and The Corner both make compelling cases for drug legalisation, a cause Simon firmly supports. “The war on drugs has been a total failure,” he replies without hesitation when asked about US narcotics policy. “But there are some positive changes happening now. The new drugs czar appointed by Obama [Gil Kerlikowske] has just come out and said we need to lose the title war – well that’s the first intelligent thing that’s been said about drugs in more than 30 years.”

Praise for politicians coming from David Simon is rare. So is the 44th President of America just another deceitful public representative? “No, Obama is a great man who I’ve a lot of respect for. But all he will do is slow down things getting worse,” he laughs. And although he admits to volunteering for the Democrats in Pennsylvania during the presidential campaign, knocking on doors for Barack has not made him an optimist: “The great man theory of history says you elect the right guy and all the systemic forces arrayed against progress somehow fold their cards. Well, that doesn’t happen.”

Nothing, it seems, surprises Simon – except, perhaps, the sudden interest in his books and their rather stark message. “It’s really funny. When I was an expert and I did all the reporting no-one took any notice. But when I’m not an expert and the books’ material is over 15 years old, people are sitting up and paying attention.” The world is certainly listening to David Simon now – when it comes to laying bare the uncomfortable reality of modern America, he remains the authority.

Read more from the Skinny at www.theskinny.co.uk

Review: Ghosts and Lightening

Review of Trevor Bryne’s debut from The Sunday Business Post:

Ghosts and Lightning, the debut novel by Dublin-born writer Trevor Byrne, is set in a Clondalkin housing estate, to which Denny Cullen – an out of work 20-something with a passion for wrestling and Liverpool FC – reluctantly returns following the unexpected death of his mother.

The protagonist is more profligate than prodigal son; he left for Wales with dreams of university and a new life but, less than a year later, is broke, unhappy and back living in the family home, though without his mother’s stabilising influence.

The story follows Denny and his friends as they divide their time between drinking, taking drugs and signing on. Funny and entertaining, yet tinged with sadness and desperation, Ghosts and Lightning is full of colourful scenes. Convinced the house is haunt ed by her late mother’s ghost, his sister Paula harangues a sceptical Denny into organising a seance with the help of Pajo, a former heroin addict with a penchant for herbal medicine, eastern mysticism and the paranormal.

What Pajo believes to be a voice from the spirit world – ‘‘Did yeh hear that?” – turns out to be the low hum of Simon Cowell passing judgment on an X-Factor contestant from an upstairs television.

Surprisingly thoughtful and considerate, Denny is often held back by his comrades and a life that brings little happiness, but from which he seems incapable of escaping. When he buys a decrepit old car for ‘‘the bit o’ freedom’’, it is destroyed by local Travellers in revenge for the transgressions of Maggit, an absent father, petty crook and childhood friend.

Ghosts and Lightning also transposes a favourite trope of 1990s male literary fiction – drug-taking – to contemporary Dublin. From the pills he pops himself to the bag of stolen cocaine that provides the impetus for the rather unexpected denouement in Donegal, drugs are a quotidian feature of Denny’s world.

Given such subject matter and the novel’s vernacular style, comparisons with Irvine Welsh seem inevitable, but this is no Irish Trainspotting.

Byrne’s fragile, dysfunctional characters are more likely to elicit sympathy than repugnance, and his attentive, lyrical prose owes a greater debt to Alan Warner, James Kelman and Cormac McCarthy than to Welsh.

Ghosts-and-Lightning-by-T-002Written and set just before the recent economic crash, Ghosts and Lightning is a remarkably prescient reflection on the lives left behind during the boom.

‘‘I’m not unaware of Ireland’s wealth, I’m just not party to it,” Denny remarks early in the book after an attractive Swedish ‘chugger’, a charity collector, approaches him outside Trinity College.

The question of how to counter such alienation and disenfranchisement is a central dilemma that, in truth, is never fully resolved. The novel is suffused with an underlying nostalgia for a return to ‘‘an older Ireland’’, a phrase Denny uses throughout, but this is not developed much beyond the city-dweller’s nascent yearning for the countryside of his childhood memory.

Nevertheless, there is much to applaud in Byrne’s powerful debut. His writing is concise and unfussy, yet not without literary flourishes: on numerous occasions he appears to abandon the narrative completely only to return a few pages later via an insightful or comic digression; and his use of flashbacks to reveal the character of Denny’s mother is particularly effective.

