Why you should read Rachel Cusk (if you’re brave enough)

Claudia can hear herself speaking, but she can barely concentrate on what she is saying. She tries to keep her eyes on [her 13 year-old daughter] Lottie’s face but they keep straying — magnetised, astonished — down to her skirt. ‘Did you get that today?’ she says finally. Lottie looks down at herself, as though to check they are talking about the same thing. ‘Yes,’ she says.

It is a pink skirt with a ruffle around the hem. It comes down to Lottie’s knees. The pink is a candyfloss pink. The ruffle has been badly stitched. It is both too big for Lottie and too small, sagging around the hips and straining at the stomach. The material is so cheap that Claudia can see Lottie’s underwear through it. It is a child’s skirt, the kind of skirt that Claudia might have bought for [her younger daughter] Martha, but on Lottie it is without doubt the least flattering item of clothing Claudia has ever seen. ‘It’s lovely,’ Claudia says. ‘Well done.’ Lottie seems pleased. ‘I thought you’d like it,’ she says.

This is a scene from Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations, and if you can read it without wincing you’re a lot tougher than I am. But as well as being an unflinching observer, she’s also, sentence for sentence, one of the best writers working today, both on the micro scale of a simile — He finds three tiny pairs of headsets, unopened, coiled in their little plastic sacks like embryos — and the macro survey of contemporary life:

Thomas goes through his cupboards and finds box after box of obsolete junk. Cables, computer parts, a whole case of grey plastic cartridges, sealed in their airtight transparent wrappers. The printer they were designed to fit no longer exists, and there is no other printer compatible with them. Yet they will last forever.

It comes to him, the physical feeling of his London office, the big steel and perspex building with its wires and blinking screens and shrilling telephones, the bitter smell of plastic and electric light, the hushed grey spaces, the sealed windows muffling the world, the make-up smell of his secretary Samantha and her synthetic clothes, everyone so chemical-smelling and costumed, and the way people spoke, language itself made artificial, so that you found yourself looking at their teeth, their eyes, to remind yourself there was a human being in there.

But just when you’re thinking “Christ, this makes Revolutionary Road look like Carry On, Jeeves“, there are moments of extraordinary compassion. Here’s Thomas again, looking after his youngest daughter’s friend Clara, who is always ill at school and has just spilt orange down her shirt:

He sits Clara on the end of the bed and tentatively removes her shirt. She is entirely passive, letting him undo the buttons with her hands hanging limp at her sides. He opens the front, and though his heart stalls momentarily at the sight of the raw surgical scars that score the length and breadth of her quail’s chest his demeanour remains perfectly calm. He finds a clean shirt and does up the buttons with feather-like fingers.

That “quail’s chest” is a touch of genius, beautifully complemented by “feather-like fingers”, and The Bradshaw Variations is full of such tiny, perfect touches, which make the book entirely gripping even as the narrative slips away and out of your grasp: Cusk’s stories seem to happen in the corner of your eye.

There’s even less of a traditional narrative in Cusk’s previous book, The Last Supper, an account of three months that her family spent in Italy. My guess is Faber perked up no end when she announced it: after all, there’s no more guaranteed best-seller than a warm-hearted, middle-class travelogue. But, this being Cusk, that’s not exactly what you get:

The hot, heartless world meanders past the windows: the train stupidly follows its monotonous southern impulse. There is a nun sitting quietly in the corner of our carriage. She is small and plump in her dove-grey habit … She has a broad, flat face and a high, rounded, forehead like the forehead of an elderly china doll, with the close-fitting band of her veil at the top. She seems so distant from the experience of pain, so dry and plump and spotless, so indefatigably neutral, with her wooden crucifix as chunky as a child’s toy: she sits like a mannequin in the corner, old and virginal, looking out of the window with small, pale-blue eyes. What does she know of loss?

