Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex One

It’s only four years old but has the texture of cyberpunk science fiction, Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that sort of thing, that I read in the nineties. It’s partly the gritty urban realism that provides that cyberpunk taste, though Despentes’ Vernon Subutex I isn’t set in some near future, but navigates the joys and terrors of emerging culture in the present day. There is also the ironic social commentary channeled through the hustlers and alienated street people who exist side-by-side in this grim, violent world.

Style is central, a cynical even paranoid perspective, but without sacrificing completely the characters’ humanity. It is a narrative that is perfectly in tune with our post-war awareness that advanced societies do not by default become more humane or civilised, quite the reverse in fact.

Despentes’ Paris is not the city of Benjamin’s bourgeois flaneur, but more in tune with the concrete jungle of Baudelaire. It also contrasts with Cusk’s confined, rather claustrophobic trilogy of middle-class life, offering an alternative set of keys to understanding the ethical dilemmas of human experience in the late-capitalist modern city.

Rereading and Second Chances

Rereading books I disliked in my first reading with a new-found admiration is establishing an alternative reading list, titled perhaps Instances of my Earlier Obtuseness. Dismissing Rachel Cusk’s Kudos a third of the way into her book on my first reading, now I’ve read it to the end, would have been to jeopardise the opportunity to understand what Cusk set out to do in her trilogy. As my friend Michelle and I discussed, Cusk’s trilogy is arguably only fully appreciated after reading all three books, preferably back to back. It is only in the closing pages of Kudos that the rage becomes fully apparent.

After dismissing Leaving the Atocha Station twenty pages from the end I concocted a quasi-moral justification for my disdain based on Lerner’s use of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. With greater appreciation of how Lerner (and Cusk) are continuing to open up the form of the novel, with the negation of any distinction between autobiography, memory and fiction, I reread Leaving the Atocha Station and liked it. In some way, reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage taught me how to appreciate fiction that uses form to explore a writer’s self-consciousness.

After liking Lerner’s 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, I decided to reread The Hatred of Poetry, an essay I sampled and dismissed on my first reading. It confronts the difficulty of writing and appreciating poems in an atomised and vacant world. Its ruminative tone is common with his fiction, a curious mixture of dispassionate criticism and child-like enthusiasm. Second time around I enjoyed the twisting and turning of Lerner’s argument, quite as much as both novels. I don’t quite recall what I disliked in the first place, maybe the use of the word hate in the title, seemingly hyperbolic but its Platonic note better appreciated after reading the essay.

There is something I think in the idea that the books we dislike intensely–and I don’t mean poorly written books, which are innumerable–might tell us something about ourselves if given a second chance, in the same way that those people one instantly dislikes offer the same opportunity for epiphany.

Thoughts on Ben Lerner’s 10:04

There is a different time when I wouldn’t have finished reading Ben Lerner’s 10:04. As Borges says in his Paris Review interview: “I think a writer always begins by being too complicated: He’s playing at several games at the same time.” Lerner’s games are almost a catalogue of David Lodge’s characteristic postmodern strategies of contradiction, discontinuity, excess, short circuit, all played against each other. This may be writing on the very edge of fiction, but in a different way than Rachel Cusk although there are similarities in the use of autobiography to ask questions about the nature of self and identity.

At this time I am more willing to be implicated with Lerner’s preoccupations and voice, to play along with his inventive text. I’m curious enough to want to see how he tells his story and continue to enjoy writing that enmeshes the writer in the very structure of their fiction. It is less subtle than Cusk’s trilogy and will appeal more to readers that are fascinated with games of literary production.

It isn’t just a book that plays games with form, otherwise I may not have finished my reading. Lerner chooses and arranges the elements that go into his story so that the past becomes an artefact of narration. The very concept of a past constructed through memory, selective by nature, suggests that the past itself is just another story, no longer accessible in its original form. That such a personal, but essentially fictional past, is integral to the creation of self-identity is also the argument Rachel Cusk makes so powerfully in her trilogy.

