Books

“I Have Lost All Interest in Having a Self”

Rachel Cusk returns to the scene of the crime: nonfiction.

Rachel Cusk
Rachel Cusk
Siemon Scamell-Katz

A few years before she wrote the genre-redefining Outline trilogy, Rachel Cusk found herself in a state of, as she put it, “creative death.” Her provocative memoirs were being met with barbed, merciless criticism, driving her away from the genre for which she was known best. The striking ambivalence toward motherhood portrayed in A Life’s Work elicited condemnations of her as a bad mother; her travel memoir The Last Supper attracted a libel lawsuit and eventually was withdrawn in England. But only in 2012, after she published her unsparing divorce memoir, Aftermath, did critics fully pounce. To her detractors, Aftermath betrayed Cusk’s worst tendencies: It was tedious and self-absorbed, hazy on details and cluttered with expositions of Greek mythology. It could also be cruelly one-sided: Reviewing the book for the Sunday Times, Camilla Long famously accused Cusk of being a “brittle little dominatrix” and “peerless narcissist” who had few qualms about wringing her ex-husband out to dry. (The review won the Hatchet Job of the Year award.)

Cusk began to fear she could no longer write autobiography without misunderstanding. The problem was, as she informed the Guardian in 2014, she had no alternative. She admitted she found fiction “fake and embarrassing”: “Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous,” she remarked.

Her solution was to dispense with conventions of plot and character in her autofictional Outline trilogy. “I have lost all interest in having a self,” she told the New Yorker, and so she untethered what happened from the “self” it happened to, creating an “annihilated perspective” that she thought could be the basis of something more interesting. Beginning in 2014’s Outline, the trilogy’s self-effacing narrator, Faye, rarely speaks. Instead, she moves through the world absorbing the profound testimonies of her interlocutors, who never cease to conjure long, eloquent insights about their condition and the meaning of life. Faye, who bears biographical similarities to Cusk (writer, the mother of two children, divorced), appeared to be her wry reply to critics: What better replacement for a vicious narcissist, as they saw her, than a woman so passive as to be disembodied?

It worked. Critics called the trilogy a “literary masterpiece” and Cusk “one of the smartest writers alive.” Rightfully so, perhaps: Cusk is a brilliant, perspicacious social critic whose crisp prose is only matched by the elegance of her insights. She succeeded in creating the feeling, as she herself wrote admiringly of Natalia Ginzburg, “that you know the author profoundly, without having very much idea of who she is.” To her, this unintrusive perspective seemed more truthful to reality than a conventional story, and although she knew full objectivity or passivity was impossible, the trilogy nonetheless was a noble experiment. The New Yorker’s Katy Waldman called Kudos, the final volume, a book about the failure to write a negative literature “that is not, in itself, a failure. In fact, it is a breathtaking success.”

Coventry, Cusk’s first collection of essays, is a daring return to her own voice. Divided between personal memoir, social commentary, and literary criticism, with memoir comprising the majority, it delves piercingly into familiar realms of motherhood, divorce, art, feminism, and family. The title of the collection comes from a 2016 Granta essay in which Cusk describes her long history of being “sent to Coventry,” an English idiom for being ostracized and ignored. In this case, her mercurial parents are the ones who withdraw communication without as much as a phone call. The essay unravels into a keen, affecting meditation on the nature of silence and its relationship to the stories we tell to give our lives coherence. Silence can symbolize unhappiness, Cusk suggests, erasure from the script of a happy family—or it can be a sign of contentment, peace. “Like learning to ride a bicycle,” she discovers, growing accustomed to her husband’s quiet, “ silence was something that looked impossible for the outside but, once mastered, afforded a certain freedom. It demanded trust.”

Cusk is occupied with stories—their flimsiness, their evasions, their necessity for order. In “Coventry,” Cusk maintains that her cooperation with her parents’ story enabled their callous behavior: “It would be hard to send someone to Coventry who refused to believe they were there, just as it’s hard to fight a pacifist,” she explains. This theme, the possible splintering from a commonly-agreed upon version of events, threads itself through the collection. In “On Rudeness,” she compares the result of the Brexit referendum to being the child of divorce: “Before, there was one truth, one story, one reality; now there are two.” A near-identical sentiment appears in “Lions on Leashes,” chronicling the inevitable rebellion of teenagers against their parents. At times, her obsession with stories can seem too cerebral, detached from what’s actually at stake: In “Making a Home,” Cusk is livid when she discovers her daughter threw a hundred-person party in their apartment. Later, as her anger subsides, she realizes that what bothered her was “the pain of discovering that my narrative of home had been—or so it felt—mocked and rejected.” I’d be more upset about the permanent stench of weed.

Nowhere is her abstraction more perplexing than in “Aftermath,” an earlier, shorter version of her much-maligned memoir. Justifications for the divorce are muddled, opaque. “My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously,” she writes. “This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it. This was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories.” Reviewing Aftermath for the Guardian in 2012, Frances Stonor Saunders identified “something so vertiginously condescending in this statement that one is almost sucked off the cliff face of the page.” Years later, it does not seem any less smug or dishonest; “Aftermath,” after all, is page after page of her own self-constructed account, one that meanders into tiresome tangents on gender norms to proclaim, bizarrely, that as a woman who abided by her parents’ “male values” she is not a feminist but a “self-hating transvestite.”

This subtle hypocrisy recalls an exchange from the opening chapter of Outline, during which Faye, seated next to an aging Greek man on a plane, bristles at the lack of objectivity in her neighbor’s portrayal of his marriages. “This was a story in which I sensed the truth was being sacrificed to the narrator’s desire to win,” she remarks, observing how certain characters were invariably displayed in a favorable light, while others were condemned. The central tension of the Outline trilogy was that Faye was ostensibly a blank, neutral observer while actively sculpting the reality readers occupied. She selected what details to include; everything was read through her own scrupulous, anesthetized prose. In Coventry, Cusk’s hand is more visible, especially in her essays on figures like Olivia Manning, D.H. Lawrence, and Ginzburg, in which she illuminates what she aims for her own work—“distance that is never allowed to become detachment,” for example, or a voice that feels authentically female. Reading her memoirs, which inevitably eclipse the other sections, I just wished sometimes she would turn her discerning eye and critical intelligence onto her own writing.

Cusk is best when she exposes her own perspective, letting herself dwell on the uncertainty of its truth. In “Driving as Metaphor,” she speculates that the danger of driving is its enhancement of subjectivity. There are slow drivers who lurch down country roads, seemingly unbothered by the frustration of those behind them; there are sanctimonious rule-followers whose overzealous performances border on distraction. Each is convinced of his own personal reality: It’s the others who are being unreasonable. And so, the contract of their shared space collapses. The magic of Coventry is watching Cusk spin grand insights from topics as mundane as traffic. A larger point always emerges. Aware that her perspective is “rived with contradictions and inconsistencies, beset with problems of point of view,” Cusk becomes nervous at busy intersections. Her sincere descriptions of this anxiety could be a précis of this brave, flawed, luminous book: “I worry I don’t see things the way everyone else does.”

Coventry cover
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Coventry

By Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.