Let’s call it the garret novel. Say that for years, there has existed a literary impulse devoted to a depiction of office girls living in walk-ups, pigeons cooing at the windows, stockings hanging to dry in the bathroom. Some of Colette’s characters come to mind, Joan Silber’s, Julie Myerson’s, Agnes Rossi’s. If you’ve ever read a novel pitting a still young, still hopeful, still single woman against an indifferent view of a city seen through a sooty window, water boiling in a hot pot for tea, more cough drops than spare change loose in the bottom of the handbag, then you know what kind of novel I’m talking about. Romance, in such novels, butts up against practicality, sexuality against respectability. The men are either laughable or mean-spirited, anyway, worth neither the bus fare nor the wounded dignity required to chase them down or away.
Now imagine our garret feminist plunked in some slyly apocalyptic landscape, the defiantly hopeful idealist making her way through the detritus of a collapsed society. Tama Janowitz’s and Beth Nugent’s books are variations. Kindness, hopefulness, love, in such books, are objects for nostalgia or amused ridicule; their heroines likely to be mistaken for bag ladies, the men for slugs, coiffed or otherwise. Ordinarily the underlying darkness is underlaid with glee. Hilarity in the face of anxious chaos is the issue here.
Finally, relate her misadventures through the eyes of one of Bridget Jones’s cohorts, and what you’ll find, if you’re lucky, is Rachel Cusk’s Saving Agnes, a novel so much more than just clever and sharp that it might be said to be wise. Agnes Day, college graduate, shares a house in a London suburb with her two friends Nina and Merlin. Nina’s hard as nails. Merlin is proof that a kindhearted, upright male, albeit chubby, is a biological possibility, even when all other signs point otherwise. Agnes, at first aimless, wanders the streets in hopes of postponing getting a job, but disappoints herself by being hired by Diplomat’s Week, a magazine catering to bored executives. Finding it “hard to renounce her faith, however unfounded, in the ultimate, inexorable improvement of things,” she travels the Underground to and from work in a daze of words, her impeccably British vocabulary alighting on such topics as puberty (“a hideous eruption of deformities”), Catholicism (with its “perversions like sin and guilt”), dating (Agnes remarks that to fall in love with her current, unnourishing boyfriend would be “a social gaffe . . . like falling in love with a kitchen appliance”), and the days of the week (Tuesday being “a day whose unrelenting tedium was camouflaged by the fact of its not being Monday”).
Throughout, the dynamic between Agnes’s vulnerable nature and the gritty reality of city life is mesmerizing, and her frequent verbal encounters with the city’s dispossessed people provide entertaining grist for the mill. Cusk is, after all, a social philosopher, and what her book lacks in plot, it amply makes up for in worldly astuteness. Agnes is “so far . . . from nature . . . she didn’t even know what month it was,” and her memories of a “pagan” childhood, along with her ongoing visits with her countrified parents and capitalist brother, give Cusk reason to root her heroine’s observations in an extended meditation on economic class, and on the distinctions between childhood and adulthood.
Whether pressed by the subway crowd against an embarrassed, tumescent boy, chatting about singlehood with her office mates, or commiserating with Merlin, Agnes is as witty as she is despairing, and when her adventures with the unnourishing boyfriend culminate in Nina’s telling her, far too late, that the reason the man in question was so indifferent to Agnes was that he was a heroin addict, Agnes’s brand of percipient existentialism is moving and affecting. Meanwhile, just as her lot improves at work, and her rather bumbling performance evolves into the promise of professional success, her money-conscious brother loses his job, and the siblings’ long habit of arguing about economic justice, with Agnes rooting for the underdog and Tom for the yuppie, puts them in an uncomfortable position. Already Agnes has observed that her and her brother’s feuds are really an excuse for them to avoid a more personal exchange, but thus prepared, the reader is surprised, and stirred, by their burgeoning closeness, an event further buoyed by the caricaturish mother turning out to be a thinker.
This is not a book whose humor and irony stand in for real heart, nor is it a book whose detailed surface camouflages an absence of depth. Cusk has heart and depth in abundance, and Saving Agnes showcases both.