21: In the Fold

In the Fold by Rachel Cusk

First new-to-me author in a while. I’d seen Rachel Cusk mentioned/quoted a few places this year and she sounded like someone I might like to read, so when I saw a couple of her books at the library sale I picked them up.  And I still think that might be the case, but I wasn’t particularly enthused by In the Fold.

In the Fold is about Michael, who is invited to his university roommate Adam’s sister’s 18th birthday party. He goes to the party, at the family home (estate? farm?), and develops an impression of the Hanburys that he carries with him throughout his life (eccentric, bohemian, etc.). He starts a career, marries, has a son, and falls out of touch with Adam, though he keeps thinking about him and his family. As his marriage goes south, he contacts Adam and is invited to visit. Michael becomes reacquainted with the family and realizes they’re not so much charmingly eccentric as boorish and self-centered.

At first I thought, maybe it’s just too British (i.e. maybe I’m just not getting it). I do think there’s a whole class thing going on here, the nuances of which I, in my provincial North-American-ness cannot fully understand. But I don’t know, it was more that all the characters were unpleasant to be around. Yes, even 3-year-old Hamish. It a very tiring read. I don’t think characters need to be likable (in the sense you want your friends and family to be likable) but they need to have some kind of appeal. (Tom Ripley isn’t likable—he’s a psychopath!—but he is fascinating.)  Or else there needs to be some kind of urgency that propels the reader forward. But there was no urgency. And the only emotion these characters generated was a halfhearted impulse to slap them upside the head.

Actually, my mention of Tom Ripley has helped me pin down the issue: I think it was that it was that there was no doubt that the reader was supposed to find these characters unpleasant. In a character study, I want to be more conflicted about the characters, to be drawn to—despite his/her faults—the despicable character or to be repulsed by—despite his/her attributes—the virtuous character. Here everyone was unrelentingly mean and selfish and vapid. Which I suppose is a statement on modern society, but… meh.

At any rate, Cusk’s writing was very good, so I will try again with the second book I picked up (Arlington Park).