In the Fold: similes

John Mullan on the use of similes in Rachel Cusk's In the Fold

"It was as though we had risen through the clouds up into the roots of another world." Thus Michael, the narrator of Rachel Cusk's novel In the Fold, tells us of his arrival at "Egypt", the isolated Somerset hill farm owned by the family of his friend Adam Hanbury. The Hanburys' world is indeed strangely removed from normality. In the book's first chapter, Michael recalls his first visit to Egypt, as a student, for the 18th birthday party of Adam's sister. It is a dreamy idyll, and the eccentricities of the Hanburys are captivating. For the rest of the novel, Michael narrates his return visit, 16 years later, and their peculiarities become more ominous.

As the name might suggest, Egypt is otherworldly, and Michael's recollection of his first impressions conveys this. "The grass was like felt ... it looked like a painting, executed as though from memory: its sheep and horses, its fields and fences, looked recollected ... shimmering as though they were surrounded by water, were two smaller rises of a strange, distinctly pyramidal shape." (Is this why it is "Egypt"? We are never told.) The place is not exactly described. Rather, the narrator reaches for likenesses and comparisons: " ... like ... looked like ... as though ..."

This groping after impressions fits the place, but it is also the characteristic of Cusk's narrator. Michael's narration is formed by his habit of similes. Everything seems like something else. He is a melancholy spectator and listener, and his similes enact his alienation from his own experiences. Rather than helping you to see something more clearly, they take you away from the concrete into the abstract. He tells us how he was first driven to Egypt, down a narrow, coastal road that was "like a pointless, rambling sentence that never succeeds in conveying information or reaching any meaningful conclusion". The likeness, surely, is in the mind of the observer. Tricks of light and weather are noticed, and then a simile makes them less imaginable, not more. "Great clouds foamed at the top of the hill, grey and white, like something beaten out of a distant ferment." The "ferment", you think, must be in the narrator's mind, though expressed only in such figurative reflexes.

Michael's favourite kind of simile is introduced with the words "as though". The phrase is his signature; almost every paragraph of narrative or description in the book has at least one of these. Even those that purport to give us the exact appearance of things in fact distance the narrator from his experiences. "The hill stood out as though electrified, each tiny spear of grass differentiated from the next." Or they convert something ordinary into something bizarre, as when Michael describes the hotel-like interior of a private hospital, with its "atmosphere of discretion that bordered on secrecy, as though the question of sickness were inadmissible; as though, were a drama ever to unfold here, it would manifest itself in the spectacle not of disease but of celebration of life itself". "Simile" is a word for the device, but really it is more like reverie. Sometimes, as here, they are pursued like metaphysical conceits, except that they are based not on intellectual logic but on the mere force of a personal impression.

Frequently Michael uses this figurative device to give us his sense of another character, observed with a kind of cruel puzzlement. Adam's once-beautiful mother Audrey retains "the tousled hairstyle of her earlier era, although today it looked slightly askew, as though it had been thrown at her head and nearly missed". The mix of the comic and the manic is characteristic of the Hanburys. Adam's step-mother Vivian, with whom Audrey shares some intimate bond of hate or comradeship, is equally strange in the narrator's eye. When she smiles at him, it is "rakishly, with one side of her mouth. The other side remained downturned, as though half of her were perpetually reminding the other half of occasions on which an optimistic approach to things had not paid off". Is this insight, or fantasy?

As with his similes for the external world, the narrator's analogies are both vivid and perplexing. Michael is always telling you how others seem, but in such a way as to estrange them as well as describe them. This is especially true of his wife, Rebecca, obscurely desperate and resentful of him. He always explains her behaviour "as though ..." demonstrating something unexplained. He sees her cleaning out a cupboard, her hands "white at the peaks of the knuckles, betraying like a tide-mark the steady presence of emotional frenzy as though it moved within her ... now rising, now subsiding". It is a brilliant idea, but it tells us of the unknowability of her feelings as well as their intensity. It is as if the narrator's ingenuity with similes is a measure of his perplexity, of the world's "as though"-ness.

· John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Join him and Rachel Cusk for a discussion of In the Fold on August 10 at the Newsroom, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1. Doors open at 6.30pm and entry costs £7. Call 020 7886 9281 or email book.club@theguardian.com

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John Mullan

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