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Rachel Cusk and the dangers of honesty

Cusk’s expertly fluid collection of essays, Coventry, is about many things at once, but at its crux is the notion that “honesty” intersects with bigotry, intolerance and abuses of power.

In the Noughties, the parenting forum Mumsnet could be a snakepit. Three specific topics kicked off rows so predictably that “pass the popcorn” became a common quip. The first of these was the perennial debate about the merits of SAHMs (stay at home mothers) versus WOHMs (working out of the home mothers). The second was the controversial method of strict schedules for newborns presented in The Contented Little Baby Book by nanny-author Gina Ford, the attacks on whom were so relentless she threatened to sue. The third was Rachel Cusk.

It was A Life’s Work – Cusk’s 2001 memoir about the drudgery and self-erasure she felt as a new mother – that put her in the Mumsnet wilderness. But any new offering could reignite anti-Cusk sentiments, as happened with the release of her divorce memoir Aftermath (2012):  “God Rachel Cusk is a one-woman festival of self-pity and melodrama, isn’t she?”; or “[It’s] not often I’ll use the term ‘unfit mother’ but the cap fits [Cusk]”; or “Just how excruciatingly selfish can one person be?”; or even “She’s a shocking [sic] bad writer… and I wish she would develop some sense of humour, or irony”. One Mumsnetter expressed the opinion that her ex-husband should be awarded both the house and custody of their children, with Cusk visiting under supervision only.

Critics could be harsh too. While some approached her work in good faith, others regarded Cusk with scorn. Aftermath, particularly, prompted hatchet-sharpening. In the Guardian, Frances Stonor Saunders called one passage “vertiginously condescending” and declared Cusk a narcissist, while Joanna Biggs, in the LRB, obsessively counted a “metaphor chain” to 138 and accused Cusk, an invariably lucid writer, of lacking clarity. One could only surmise Cusk had committed a sin, but what the sin actually was was harder to determine.

The condemnation Cusk endured before the publication of her acclaimed trilogy (Outline, Transit and Kudos in 2014, 2016 and 2018 respectively) had the hallmarks of scapegoating. My own response to scapegoating tends to be sympathetic identification with the scapegoat, followed by a desire to understand the internal conflicts the scapegoat has accidentally triggered or elucidated in those who would punish her. That is why, long before Outline established Cusk as an important novelist of innovation, I read all her work: seven “conventional” novels, from the Whitbread First Novel Award-winning Saving Agnes (1993) to The Bradshaw Variations (2009); her three memoirs; and her play, Medea, a liberal adaptation of Euripides to which Cusk applies ideas and material from Aftermath.

After Medea, Cusk ceased to foreground the “self” in her works. Her trilogy features an apparently passive narrator, Faye, to whom stories are relayed. She is a conduit, a filter. Considering the charges of narcissism Cusk amassed, one might conclude that her critics “sent her to Coventry”.

Coventry is Cusk’s first book of essays, though some of her memoirs might well be categorised as extended essays or think pieces. This collection is fiercely intelligent, with enviable prose that is at once luminous and precise. The title piece opens with a clarification of the phrase “being sent to Coventry” for those unfamiliar with the expression:

Every so often, for offences actual or hypothetical, my mother and father stop speaking to me. There’s a funny phrase for this phenomenon in England: it’s called being sent to Coventry.

This expertly fluid essay is about many things at once, but at its crux is the notion that honesty can be dangerous, especially among those who would view “war as the model for human relationships”. Honesty is violent and rift-making. It can send people to Coventry. But, on the positive side, Coventry promises a kind of liberation. “Much of my being in Coventry,” Cusk realises, “lay in my willingness to recognise and accept the state of being an outcast.” And later: “I don’t want to leave Coventry. I’ve decided to stay.” One feels that the essay, though ostensibly about a personal dispute, is more about the perils of being a truth-teller for a living, and recognising the consequences.

