Reviewing a book as erudite and as confident as this is in many ways a challenge, as Nicole Cushing’s ambitious work demands to be judged by the highest standards. A Sick Gray Laugh is very firmly in one of the oldest of the traditions of the novel. Playful, clever, at times spellbinding and always brave, the narrative is in the style mastered by Lawrence Sterne in the eighteenth century in his astonishing work The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. We are, very early on, introduced to the character of “the writer”, Noelle Cashman. We are posed various questions and challenges from the very start, and we are firmly patronised, though always with wit and charm, when our frustration or fascination are anticipated: “These are entirely reasonable questions,” writes “Cashman”, “Be patient. All shall be revealed.”
The toughest thing about writing a book in this way is that now it is always arch, post-modern, and therefore to many readers rather annoying. Sterne did not quite have this problem. The very birth of the modern form of the novel, forty years before Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy, came from a journalistic style of ‘true account’ made popular by variously exaggerated ‘shipwreck narratives’ and similarly sensationalised accounts of supposedly real events. Daniel Defoe came up with the brilliant idea of making one up entirely, and the rest is (more or less) history. The novel was not, in those first few decades, ever unproblematically a thing of fiction, and so Sterne’s extreme take on the idea that the reader might be being led up the garden path was, despite its oddness, not particularly out of genre. But fast forward almost a quarter of a millennium and the challenge of successfully writing a novel in which an unreliable narrator tries to define their audience, run rings around them and maintain enough distance to keep the reader’s interest in the story, while simultaneously weaving enough narrative trickery to maintain what can be a wearing style to read (never mind to write), is, well, enormous.
So: what’s the story? We read that “Cashman”, a writer on the borderline of sanity, has decided to write about the “Grayness” in which she finds herself, in the fictional American Midwest town of Naumpton. (Like other readers, I frequently wanted to check Cashman’s references to identify where she was inventing and where weaving real but little known (to me anyway) writers, books and events into the novel, itself a tribute to the panache with which she writes.) She does this, in proper Shandean style, through multiple digressions and layers of narrative. We read philosophical and religious theories of Grayness, hear several foundation stories in the “Colourful” history of the town of Naumpton during what for me was by far the most compelling section of the book, and in the final section see Cashman either descending into madness (or fiction) or not in what can be read as an indictment of gun-frenzied US society. However, for someone more into Cushing, I should imagine there’s a healthy dose of irony here given the apparently explicit and ultra violent nature of many of her other works of fiction.
As you can probably tell, although I found an awful lot to like about A Sick Gray Laugh – and who doesn’t enjoy reading something that’s not only well put together and well researched, but contains much that’s surprising, and which is so clearly an intellectual cut above much in the horror genre – there were many aspects I found hard to love. It is probably worth confessing at this point that although, or perhaps because, I love Tristram Shandy, I find it hard to really get into works which try similar narrative tricks. I am not ashamed to say that I never got close to finishing Infinite Jest, for example, and I would be a liar if I claimed reading Ulysses had been a highlight of university study.
In terms of weaknesses, then, the most obvious is that when writing in a digressive style, you must either keep digressions short and sharp or make them genuinely interesting enough to fill almost an entire novel. The historical section does this well, but other digressions, for example on a skinned knee, and a critique of the Desiderata, do not. The latter in particular seems pointless unless it is intended to operate on a level of irony I have failed to detect. Of all paper tigers to take on, I should think the Desiderata should be dealt with by an epigram or a single sly comment rather than a couple of chapters. And when – inevitably – Cashman has a sly go at the very practice of metafiction, it is hard to manage more than a perfunctory chuckle. One further weakness which some will not detect is that Cashman / Cushing defines an audience as she writes – another common feature of metafictional writing of course – but she does so with great specificity, making the reader who does not immediately identify with said audience feel not only excluded but rather demotivated from continuing. It felt a little like watching the social media feed of a celebrity in whom one has no interest – the in-jokes are indecipherable and much of the discourse rendered meaningless. And finally – unless I missed something – it seemed very odd to have the theme of full-face veils as a central one without making some reference at least to how many in the west, and surely the American Midwest, respond to some forms of Islamic dress. It felt, reading it, as a constant absence; presumably deliberate, though it was not entirely clear why such a choice would be made by a writer feted for her taboo-breaking in other works. I could have done without the skinned knee and the take-down of the Desiderata in exchange for at least a direct attempt to make a meaningful connection in this regard.
But to return to the start, this is an ambitious novel which is mostly a great pleasure to read. Its (of course, arch) description of how a historian, rather than a novelist, works, which in itself is part of a thematic repetition of, well, repetition, is compelling and beautifully phrased:
“There’s something about the historian’s craft that makes them blind to the workings of chaos. They believe history falls into easily understood patterns, and that we can find the right answers to our current dilemmas by cracking the code of analogies.”
And in the end I enjoyed A Sick Gray Laugh, and as a writer, Cushing has phenomenal range and a bewitching confidence. Different readers may like its different sections more or less; those who are fans may find themselves more successfully carried along by the metafictional aspects because they are more directly being addressed. It is well researched, and the mixture of fiction and history is seamlessly done, for the most part; and the different layers of horror (horrific images, horrific ideas, horrific normalities) are well combined. But… it’s no Tristram Shandy, and it reads like it wants to be.