There are echoes of Roddy Doyle and Sean O’Casey in his use of language, and it makes a refreshing change to discover a new Irish writer using Hiberno-English outside quotation marks.

Judging by this poignant, compelling and often deeply comic tale of life on the margins of Irish society, Byrne seems certain to enjoy greater longevity than the Celtic tiger which abandoned Denny Cullen and his friends so comprehensively.

Passing the Time in Hell or Helmand

Review of Patrick Hennessey’s exellent book The Junior Officers’ Reading club. Appeared in the Sunday Business Post a few weeks back.

‘When all else fails, a blind refusal to look f acts in the face will see us through.” Blackadder’s feckless General Melchett was a hilarious send up of Lord Kitchener, but his fatuous words take on a grimly contemporary ring when Patrick Hennessey uses them to underline the British Army’s current shortcomings.

junior-officers-club-flatSince the start of the year, British forces have lost, on average, 15 men a month in what the red-tops often refer to as ‘Afghanistan’s lawless Helmand Province’. Whitehall responded to the latest surge in fatalities – at one stage recently, eight soldiers were killed in 24 hours – by wheeling out the tried and trusted war propaganda. There is nothing like images of flag-covered coffins and grieving relatives on the streets of Wootton Bassett to shore up support for a bloody military campaign.

Young, articulate and independently-minded, Oxbridge educated Hennessey gives a soldier’s account of life behind the colour parades, 21-gun salutes and dignified burials. Drawing on his three years in the Grenadier Guards, he has produced an unswervingly honest, and often brutal, account of Iraq and Afghanistan that is refreshingly free of both government spin and Andy McNab-style histrionics.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Hennessey was almost predestined to join the army. His father and paternal grandfather served in the forces, and reading English at Balliol and swanning around society parties did little to blunt his desire to enlist; if anything, they were ideal preparation for the Old Colleges and New Colleges of class-ridden Sandhurst.

The book’s opening 100 pages or so are driven by Hennessey’s burning desire to get onto the battlefield. Here we find the young cadet frustrated by Sandhurst’s endless dry runs and training exercises (‘‘Hogwarts with guns’’), and genuinely elated at the news that he is being sent to Helmand.

‘‘All anyone wanted to know was: were we going to be shooting people? And: would we get into trouble if we did? The answers, to everyone’s relief, were ‘yes’ and ‘no’.”

Founded to pass long, empty days in Basrah and Baghdad, the reading club eventually founders in the dust and dirt of Sangin. While Iraq is largely frittered away in Hunter S Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear and surfing magazines, Afghanistan is too alive, too dangerous, too visceral for such heady pursuits. Instead the Taliban (nicknamed ‘Terry’ in a convoluted nod to the Viet Cong) gives Hennessey and his cohorts a bloody introduction to the deadly, staccato rhythm of modern warfare. ‘‘As quickly as everything starts, it stops,” a diary entry notes after one desert skirmish.

While the combat scenes are intense and frenzied – over all too quickly, it seems, for men addicted to action – the dead time between engagements is filled with gnawing ennui and endless waiting. In scenes reminiscent of Sam Mendes’s celluloid classic Jarhead, bored soldiers swap box-sets of Grey’s Anatomy and 24, flirt on internet dating sites and endlessly refresh the BBC Sport website – anything to pass the time until the armour next rolls out to the sound of Metallica or 2 Many DJs.

This is modern war from a combatant’s perspective, with the author’s contempt for his superiors, the ‘‘unthinking, rank-driven inflexibility of the upper-echelons’’, matched only by the opprobrium he heaps on reporters who come in search of contentious sound bites.

We also get a glimpse of how difficult it is to return to civilian life: in a series of powerful passages towards the end of the book, Hennessey finds Echo & the Bunnymen’s Nothing Lasts Forever a disconcertingly apt soundtrack for a Britain he no longer understands, and which no longer understands him.

He offers no solutions to the quagmire that Afghanistan has become – there is plenty of sympathy for the Afghan National Army, but it is clear they lack training, resources and are too fond of marijuana to fashion into an effective fighting force. Instead, in vivacious, expletive filled prose, he animates all too graphically the horrific situation on the ground.

Long after sententious politicians have tired of scoring points off Britain’s latest Afghan adventure, The Junior Officer’s Reading Club will remain a classic of modern military writing. Hennessey has left the army to study for the bar, but doubtless Graham Greene’s words from Brighton Rock still ring in his ears: ‘‘This is hell, nor are we out of it’’.