Honesty is dangerous for different reasons in “On Rudeness”. Cusk implies that the EU referendum and Trump’s election unleashed a vile form of “honesty” that intersects with bigotry, intolerance and abuses of even the paltriest ranks of power. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark, an apparently sophisticated use of language and wit, is a reluctant example of this “bad” honesty, as is Cusk’s own rudeness to a saleswoman after a trying day, which leads to self-loathing and remorse.

It strikes me that good manners would be the thing to aim for in the current situation. I have made a resolution, which is to be more polite. I don’t know what good it will do: this might be a dangerous time for politeness. It might involve sacrifices. It might involve turning the other cheek.

Cusk’s friend tells her “this is the beginning of the end of global order” and that “in a couple of decades’ time we’ll be eating rats and tulip bulbs”. Cusk considers “the role that good manners might play in the sphere of rat-eating” and decides it will be important, or at least “something to navigate by”.

The best essays in the book are the long lyrical ones that take the reader on confident, if circuitous, journeys. The tour-de-force may be the opening piece, “Driving as Metaphor”. Psychologically astute as always, Cusk identifies a variety of driving “types”: the fast driver, the slow driver, the rageful driver, the old driver – and the non-driver:

Sometimes he or she is a city-dweller for whom the need to learn has never arisen with sufficient force. Sometimes a lack of opportunity or privilege is the cause. There are also people who appear to have known from the beginning that driving wasn’t for them; often they are individuals society might label as sensitive or impractical or other-worldly; sometimes they are artists of one kind or another.

Cusk again brings up violence, and one might wonder if driving is yet another form of dicey communication. Some examples of automobile violence include road rage, roadkill and – devastatingly – a story of a 94-year-old woman who kills a girl of ten at a crossing. In the cool-almost-cruel manner of enquiry that is typical of Cusk, she admits, “since [the 94-year-old woman] had already lived an unusually long life, I wondered whether the woman wished she had died before killing the girl, but the question of who is responsible in that situation appears somewhat opaque”. Cusk touches also on the cognitive dissociations and dissonances that driving requires of us, which is a kind of psychic violence.

Less effective are some of the book reviews that Cusk appears to have “filed away” here. In her contemplation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love she seems to dole out criticisms that have traditionally been applied to her own work (eg “egotism”), and thus an unkindness is perpetuated. The piece on the artist Louise Bourgeois is disorientatingly in medias res and hard to follow. Conversely, the essay on DH Lawrence’s “frankness” seems imperative to themes of the book; as does “Shakespeare’s Sisters” (on Woolf, Chekhov and Lessing).

After years of suppressing her narrative voice, Cusk could afford to give us more “I”, more Cusk. The meat of this collection is to be found in essays in which Cusk works something out: adolescent girls’ rage at their mothers, creative writing workshops, a home and its relationship to the interior world of its occupant. Her essay on the starved body, “The Anorexic Statement”, was published in the New Statesman in 2012: why is it not included here? Coventry may have been a more cohesive work if it had contained only first-person essays – or perhaps, at the other extreme, it could have edged more forcefully towards eccentricity and hybridity, reflecting Cusk’s deconstructionist approaches to form and self.

I saw Cusk’s Medea twice at the Almeida, the second time with two male poets I was unable to sit with because there were no three seats together. The laughter of those two men rang across the theatre, while I, several rows away, tried to suppress my amplifying sobs. Medea’s loss of agency in a world ruled by male desire and narcissism – and her loss, too, of female allies who believed, in their middle-class way, in contamination by association – seemed unbearably true. But so, too, was the humour my male companions recognised.

In a review of The Bradshaw Variations, Hilary Mantel identified Cusk’s “bracing mix of scorn and empathy”. One sees that combination in all her work. While I can see why, over time, it has made some of her readers uncomfortable, that “bracing mix” is her superpower. If residing in “Coventry” has allowed her to write with such devastating complexity, I hope she stays there. 

Kathryn Maris is a poet. Her third collection is “The House With Only an Attic and a Basement” (Penguin)

Coventry
Rachel Cusk
Faber & Faber, 256pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 30 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler