Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations is one of the more maddening books I’ve read this year. Cusk is an accomplished prose stylist, whose uniquely dry, acidic tone is unmistakable. Her novels offer dissections of English suburban life and its discontents: in Cusk’s world, suburbia is equivalent to capitulation, an obsession with distance from London (closer being better), coupled with a whopping case of real estate mania.
Cusk’s nonfiction A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother is a strangely dispassionate work that barely mentions her husband. Another memoir, The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy, will appear next month. The publicity materials enclosed in my review copy of The Bradshaw Variations were for this memoir, which had the reverse effect. Instead of the usual small rush of happiness I feel when a favorite author has a new book on the horizon, I was irritated. What is Cusk so pissed off about? Both Arlington Park and The Bradshaw Variations sings songs of quiet desperation being the English way, and followed by a summer in Italy, something most of us can only dream about.
I am guilty here of confusing the author with her work, a grave sin I’d be less inclined towards had A Life’s Work been a little less chilly. Cusk and her work strike me as very much all of a piece, which is a bitter take on a lifestyle that, while not without compromises, is nothing to bitch about. Most of the world doesn’t get to worry about their gardens or how their houses measure up against their neighbor’s elegant estate. In this, The Bradshaw Variations, like its predecessors, is both beautiful and coldly written, its characters a collection of variously dislikable people whose comfortable circumstances make then difficult to pity.
Meet Thomas and Tonie Bradshaw. They live in a dark, narrow, listing house an hour outside London with their daughter, Alexa, and a Polish boarder named Olga. Olga’s presence is never explained; the Bradshaws are financially comfortable, and as Thomas has left his job to be a househusband, they have no need of a nanny.
Indeed, Thomas and Tonie’s role switch is the heart of the novel. Tonie, an English professor, has been named Department Chair, a demanding position that pays enough for Thomas resign his position, taking over home duties. Though one could say the problems begin here, it’s clear the problems began earlier: though the couple are outwardly compatible, they are so detached they barely speak. Thomas is completely lost in his new role, a genial-enough bumbler who allows the house to fall into complete disorder as he attempts mastering the piano, worrying all the while about the meaning of Art. He cares lovingly for Alexa, but he is a weak man, frightened by his young daughter’s precocious composure, too disorganized even to remember the batteries she needs for her alarm clock.
Tonie is even less appealing. She recognizes something is missing, and wonders why her powerful new position doesn’t fill the void. Here she is on the train to work, contemplating her neighbors:
In Tonie’s experience, these are people whose capacity for deep, undisclosed suffering and worldly indifference, for extreme feats of virtue or nihilism, for the repression of passions and staunchness in the face of reality, is so violent that it ought to leave some visible mark on their surroundings; and yet the surface of their lives is so bare as to suggest a reluctance to impose themselves on the world that runs deeper still.
Tonie considers their homes, many lacking basic comforts or minimal efforts at decor—one friend has left a strip of wallpaper hanging for years, after satisfying her curiosity about what lay beneath—concluding, “facts outlive emotions, and that knowledge is more powerful than love…There are infinite things to know, but the capacity for love is just that…a space that can hold so much and no more.”
This is Cusk at her most frustrating. The passage, like the rest of the book, is exquisitely written and bitterly incisive. But where is the happiness, the pleasure? Only Thomas’s elder brother Howard, unexpectedly successful, has happy moments, and even these are tempered by his whiny wife, would-be artist Claudia. Thomas’s younger brother, Leo, turns the simple task of buying a winter coat into the equivalent of a middle-aged woman shopping for a bikini, complete with rage at fellow shoppers and an episode of existentialist horror. His wife, Susie, is an alcoholic, a reality their children freely announce while Leo assiduously looks the other direction.
Even the elders are in on the act. Thomas’ parents, Dads and Ma, fight horribly. Dads is condescending to everyone, his increasingly forgetful wife included. When Tonie’s parents appear for dinner, they criticize Thomas’ decision to stay home and fret over Tonie’s deliberate slenderness.
Nobody is happy, not even young Alexa, whose child radar remorselessly analyzes her parents’ discord. Olga also has a chapter to herself, the immigrant’s perspective of England, one only marginally better than that of its native citizenry. Yet the reader, snared by Cusk’s tremendous talent, keeps reading.
Something is bound to happen, some sea change. Isn’t that what good fiction does? Take both reader and characters on a redemptive journey? Perhaps not: everyone in The Bradshaw Variations, save Howard, remains unhappy. We never really learn what would soothe their anxious souls. They don’t know themselves. The book concludes with a disaster, a tragedy wrought equally by Thomas and Tonie, borne silently, ending with neither the wiser nor the couple any closer.
The Bradshaw Variations comes to readers at a difficult time. A colleague of mine from Nashville saw her mother’s home on television last week. The waterline stopped at the second floor. As I write, oil is washing up on Louisiana’s already beleaguered shores. Haitians are starving in the streets; Thailand is in chaos, and so on.
Against such a backdrop, a novel about middle-aged suffering has to work hard to be taken seriously. Certainly Cusk is not to be blamed for world suffering, but one cannot help reading The Bradshaw Variations and finding Thomas, Tonie, and their relatives remarkably self-involved.
Good novels centering on the unsettling compromises of wealthy midlife are possible. Consider Cusk’s contemporary, Lionel Shriver, an American writer living in London. Shriver’s writing is caustic enough to strip paint, but she leavens it with humor and a hearty appreciation for life’s pleasures. Good sex, tasty food, nice clothing, and natural beauty all have their place in Shriver’s equally bitter works. They offset the brutality of her material—murderous teenagers, infidelity, mortal illness—enough to make reading possible without wanting to reach for the carving knife once the novel closes.
We are not owed happy endings, in life or art, and Cusk refuses us one here. She deserves credit for standing by her artistic vision. Are readers wiser after reading The Bradshaw Variations? Yes: we recognize that miserable people may not change, even in fictionland, where we so ardently wish they might. Better we read Cusk than the latest chick lit dreck. (Have you seen the book—for adult women—about having an invisible friend? Shoot me now.) Ye gods and little fishes, though, a little humor would help to get the Kaopectate down.