Where most authors go to Italy and find pizza, funny foreigners and nostalgia, Cusk has written a deeply felt examination of family, forgetting and the idea of home, as unsparing of herself as she is of her fictional characters. It’s also a book of art history, and of our relationship with the past. It’s a deeply strange, rather troubling book, but spiked with unaccustomed sunlight; occasionally she even allows herself to be funny, as when she’s beginning to learn Italian:

How could a scarpa be the same thing as a shoe? If I went into a shop and asked for a pair of scarpe, I would surely be handed a brace of woodland fowl, or two fish with particularly bony spines … There is a way, I don’t doubt, of doing justice to the shoe … The Spanish for shoe is zapato, which I think of as a very pointed kind of dancing shoe, while the French chaussure is a sombre gentlemen’s slipper made of brown leather. The scarpa is as yet indistinct. I suspect it has very high sharp heels, and is the sort of thing that might be used as the murder weapon in an Agatha Christie novel.

The book ends with extraordinary eeriness in a hotel in Northern France, leaving you with the feeling that Cusk’s time in Italy was not so much an escape as a breath held for three months. It’s uncanny, upsetting and beautifully written, and will leave you wanting more, or to run right from the room. And that’s why you should read Rachel Cusk.

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Stewart Lee: How I Escaped My Certain Fate

If writing comedy is hard, writing about it isn’t much easier: there’s nothing more likely to kill a joke than trying to explain why it’s funny. As a result, books about comedy tend to be either collections of jokes, which are funny but unilluminating, or po-faced analyses of technique, which can be illuminating but only if you can stay awake while reading them.  Many comics, too — like many actors, writers or artists — actively avoid analysing their own work, for fear of losing whatever spark brings it alive. In this book, Stewart Lee does the opposite: he pulls apart three of his own shows, forcing himself to reinvent his work, and in the process delivers one of the best books ever written about the craft of comedy, and the state of comedy today.

Lee returned to stand up in 2005 after almost five years away, during which he had, most famously, co-written and directed Jerry Springer: The Opera, which made him simultaneously more hated (it still has the record for the most complained-about programme ever broadcast on the BBC), more respected and very, very little money. It had also kept him off the circuit during the launch of the The Office and the arrival in the mainstream of Ricky Gervais, whose second stand-up show Politics Lee then went to see:

At some point during the show I experienced an emotion I rarely feel. It was jealousy. I honestly had never been jealous of another comedian … there were lots of friends and acquaintances of mine who had been much more successful than me — Al Murray, Steve Coogan, Harry Hill — but I didn’t ever feel like I was in competition with them because they are so different to me, and the choices they have made are theirs not mine. And there were also people whose talents far outstripped mine, who produced work I thought I’d never be capable of in my life — Daniel Kitson, Simon Munnery, Jerry Sadowitz, Richard Thomas, Johnny Vegas, Kevin McAleer — but I didn’t want to be them, because I could never be them. But watching Ricky I felt myself thinking, ‘This is the kind of thing I used to do. And all these people in this massive room are loving it. Whereas in the dying days of my stand-up career, I was reviewed as if I didn’t know what I was doing, and found myself playing to fifteen people in Dundee.’ I hadn’t minded not being popular when I’d thought that what I did could never be popular, but seeing something not dissimilar to what I might do being enjoyed by 500 people, already sold on the strangest bits by virtue of Ricky’s celebrity, was bewildering.

I love that paragraph. It’s a primer on contemporary British comedy, a reflection on the power of celebrity, a painfully honest self-analysis, and a personal call to arms, all in 200 words or so. And for Lee it was a transformational experience. Buoyed by support from Gervais himself, who’d called him ‘the funniest, most cliche-free comedian on the circuit’, Lee wrote a new show, Stand-Up Comedian, and took it on tour. And this is the heart of the book: three transcripts of three specific performances of Lee’s last three stand-up shows, Stand-Up Comedian, ’90s Comedian and 41st Best Stand-Up Ever, annotated by Lee in a series of footnotes that take up at least as much space as the material. Here’s one section of Stand-Up Comedian, and Lee’s footnote to it:

This is the first routine I ever wrote, I think, where I began to stretch the silences, the lack of laughs, the tension, to the point where I’d be worried about ever winning back the room … There’s always a clear end in sight, and lots of little handrails to grab onto in the midst of all the uncertainty, but at the time it felt like a nightly leap into the void, acting out the grief of the people in the story to the silent onlookers. Today I’d go much further away from the shallow end.

