6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Second Place’ to ‘Tarry Flynn’

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate).

This month the starting book is…

‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk (2021)

Now, I don’t think it’s a secret, but I do not get on with Ms Cusk, having read two of her books in the past, so no surprise that I haven’t read this one and have no interest in doing so, Booker prize-listing or not. I understand it’s a novel about art, so I am going to link to…

‘Night Blue’ by Angela O’Keeffe (2021)

This wonderfully inventive Australian novella is about Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, one of the most expensive paintings ever acquired by the Australian Government, and is narrated by the painting itself. I told you it was inventive!

Another book about art (and with ‘blue’ in the title) is…

‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville (2015)

This rather witty story is about an Irish artist by the name of Oliver Orme who conducts an affair with his best friend’s wife. It’s told from Oliver’s point of view and written in a deliciously pompous voice by a middle-aged man who has a penchant for petty thievery.

Another story about a badly behaved man carrying out an affair is…

‘A Very Scotch Affair’ by Robin Jenkins (1968)

In this classic Scottish novel, a man stuck in a miserable marriage decides to leave his wife even though she’s been diagnosed with cancer. He runs off with his lover and leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. It sounds grim, but it’s actually quite witty — and the reader knows from the start that the man is a total cad and not deserving of our sympathy.

Another novel about a cad is…

‘The Ginger Man’ by JP Donleavy (1955)

In this classic Irish novel set in Dublin, we meet Sebastian Dangerfield, a shameless boozer and womaniser, who misbehaves at every opportunity even though he has a wife and infant child at home. He is the kind of character a reader loves to hate. It’s an enormously fun, if occasionally shocking and ribald, read. It was banned in Ireland for many years.

Another book banned by the Irish Censorship Board is…

The Pilgrimage by John Broderick

‘The Pilgrimage’ by John Broderick (1961)

This gripping novel set in the 1950s is about a fine upstanding church-going woman who has a secret life: she seeks out casual encounters with strange men and has an affair with her husband’s young nephew. It’s a very dark book, one that explores what happens to ordinary men and women when the Catholic Church tries to control sex and sexuality.

Another book that revolves around the Catholic Church’s control of every aspect of Irish life…

Tarry Flynn

‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh (1948)

This is actually a rather charming and often hilarious story about a bachelor farmer in rural Ireland in the 1930s and the pressure he feels to get married and settle down when he’s really not that interested. The local priest, on the other hand, is so worried that the rural area in which the story is set is “in danger of boiling over in wild orgies of lust” that he organises a special Mission to warn parishioners about the sin of sex outside of marriage. But the Mission attracts lots of young women, of marriageable age, so the priest’s plan kind of backfires…

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a literary novel about art to a gentle comedy about an Irish farmer via tales about affairs, men behaving badly and Holy Catholic Ireland.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

2017 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, London, Publisher, Rachel Cusk, Setting, Vintage

‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk

Transit — UK edition

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 272 pages; 2016.

Let me get one thing out of the way: when Rachel Cusk’s Transit was named on the 2017 Giller Prize shortlist my heart sank. That’s because I’d read her previous novel, Outline, when it was shortlisted for the same prize in 2015, and I didn’t much like it. Knowing that this was a follow-up, I expected I probably wouldn’t like this much either. I was right.

A new life in London

Transit picks up where Outline leaves off — though, unusually, you don’t need to have read the first novel to understand the second.

The narrator, Faye, is a writer with two young sons. Newly divorced, she returns to London to start her life afresh. She purchases an ex-council flat in need of serious renovation and finds that her neighbours aren’t particularly pleasant, but doesn’t let this bother her.

There’s no real plot. The narrative revolves around a series of interludes or interactions that the narrator makes with other people — a varied cast including an ex-boyfriend, a builder, one of her students, an unmarried friend and her hairdresser — as she goes about her day-to-day life as a creative writing tutor. This lends Transit more the feel of a collection of short stories, rather than a novel.

