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In 'Parade,' Rachel Cusk once again flouts traditional narrative

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In 'Parade,' Rachel Cusk once again flouts traditional narrative

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In her latest novel, Parade, Rachel Cusk once again flouts traditional narrative to probe questions about the connections between freedom, gender, domesticity, art, and suffering in a series of fractured, loosely connected, quasi-essayic fictional episodes.

But Parade is a more abstract and less inviting construct than Cusk’s Outline trilogy and her 2021 novel Second Place. However unconventional, each of those books features a woman writer who provides a narrative through-line: Faye, in the celebrated trilogy, seeks to find her footing after a bitter divorce by eliciting others’ revelatory confidences, while the writer dubbed “M” in Second Place recounts her obsession with a famous painter dubbed “L.”

Cusk’s 12th book of fiction offers no such centralized narrative maypole, repeatedly shifting direction and leaving readers in the lurch. Parade is divided into four sections, whose titles — “The Stuntman,” “The Midwife,” “The Diver,” and “The Spy” — could be read as thumbnail descriptors for how multiple artists, all called G, produce their art. The fact that Cusk’s parade of deracinated seekers are all identified by the same initial is obviously meant to suggest a connection between them. But the deliberately obfuscating shared initial, combined with erratic jumps between first- and third-person narration, struck me as not just off-putting but pretentious. While Cusk’s aim is apparently a sort of Cubist group portrait of her artists, she has taken her experimental abstraction too far this time.

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“The Stuntman” begins boldly, with a line that made me think of another G man, the satirical Ukrainian Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Cusk writes: “At a certain point in his career the artist G, perhaps because he could find no other way to make sense of his time and place in history, began to paint upside down.” We’re told that while no one knows whether G actually painted upside down or simply inverted his finished canvases, he was careful to establish the painting’s preferred orientation with his signature.

In a remark that could apply to her own artistic trajectory, Cusk notes that after being “savagely criticised” for his early work, G’s new approach garnered “a fresh round of awards and honours that people seemed disposed to offer him almost no matter what he did.”

More parallels with Cusk’s own creative arc emerge in her account of G’s development. The painter, she writes, deeply affected by his poisonous early reception, “had found a way out of his artistic impasse, caught as he had felt himself to be between the anecdotal nature of representation and the disengagement of abstraction.” Cusk, who was vilified for her harsh take on motherhood and domesticity in her early books, also shifted gears to emerge triumphant with her innovative Outline.

But not everyone approved of the “new reality” reflected in G’s upended canvases. “His wife believed that with this development he had inadvertently expressed something disturbing about the female condition.”

The stuntman of this tale is not just the artist G but also his wife, inverted in her husband’s unflattering portraits. And it is also the woman — who may or many not be the artist’s wife — who, disoriented after an unprovoked attack by a deranged woman while walking in an unnamed city, describes her sense of an alternate self in which she is “a kind of stuntman.” In a way, all of Cusk’s female characters — artists, writers, wives, gallerists — are stuntmen fighting what one of them calls the “quicksands of female irrelevance.”

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“The Stuntman” ends with G and this woman traveling to another unnamed city to see a retrospective exhibition of works by a female sculptor, also called G. This exhibit, shut down on its opening day by a suicide at the museum, figures again in the novel’s third section, “The Diver,” in which the museum’s director and the artist’s biographer gather with other art professionals to discuss the day’s upsetting events over dinner, noting how the suicide mirrors the “power of disturbance” in the featured sculptor’s work.

Their wide-ranging conversation evokes the sort of earnest intellectual exchanges that people have in French movies. It is classic Cusk, touching on questions about art’s relationship to morality and the challenges of combining art with marriage and motherhood. These issues are also raised in the novel’s dark, fairy-tale-like second section, “The Midwife,” in which another female artist named G is trapped in a horrible marriage to a man who seizes control of their daughter and disapproves of his wife’s work, though not the money it generates.

The last section of the novel, “The Spy,” is a bit of an outlier, evoking the sad impossibility of resolution after the death of parents with whom one has had a contentious relationship (as Cusk did with hers). It is about a filmmaker — called G, of course — who broke away from his loveless childhood by adopting a pseudonym. This anonymity gave him freedom, but also led to a sense of detachment, with “no investment in the game of life. He is a spy; his ego is exiled, at bay.”

In Parade, as in all her recent work, Cusk strives toward what she has lauded in Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg’s writing: “a more truthful representation of reality” through “a careful use of distance that is never allowed to become detachment.” But this novel, intermittently intriguing but mostly alienating, asks too much of readers.

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President Biden Addresses Nation After Dropping Out, Time For New Generation

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President Biden Addresses Nation After Dropping Out, Time For New Generation

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These dictators are different. 'Autocracy, Inc.' explains how

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These dictators are different. 'Autocracy, Inc.' explains how

Naval vessels participate in a Taiwanese military drill near the naval port in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan on Jan. 27, 2016.

Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images


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The United States and other major democracies face the most challenging geopolitical landscape in decades. The crises include a bloody battle for land in Eastern Europe that challenges the principle of territorial sovereignty, the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the coming years and a brutal war in Gaza that could still spread.

We are in a new era, but how do we define it, and what is the fundamental threat?

