With her first novel, Saving Agnes, Rachel Cusk laid the foundation for her writing life. The Temporary is her second novel. It was published in 1995, two years after her first. And I see improvement. The author is using fewer words, and in places, she goes deep. Overall, though, the writing is uneven. Here are some highlights:
Waking, Ralph thought, “The hands pointing at one o’clock seemed so impossible, so wild in their assertion that a great swath of time had gone by without his supervision…”
“the terrible membrane of silence”
“He groped for a date and remembered then that it was still only February. The year stretched before him in all its unavoidable detail, the hundreds of days and thousands of hours which he would endure as if something more lay at their end than mere repetition. He wished that he could be tricked, as others seemed to be, by the close of each week, seeing in their false endings the immience of some sort of conclusion, like a soap opera. He wondered why he had never fallen into step with this pattern of days, comprehended in the helpful clarity of a week’s tiny eras–birth, growth, productivity, decline, dormancy, regeneration, played out beneath the celestial presence of longer phases of weather–a system that might ease the slow construction of his life.”
I have sixty pages left in her next novel. I might finish it tonight.
In July, I read Arlington Park and discovered a writer new to me–Rachel Cusk. She was born in Canada in 1967, grew up in Los Angeles, and now lives in England. Arlington Park is her most recent novel. Although I thought it was slightly brusque in its movement between characters and slightly haphazard in its structure, I also thought the writing was outstanding. Upon finishing it, I immediately wanted to read it again. Instead I decided to read all her books in chronological order.
It’s like watching a house being built–seeing how a writer develops over time.
The foundation: Saving Agnes, published in 1993. It won the Whitbread First Novel Award (now the Costa First Novel Award). I started it the first week of September. It’s kind of chick-litty in subject matter, but after all the author would have been 26 when it was published. It also seems to take the author too many words to say what she has to say.
Nevertheless it’s a great beginning for a writer, and it contains some engaging images, like “a row of teenagers sat on a bench like crows on a telegraph wire,” and “Days when she was expecting a call stretched out before her like empty motorways….”
It also contains some interesting lines like “She’d never known loneliness until she’d had company.” And this combination of an intriguing idea and an image to match: “She had changed, she knew, but she didn’t quite know how or when. Like an old car, the addition of new parts over the years had left little of her original material, but her form remained unaltered. Could she, she wondered, still be said to be the same person?”
More tomorrow on the framing…
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes of schedules as nets for “catching days.” She says, “I have been looking into schedules.” Then she describes the schedule of a Danish aristocrat living a hundred years ago, who started his day by getting out of bed at four to hunt grouse, woodcock and snipe. Wallace Stevens in his forties woke at six to read for two hours. I long to be an early riser. Yet, on most days, it takes an alarm to pull me out of bed at seven.
Annie Dillard also writes, “There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by…a life spent reading–that is a good life.” Today I’m reading Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk. It was the 1993 Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award. Unfortunately the Whitbread Awards have gone the way of stadiums and are now referred to as the Costa Book Awards, as in the coffee.
That is something I’m aspiring to, by the way. A first novel. More specifically, a published first novel.
But back to Saving Agnes, so far my favorite moment is when Agnes is talking to her friend Greta about a weird man, which sends Agnes into her head–one of my favorite places for a character to be. Agnes thinks, “There was another world beneath the surface of the one she chose each day, a dark labyrinth of untrodden paths. Its proximity frightened her. She wondered if she would ever lose her way and wander into it.”
I spend so much time in my head. The trick, it seems, is how to push what’s in there to the surface.