Rachel Cusk’s In the Fold

Let me put it this way. If you’re the kind of person who has a happy family life – a healthy relationship with normal parents, a happy marriage, promising children – and you feel that you’re missing out on all this domestic strife you keep hearing about, read Rachel Cusk’s In the Fold. This is a book that delivers perfectly that sense of tiresome pointlessness, of misery celebrated for its own sake, that comes with true domestic unhappiness. There’s the same sense of cliche, the same atmosphere of petty concerns and directionless repetition.

Nominally, In the Fold is a novel about the fading of youthful dreams, of a young man’s belief in the adult world. The narrator, Michael, is invited to his flatmate’s family farm / house for a party while at college. Here, he is introduced to the Hanbury’s (his flatmate’s family) who impress him with their sophistication and give him an ‘intimation’, a vision of what adulthood will look like. This is the youthful dream part. And it all happens in Chapter 1.

All the rest of the book is dedicated to the slow curdling of this vision, to the souring of everything Michael once dreamed of. Michael is older now, in a loveless marriage with a neurotic wife who feels stifled by the ordinariness of her existence [1] and blames Michael for it, and a son who doesn’t speak. As a way of getting away from the trauma of his own life Michael goes to spend a week with his old college mate Adam, whom he hasn’t seen in ages, drawn (it doesn’t take much to figure out) by the unspoken lure of that vision from his youth.

Predictably enough, the vision proves to be a mirage. Things at Egypt (the Hansbury family home) are not as they seem, all the prosperity and happiness of the Hansbury’s is an illusion, and as the novel progresses Michael finds himself in the middle of an anxious, squabbling family drawn together by greed and recrimination, returning from this delightful set-up to his beloved wife thoroughly disillusioned, only to continue the arguments with her. (Oh, there’s also some stuff about lambing ewes in between, though I never quite figured out where Cusk was going with that).

You probably think I’m being needlessly nasty. I assure you I’m not. Or not very much. The truth is that reading In the Fold is like watching someone pick at their own scabs – because that’s exactly what most of the characters in this mercifully short novel are doing most of the time. Cusk, I suspect (though it may be my own bias) would like to be Iris Murdoch. The house in the novel, Egypt, bears a strange country resemblance to the house in The Good Apprentice and the general direction of her plotting – the complicated pairings, the action consisting of conversations about life and philosophy between unhappy people – suggests more than a passing familiarity with Murdoch’s work. Unfortunately, Cusk does not seem to have either the facility of Murdoch’s inventiveness nor the depth and intelligence of her conversations. Many of the conversations in the book seem contrived and obvious. For instance:

“Something happened to me almost as soon as I got there”, I said. “I had an …intimation”

Of what?” said Charlie.

“That my life was going to expand and expand and become beautiful.”

A silence followed this disclosure. The gaze of the two women grew so discomfiting that I added, “It was a quality they had. The Hanburys.”

“And what was this magic quality?” said Charlie.

“They made it seem as though all you had to do was something other than what you thought you should do.”

See what I mean? As conversations go, this is about as eloquent and profound as Cusk gets.

The problem, I think, is that the whole novel seems too artificial, too desperately contrived. Cusk seems to believe that a dozen unhappy relationships are better than one, so that in the bleak world of her novel, all marriages are bitter and almost certain to fail, all children are ungrateful and a disappointment to their parents (if not subject to serious disorders), even all friendships are slowly drifting apart. Ok, so most people live lives of quiet desperation, but do all of them have to? Would it have killed Cusk to include at least one happy person in the whole set-up? Or at least one relationship that wasn’t acrimonious?

Nor does Cusk use a more sparing hand when doling out symbolism. Metaphor is spread thick all over this novel. Michael’s collapsing home life is conveniently and faithfully mirrored by the collapse of a part of his house. The contrast between Egypt and the small suburban house in which Adam now lives (without a view of the sea even) becomes a metaphor for the stifling nature of the world, the way it closes in on us. Even Paul the great patriarch is kind enough to have an operation for prostate cancer as a symbolic gesture of his failing sexual potence and gender dominance. Cusk’s characters aren’t exactly startlingly original (unless you’ve managed to avoid stories about unhappy spouses your entire life – in which case, why start now?), so you would think that we could figure out what motivates them, but Cusk is taking no such chances. One character has issues because of her deeprooted Catholicism, we are told. Another character might as well have the words Electra Complex written above her in neon letters.

The trouble with all this is that it’s really hard to feel an emotional connection to any of Cusk’s characters – they seem less like real people and more like puppets Cusk made up so she can be clever about them. But the artifice is so transparent, the cleverness so trite, and the overall effect so profoundly unmoving, that when the novel ends you just shrug your shoulders and move on.

To be fair, Cusk does have some gift for detail. Some of her descriptions are exceedingly well-written, and the dialogue between the characters (except where she’s trying to drive home her ‘message’, as above) seems authentic enough, if only because, like most people, most of the time they don’t say anything significant or interesting.

That said, In the Fold is a disappointing novel, one that, like many of its characters, seems to exult in its own unhappiness, insisting on its own unhappiness and that of its readers. Avoidable.

[1] I don’t blame her – if I were a character in this novel I would feel stifled and frustrated too.