This, it’s fair to say, is an understatement, given the climax of ’90s Comedian, which involves a drunken night, copious vomiting and the welcoming mouth of Jesus Christ — a moment of shock that Lee, typically, then deconstructs within the show itself:

Now, right. I’ve been doing stand-up for seventeen years, okay? And I can sense when there’s tension in the room. And I know why that is and I un — I understand it. Basically there’s a performer-audience bond of trust built up. We have worked on that together over the last hour. And, and, and you think, ‘Yes there is, Stew, but you’ve broken that bond of trust. Because we weren’t expecting to be made to visualise that image. There was no warning of this, it wasn’t flagged up … It’s like fingering someone on the first date, you wouldn’t do it. Even at arm’s length, wearing a mitten, through the shattered window of a rural bus shelter, at the end of an otherwise pleasant evening, as an inappropriate gesture of thanks. You wouldn’t do that, Stew, so why are you doing this? Why? Why?’

Why is the theme of the show: what are the limits of aesthetics, what is the relationship between artist and audience, and what should we really be shocked by and why. In his most recent work, Lee combines a dedication to exploring the boundaries of the craft with a genuine moral rage, the two elements perhaps best combined in his assault on the thoroughly deserving Richard Littlejohn. It starts at 5″20′ in this clip:

How I Escaped My Certain Fate is a terrific analysis of Lee’s own stand-up, but it also looks at acts that he has worked with, like the Mighty Boosh, whose shows he has directed, and many little known, even forgotten performers of the past. Until Daniel Kitson writes his own deconstruction of comedy, this is the best we’re going to get for a long time, and we should celebrate its existence. Lee’s show this year in Edinburgh sold out weeks ago: it’s coming to London in October but until then, if you care about comedy, read his book.

How to write like Lorrie Moore

I recently spent an inspiring day with the Faber Academy, under the expert eye of Hannah Griffiths, whose authors include Rachel Cusk, Barbara Kingsolver and Lorrie Moore. Among her strict edicts for developing writers — adverbs are, indeed, evil — was this: if any book opens with dust motes, stop reading. Why? Because everyone notices dust motes. The job of the writer is to notice the things that other people don’t. And one of the very best writers in the world today is Lorrie Moore, whose latest novel A Gate at the Stairs, I devoured in one sitting last weekend. Moore — or at least her narrator, the witty, spiky Tassie Keltjin — gives us a masterclass in noticing the things that others don’t, so here are five of my favourites:

“I had one elegantly folded fortune cookie — a short paper nerve baked in an ear.”

“The woman of the house opened the door … Her hair was cropped short and dyed the fashionable bright auburn of a ladybug. Her earrings were buttons of deepest orange, her leggings mahogany, her sweater rust-colored, and her lips maroonish brown. She looked like a highly controlled oxidation experiment.”

“We had once had an ebullient pig named Helen, who would come when you called her name and smiled like a dolphin when you spoke to her.”

“Walking home I passed a squirrel that had been hit by car. Its soft, scarlet guts spilled out of its mouth as if in a dialogue balloon, and the wind gently blew the fur of its tail, as if it were still alive.”

“In my apartment the radiators hissed and the windows were frosted deep into the mullions from the steam that hit them and froze. In the room I kicked off my boots and my socks came with them, my toes sore and as knobbed as Chinese ginger.”

And if that’s not enough to make you want to read more of Tassie, try this:

“My roommate, Murph, had done all the dating … She had bequeathed me her vibrator, a strange swirling, buzzing thing that when switched to high gyrated in the air like someone’s bored finger going whoop-dee-doo. Whose penis could this possibly resemble? Someone who had worked in a circus perhaps! Maybe Burt Lancaster’s in Trapeze. I kept the thing on the kitchen counter where Murph had left it for me and occasionally I used it to stir my chocolate milk.”