Several recent books tackle this crucial question. New York Times White House and National Security correspondent David Sanger calls this historical moment “New Cold Wars.” He sees the U.S. defending the West against a rising China and resurgent Russia. CNN anchor and Chief National Security analyst Jim Sciutto calls it “The Return of Great Powers.”

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In her new book, the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum takes a different, more sweeping view. We are not in Cold War 2.0, she argues, but a battle for the future world order against what she calls “Autocracy, Inc., The Dictators Who Want to Rule the World.

Autocracy, Inc., is not a club. There are no meetings like SPECTRE in a James Bond movie, where villains give progress reports on their kleptocratic gains and attacks on democracy. Instead, Applebaum writes, it is a very loosely knit mix of regimes, ranging from theocracies to monarchies, that operate more like companies. What unites these dictators isn’t an ideology, but something simpler and more prosaic: a laser-focus on preserving their wealth, repressing their people and maintaining power at all costs.

These regimes can help each other in ways large and small, Applebaum writes.

Countries such as Zimbabwe, Belarus and Cuba voted in favor of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the United Nations in 2014. Russia gave loans to Venezuela’s authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro, while Venezuelan police use Chinese-made water cannons, tear gas and surveillance equipment to attack and track street protesters.

Of course, U.S. companies have also supplied authoritarian regimes. When covering the crushing of the democracy movement in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, I rummaged through bins of empty rubber bullet canisters made by a company in Pennsylvania.

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More recently and more alarming, though, have been China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin’s June visit to North Korea, which the U.S. accuses of supplying weapons to Russia.

But Autocracy Inc., uses more than conventional arms to attack democracies. In order to retain power and build more wealth, autocrats also undermine the idea of democracy as a viable choice for their own people. Fearful of its former Soviet republics drifting further West – see Ukraine – Russia and its three main TV channels broadcast negative news about Europe an average of 18 times a day during one three-year stretch.

Autocracy, Inc.

China extends its message through local media and helps other dictatorships. After satellite networks dropped Russia Today – RT – following the invasion of Ukraine, China’s StarTimes satellite picked up RT and put it back into African households, where it could spread Moscow’s anti-Western, anti-LGBTQ message, which resonates in many African nations.

The goal is not to persuade people that autocracy is the answer, but to encourage cynicism about the alternative. Applebaum says the message is this: You may not like our society, but at least we are strong and the democratic world is weak, degenerate, divided and dying.  

How did the world end up here?

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Applebaum is strong on how Western misjudgment and greed enabled and empowered autocrats over the decades. A working theory in Washington and Berlin was that greater economic integration and dependency between the West and China and Russia would serve as a glue and deterrent, making conflict too costly. But Europe’s dependence on Russian gas predictably backfired. Moscow used it as a source of blackmail following the invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, corporate America’s heavy investment in China helped fuel the country’s extraordinary economic rise, but didn’t lead to the desired political results. Instead of becoming a more liberal, Western-friendly regime, the Communist Party became a more powerful rival. Among other things, Beijing used its new wealth to build islands in the South China Sea and a blue-water navy to challenge America’s.

At just over two hundred pages, Applebaum’s book is slender. She might have done more to detail the boomerang effect of globalization. When American companies exported jobs to China, they cut labor costs, boosted profits and lowered prices for consumers. Those business decisions devastated communities built on everything from auto plants to furniture factories.

That sowed the seeds for the populist backlash in 2016 that continues to roil the country to the benefit of America’s authoritarian opponents.

What is to be done? First, make life harder for dictators.

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Applebaum says democratic nations have to make it more difficult for kleptocrats to stash their money overseas. She suggests an international coalition of treasury and finance ministry officials across Europe, Asia and North America work to strengthen transparency and tighten laws together.

This will be tough. Kleptocrats make lucrative clients for lawyers, financiers and real estate agents. One of London’s unofficial industries is money-laundering. And, in a complex political landscape, it can be useful for democracies to work with corrupt regimes to achieve bigger goals.

Another way to combat dictatorship is for democracies to deliver at home, as Charles Dunst argues in Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman. Political grid-lock, income inequality, stagnant wages and rising crime can provide fertile ground for populists.

Anti-incumbency and accountability have stood out as themes during this epic year of elections as voters punished long-serving parties, such as the Conservatives in the UK and the African National Congress in South Africa.

More broadly, Applebaum says, democratic countries need to reduce their economic dependence on authoritarian rivals. Europe’s reliance on Russian gas was an embarrassing and costly lesson. Minerals could prove another one for the United States.

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Today, the U.S. only produces 4% of the world’s lithium and 13% of its cobalt, while China processes more than 80% of all critical minerals.

With the world’s next geopolitical fault-line perhaps lying in the waters around the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, this kind of math just doesn’t figure.

Frank Langfitt is NPR’s Global Democracy correspondent. Previously, he spent nearly two decades reporting overseas, based in Beijing, Nairobi, Shanghai and London. In February 2022, he covered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

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LVMH Shares Slump 6% After Missing Q2 Estimates

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LVMH Shares Slump 6% After Missing Q2 Estimates
A lack of visibility for the second half of the year beyond the easing of comparative figures — as the Chinese post-pandemic lockdown bounce tapered off a year ago — is unlikely to improve investor sentiment regarding the high end sector, Citi analyst Thomas Chauvet said in an emailed note to clients.
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