Transit — Canadian cover
Cover of the Canadian edition

Unusual structure

This unusual structure does achieve one thing: it slowly builds up a picture of Faye, a passive character who doesn’t shy away from casting judgement on other people. She’s often full of cod philosophy and is (wearily) opinionated, but she’s not particularly endearing.

For instance, during the course of the novel, her children are staying with their father while the builders work on her apartment, but every time they call her she seems cross that they’ve interrupted her day. Even when they call in tears, she doesn’t seem to offer much by way of maternal consolation.

The fragmentary nature of the story is not helped by the aloof tone of voice that is adopted throughout. While the writing is eloquent and insightful, dotted with wisdom and a pseudo intellectualism, the dialogue often feels contrived and not particularly authentic. Nothing ever seems to properly gel.

Despite this, I did enjoy specific chapters (the one set in the hairdressing salon was strangely engaging), but overall I found Transit to be a chore to read and I came away from the entire book feeling mostly ambivalent about it. I think it is fair to say that Rachel Cusk is simply not a writer for me, but you may find otherwise.

This is my 3rd book for the 2017 Shadow Giller Prize.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Publisher, Rachel Cusk, Setting, Vintage

‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk

Outline

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 256 pages; 2015.

“A story might merely be a series of events we believe ourselves to be involved in, but on which we have absolutely no influence at all.” So says one of the characters in Rachel Cusk’s Outline. I quote it here because it’s an almost perfect description of this novel, which revolves around a passive narrator who listens to an endless string of tales told to her by various people over the course of a working trip to Greece.

There’s the man she meets on the aeroplane, who later takes her on a boat trip, and whom she refers to throughout as “my neighbour”. There is the Irishman, who is also in Greece to teach creative writing. There are her students, some more extroverted than others, who tell her stories based on her prompts. There are her friends, whom she’s met on previous trips. And finally there is the new teacher, who will take over her position when she leaves.

All these varied characters tell our narrator stories about themselves — some more memorable than others, it has to be said — which gives Outline the feel of a short story collection rather than as one, cohesive novel.

Disjointed tales about life

Admittedly, I found myself drawn into these individual tales even though I can’t recall the details of them just a week or two after having read the book. Perhaps it’s enough to recall that they were often about big life events, such as marriage, having a family and building a career.

Perhaps the most interesting element is the way in which Cusk litters these stories with references to the art of writing, so that, for instance, mixed messages between people are seen “as a cruel plot device that did sometimes have their counterpart in life” and that the love between a man and a woman “is what you perhaps would call the storyline”. The man she meets on the plane goes so far as to tell her that “a life with no story was not, in the end, a life that I could live”.

But one also has to wonder if Cusk isn’t actually playing a joke on her reader, for in using a narrator who is deliberately passive, you realise that she’s subverted the normal mechanics of the novel and you’re left to take the writing completely on its own terms. Or, as the narrator puts it herself:

I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying – it seemed to me – was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become – to put it bluntly – anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.

Cusk’s writing style is occasionally showy, but mostly it has a weightless kind of quality, so that it slips down rather effortlessly. While the dialogue  — of which there is a lot — is rather forced and unrealistic, the scene setting is excellent, so that Athens in the summer comes very much alive in her hands, as the following quote will attest:

At evening, with the sun no longer overhead, the air developed a kind of viscosity in which time seemed to stand very still and the labyrinth of the city, no longer bisected by light and shade and unstirred by the afternoon breezes, appeared suspended in a kind of dream, paused in an atmosphere of extraordinary pallor and thickness. At some point darkness fell, but otherwise the evenings were strangely without the sense of progression: it didn’t get cooler, or quieter, or emptier of people; the roar of talk and laughter came unstaunched from the glaring terraces of restaurants, the traffic was a swarming, honking river of lights, small children rode their bicycles along the pavements under the bile-coloured streetlamps.

But despite the “experimental” nature of the book and the intelligence (and wit) that resonates off the page, overall Outline, for me, fell somewhat flat. I came away from it knowing I’d enjoyed the experience of reading it, but mostly I felt ambivalent about its strange, yet rather ordinary, contents.

Outline was shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and this year’s Giller Prize, the winner of which will be announced next week.