Nightmare days with the secretary from hell

Rachel Cusk's heroine is cheap and tacky, but the prose is ornate and hyper-refined. The Temporary by Rachel Cusk Macmillan, pounds 9.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
If you liked Rachel Cusk's Whitbread winner, Saving Agnes, then you'll probably like this too - indeed, you may even prefer it. The Temporary is generally a smoother read, with less crammed into each sentence: the novelist has established her style and seems more relaxed. The horribly named Francine Snaith, the temp of the title, is utterly unsympathetic, but then Agnes was similarly self-obsessed and it didn't stop her from winning prizes.

Francine is a parodic figure, a monstrous inflation of the London secretary stereotype, devoid of everything but the cheapest fantasy, waiting vacuously for "something more creative" to come along. Within her own pre-packaged office milieu at Lancing & Loucho, her surroundings are equal to her, and her dangerousness is limited. However, in Cusk's experiment, satire impacts with the real world, bringing Francine like a nightmare into the life of educated and emotionally complex Ralph. Beauty, Francine's only positive quality, leads Ralph astray for a night, but he tries to shirk further acquaintance. She has no real interest in him either, yet, motivated by pure vanity, manages somehow decides somehow to enmesh him. Each baffles and bores the other, yet it all drags on depressingly thanks to Ralph's weakness and Francine's tenacity, unwilling as she is to release a man who has inexplicably failed to adore her.

The atmosphere of urban solitude strongly described in Saving Agnes is re-evoked in the greyer reaches of Kilburn and north Camden. Cusk provokes acute discomfort by detailing the awkward encounters that are avoided with guilt and relief on a city walk; a madman flailing around park benches, a homeless woman lying on a pavement, someone thrusting a free newspaper on passers-by. All this irredeemable isolation is most memorably phrased in the case of Ralph's father, "a master of evasion, blockading all routes to the past, bricking up vistas of the future, until all that was left of him was a tiny room in which a man sat in an armchair watching television."

Flashes of withering humour spark across this dark horizon. Imperfections are ruthlessly singled out: "On the chair, the cheeks of her buttocks were forced sideways like a tomato crushed underfoot". But it is vanity of all kinds that provokes the most merciless wit: "his handsomeness was fatigued from over-use."

Cusk still occasionally lets her impressive vocabulary lead from the front to unwieldy effect: "the presence of an audience imbued her with exigence." At other moments she incongruously applies her fine writing, dense with imagery, to the most prosaic subjects. There are, surely, situations which are beneath metaphor, even in satire - "rivers of Terylene cascaded from the mouths of his suitcases."

Foremost among these unworthy subjects is Francine herself, whose deadening qualities Cusk describes with such sophistication, as if to prove that she can make you want to read the least promising material through the sheer coercion of good prose. Francine may simply not know what she wants, but it all sounds so much more interesting and universal the way Cusk puts it: "Her motives were listless things, grown diffident from her failure to examine them."

In Cusk's probing, analytical style, introspection and narrative succeed each other without announcement. The former generally takes precedence over action, however, leading down the blind alleys of Francine's mind and the torturous paths of Ralph's, to uncertain end. It is not clear what remains when, the book complete, the tide of their obscure reflections draws back. Ralph has fought a losing battle against the formlessness of his personality, all his self-questioning having led to little learning. Francine is too unengaging to provoke either pity or substantial dislike. Rachel Cusk is unmistakably talented, which is why her writing deserves more compelling subjects.