Grey Area by Will Self
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk
Five Miles from Outer Hope is more of the same from Barker. I don't mean this in a bad way, of course. Any Barker is welcome Barker, I'm finding. Swiftly, she has darted into the upper echelons of my favourite authors. Her similes, always a delight, are even more outrageous and guffaw-worthy in this slim novel, clocking in just under 200 pages. It's a coming-of-age story about, as is typical for Barker, a ragtag motley crew of weirdos and freaks, narrated by a wonderfully acidic seventeen year old giantess maxing out at six foot three inches. An aspect shared by all the Barker novels I've read, including this one, but I haven't drawn explicit attention to, is the author's tendency for eroticism and sensuality; not so much overt or actual sex (though there is sometimes that) but she knows intuitively that proximity of bodies leads to awareness of bodies. Barker's prose is flush with physical details of bodies: people are always touching things, sniffling, smelling, seeing, tasting and thus a sensuality ekes out from the noise of senses. Interactions between characters are charged, erotically so, though more thanks to the potentiality than explicit action. The narrator of this novel, proud of her clitoris (yes, proud), comes into conflict and attraction with La Roux, a South African boy on the run. Their aggression, their flirtation—though these are the same in a teenager's world—is saturated with a libidinal current, creating a dynamic tension. While this seems a simple act of dramaturgy, I call attention to this if only to proselytize for Barker once again; she really is at the top of the game and seemingly basic tricks of the trade are effortless in her hands.
Hot Milk, a nominee for the Goldsmiths Prize, is an intriguing and beguiling novel. A 25 year old woman takes her mother to Spain for medical treatment, hoping to ascertain that which causes her mother paralysis and pain in the legs. While her mother endures puzzling treatments at the hand of the quizzical physician, the protagonist explores her sexuality, her femininity, her essential womanness. Suffused with symbols, laden with meaning, utterly permeated with meaning, Hot Milk has a dreaminess to it. Like other novels that skate around realism, the dialogue mixes natural dialogue with gnomic pronouncements and expostulations. I'm often cold towards this style of dialogue, despite my antipathy/ambivalence towards realism (my feelings shift case-by-case), but Hot Milk worked for me. The symbolism, the atmosphere, the dialogue all conspired together to remove any trace of randomness or unpredictability. The novel feels perfectly deterministic in the way that Nicola Barker's labyrinthine plots do. Everything is set. Nothing is up to chance. Thankfully, the novel is short, only 218 pages, and so my patience never ran out. I've heard her Swimming Home is even better, even more enigmatic and abstract. That's perhaps what I was missing with Hot Milk; I kept expecting the realism to deteriorate past an irrevocable limit, yet it never did.
Rachel Cusk, much lauded novelist challenging the form, has intrigued me for years, but I didn't want to start with her Outline trilogy for fear of making her earlier work inaccessible ("you can't go home again," etc). Arlington Park, a novel enjoying a 2.92 out of 5 on Goodreads currently, felt like a representative work. It's fiercely feminist, rooted explicitly in the experience of women, and takes its form and focus from Mrs. Dalloway. Cusk is no doubt sharply intelligent and exacting; Arlington Park has breadth with precision, almost razor-sharp in its observations and judgement. However, the novel often feels pinched, humourless, sallow. The focus is on five women, five married suburban moms with a galaxy of children, ranging from lovely to monstrous, each wife with clueless semi-absent husbands who make daily guest appearances in the drama of their lives. The women strain against the barriers and dead-ends of their suburban, middle class lives, raging against the limited horizons of possibility. While this could work as a rallying call for emancipation, for a massive restructuring of the status quo, Arlington Park more so ends up as a dour, hopeless affair. I feel even uncomfortable charging Cusk with a lack of humour. I worry I'm inching closer to calling her a feminist killjoy, a pursed lips No Fun Allowed harridan. Pinched and pursed are the best words I can come up with to describe this novel, I'm afraid, and my subject position, with a male-identified first name, positions me as this destabilizing, dismissive actor. I don't know how I can reconcile my ideological sympathy with my subjective response to the novel itself. Is this an opportunity to reexamine my own tastes, my own reactions? Am I the problem? Perhaps. Cusk is, no matter the plotting, a gorgeous craftsman of sentences. Here, she describes the parking lot of a mall during rain:
Beyond the windows a vast, bruised bank of cloud swept in over the grey prairie of the car park, extinguishing the spears of light that lay everywhere in disordered diagonals like discarded, faulty bolts of lightning. The restaurant [in the mall] darkened. A violent deluge of rain flung itself abruptly down over the defenceless landscape. (110)I will admit that the "deluge of rain" flinging itself might be a bit much, but the gorgeous first sentence, with its "bruised bank of cloud" and "discarded" bolts of lighting work for me. Quite often, I experienced a frisson, a shiver of pleasure from Cusk's manipulation of the quotidian, infusing it with menace and estrangement. Here, she sums up the threatening aspect of familial life:
It was a dangerous place to live in, a family: it was a tumultuous as the open sea beneath a treacherous sky, the shifting allegiances, the flurries of cruelty and virtue, the great battering waves of mood and mortality, the endless alternation of storm and calm. A downpour would come or a reprieving ray of light, and in the end you didn't know what the difference was, what it all meant, what it added up to, when set against the necessity for just surviving and getting through. (193)I worry some readers might see Cusk as over-writing, as ponderous and overburdened, almost, but not quite purple (she's too talented to ever bear that charge). A lot of her sentences are long and perspicaciously focused, reminding me a lot not of Woolf but of D. H. Lawrence. She can, when it suits her, provide a stinging little rejoinder, like this Wildean bit of wit:
She couldn't remember the last time a man looked at her as anything other than part of a boxed set that included his wife. (196)I can understand why she has a low rating on Goodreads: she's intelligent, aggressively so, wielding prose and effect like a hyperbolically sharpened axe, both razor sharp and bludgeoning. She's also less interested in the traditional aspects of naturalism or realism: she commands the characters, the setting, the weather to serve her needs. She's remorseless and perhaps that's what is so off-putting about her work. I'm not deterred of course. Any writer capable of crafting such beautiful prose is always going to have my interest, perhaps not my loyalty, but at least my continued attention.
Grey Area, a collection of short stories, like all collections, is a mixed bag. For every singularly Selfian story which dazzles and impresses, there's another dark with misanthropy and bereft of the light touch of satire. Self is an audacious writer (in the same way my beloved Nicola Barker is): he writes not to relate the reader but to show off, to impress them. The stories in this collection are fantastic, satirical, vexing, imposing, breath-taking, irritating, all in the way Self's work has been. The two absolute bright spots are "Incubus (or the Impossibility of Self-Determination as to Desire)," a tale of realist marriage strife and infidelity which takes a wonderful left turn in the fantastic, and "Grey Area," another Zack Busner tale about a new medication providing patients with renewed patience and interest in their lives, and for one patient, too much interest. "Chest" is also terrific, a nightmare, especially for me, about an all-pervasive fog giving every single person respiratory problems, from pneumonia to asthma to cancer. Self's skill with detail shines in this story, as the coughing, the sputum, the breathing or lack thereof, all worked to constrict my own chest. I wheezed in sympathy more often than in laughter. The satirical bit in "Chest" comes in the form of class-based distinctions between anti-fog measures: some characters can afford gas masks, others can't. Like all the other Self I've read, the writing itself is the draw, but the imaginative leaps, the estrangement is what keeps me coming back.