Forthcoming Books of Interest

There is nothing like refitting a library to make one appreciate how extensive a reading-backlog has somehow established itself as an almost living being. It makes me think fondly of the Joanna Walsh short story. Her story rests on the irresistible premise that all your unread books might step from your shelves in the shape of a polyphonous reader to share with you some conversation and a glass of wine. (I recently contributed a personal selection of short stories, which included Walsh’s story, to Jonathan Gibbs’ terrific A Personal Anthology.)

I am trying to buy fewer books, but these are forthcoming over the next twelve months and will escape any such caution:

T. J. Clark, Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come
Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography
Michelle Bailat-Jones, Unfurled
Maria Gabriela Llansol, Geography Rebels trilogy
Karl Ole Knausgaard, Inadvertent (Why I Write)
Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
Dan Gretton, I You We Them
Joshua Sperling, A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Writings of John Berger
Simon Critchley, Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
Rachel Cusk, Coventry: Essays
Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project: Talks and Essays
Marguerite Duras, The Garden Square
Annie Ernaux, Happening
Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants
Clarice Lispector, The Besieged City
Daša Drndic, E. E. G. and Doppelgänger
Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Lab

Thoughts on Cusk and Autofiction

There’s some insightful writing around about Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, including the transcript of an interview with Alexandra Schwartz. On my first reading of the last in the series, Kudos, I drifted off about a third of the way through, but I am glad I returned, this time reading the trilogy end to end over a couple of days. I’ve thought whether to write anything much about my reading of Cusk, but have little that would improve on the pieces linked above.

I’d like to read more Cusk, but cannot imagine she can continue to explore the reticent narrator in the same way. There is a controlling quality that becomes a little claustrophobic, that sense of a person seeing without being seen. What I enjoyed most was the clear tension between Cusk’s need to use some minimal tools of fiction to narrate her story, but preserve the subtlety about the implications of her narrative, at least until the last pages of Kudos.

What also interests me is the phenomenon that has come to be called autofiction. It takes further the self-conscious writing of writers like Marguerite Duras into what Cusk describes as writing as close to herself as possible, a merging of autobiography and fiction, an extreme awareness of the self’s fictional status.

Autofiction changes the role of the reader, requiring a greater imaginative contribution. It is both discomfiting and liberating. I’ve returned to Knausgaard’s writing for that reason, enjoying both Summer and Autumn, and fully intend to read his six part series over the winter. I read Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living and am hungry for more. In fact, I’m finder it harder and harder to return to the false notes of character and stylised tensions of plot that are the remnants of the nineteenth century novel. It’s just a phase I’m sure.

Re-reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy

There are pages when I like Cusk’s writing and passages when I don’t, parts that feel exciting and original, others that fall a little flat. Halfway through reading Kudos for the first time, I stopped–something about Cusk’s highly measured voice–not only stopped but added Cusk’s trilogy to the charity-shop bag that sits beside my desk at all times.

Later I came across these sentences from Outline, “She began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet, this shape, even while its contents remained unknown gave her for the first time since the incident a sense of who she was.” I also read an interview in which Cusk says she’d “lost all interest in having a self” (h/t Steve Taylor). I found myself thinking, making lists of books of similar conception, and, of course, had to return again to Cusk’s curious trilogy.

With my second edition of the trilogy I started again from Outline. I always start slowly with fiction, savouring the prose rhythms, then as I get into the thrust of a novel I speed up, carried along by the verbal music, only to slow myself down towards the end, if it is a book of intelligence and wit, unwilling to bring my reading to an end. I have a predilection for thoughtful and subtle books, and am pleased to once again be reading Cusk.

Outline is the opposite of a realist novel, the narrator, as Joshua Corey summarised, “manifests as negative space into which all the other characters pour themselves.” Continuing without a break into the second book, Transit, is for me a better way to read Cusk’s trilogy, the immersion into its calibrated prose refreshes. I don’t know whether Cusk is a great writer, whatever such a word means anyway, but her fiction, at least as expressed in her Outline trilogy, is not straightforward. It is writing that makes me stop and think, active as opposed to passive reading, fiction that questions the reader as much as we question it.