The Story or the Truth?

‘Coventry’
Rachel Cusk (courtesy of Macmillan)

Rachel Cusk, the best-selling British author of what has been called the “Outline” trilogy—Outline (2014), Transit (2016), and Kudos (2018)—has been celebrated for altering the basic narrative and thematic structure of the novel by abandoning traditional aspects of plot and character development. These arresting fictions are composed almost entirely of a series of monologues retold by the narrator, Faye, a writer and divorced mother of two children. Beyond what is revealed in conversation, the backstories of Faye’s various interlocutors, and of Faye herself, remain offstage. The men and women who engage Faye rarely ask her any questions. In most of the exchanges, she remains silent, making little effort, beyond the occasional snide remark, to inform the reader of her reactions. She is evidently the wounded survivor of some domestic upheaval. Despite her passive, self-effacing presence, Cusk’s narrator is a captivating figure, a sharp-tongued woman with a steely gaze, a droll sense of humor, and a skeptical tolerance for the self-absorption of those she encounters. Part of the trilogy’s mystique, beyond Cusk’s spare, propulsive prose, are the parallels between the author’s well-known personal life and that of her fictional protagonist. This is autobiographical fiction of a rare intimacy and intensity.

Cusk is the author of seven other novels, and before shaking up the literary world with her trilogy, she wrote three controversial memoirs. The first, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, describes in often hilarious detail the ambivalence she, as an ardent feminist, felt about pregnancy, childbirth, and satisfying the unappeasable needs of her infant daughters. Cusk is hardly the first woman to confess mixed feelings in that regard, but the often blunt way she writes about her frustrations, and her focus on her own thwarted desires, drew much criticism. Next came The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy, the story of her family’s three-month sojourn in Tuscany, including a visit to Assisi. Cusk can be a merciless judge of others, be they bumbling British tourists or native Italians, but she is just as hard on herself. Her judgments, both artistic and moral, are as astringent as they are surprising.

Perhaps most controversial of all was Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, about her divorce from the father of her children. “Why had I destroyed my home?” Cusk asks. 

My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth.

It is precisely the difference between stories and the truth, between illusion and reality, that Cusk so vividly explores in her three genre-defying novels.

Understanding, which requires a great deal of listening and watchfulness, is the task she now seems to have set for herself as a writer.

The essays collected in Coventry are marked by the same writerly assurance and iconoclastic temperament. The book opens with “Driving as Metaphor,” about the maddeningly crowded roads in Cusk’s coastal region of England. What is the story she tells herself about her exasperation behind the wheel? Why does she react so petulantly to a situation that, much like Faye’s encounters with various monologists, is beyond her control? “I find myself wondering at the nature of the story,” Cusk writes about the situation that seems to have befallen her. “Riven with contradictions, and inconsistencies, beset by problems of point of view,” she concludes, “its relationship to the truth is opaque.”

In the book’s title essay, Cusk comes to terms with her parents’ willingness to permanently break off communication with her over some perceived slight, which in England is known as being “sent to Coventry.” “All of my life I have been terrified of Coventry, of its vastness and bleakness and loneliness, and of what it represents, which is ejection from the story.” Now in her fifties, she embraces exile from the story of her family. Cusk was raised Catholic and educated in a convent school, and in “On Rudeness,” a meditation on Brexit, she notes that Jesus was often terse but never rude. Rudeness has been the hallmark of the Brexit debate and of much of public life generally. “The test, it is clear, is to tell rudeness from truth, and in the Bible that test is often failed,” she writes. “An unambiguous event—violence—is therefore required. The episode of the crucifixion is an orgy of rudeness whose villains are impossible to miss.”

Cusk concludes her essay on rudeness by confessing she had long strived for impartiality in her life and work. Impartiality, she now acknowledges, is elusive, to say the least. In retrospect, her desire for the justice impartiality seemed to promise was an attempt to “return the world to something I could bear to live in, without necessarily understanding it first.” Understanding, which requires a great deal of listening and watchfulness, is the task she now seems to have set for herself as a writer. The essay “How to Get There” is a brilliant discussion of what imaginative writing requires. It takes real powers of imagination to see beyond the everyday “stories” we use to veil reality, to see what is stubbornly before our eyes, and to describe it accurately. “The past is hidden,” Cusk writes, quoting Proust, “beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling.” Social observation and a fierce attention to the material world are the indispensable tools for recapturing that sensation on the page. From such base materials fiction can take flight. “A writer who knows how to give subjective content an objective form can be as far-fetched as she likes,” Cusk writes. “A writer who doesn’t can make even the most creditable things unbelievable.”

Coventry reprints two chapters from Cusk’s previous memoirs, one from Aftermath and the other from The Last Supper. Presumably these essays are included because they bear a particular importance for her and her work. The chapter from Aftermath is where she declares her hatred of stories, quoted above. It also features a brief reminiscence of how history was taught in her Catholic school. Here, as elsewhere, Cusk draws a connection between suffering and creativity, a relationship her history teacher dwelled on. One of the “pitfalls of modern family life,” Cusk suggests, is not to “take precautions against the human need for war.” The debilitating battle with her husband, however harrowing, was ultimately the source of a newfound energy and ambition in her writing. We are not masters of our own fate.

“I am Nothing, I am Everything,” the chapter from The Last Supper, concerns her family’s visit to Assisi, and explores memories of her Catholic girlhood. “It is Sunday,” she writes. 

The great grey drifting sky, so deep overhead and unalleviated, recalls the Sundays of my childhood with their strange double nature of privation and feasting, a character impassable and final in its duality…. I still have a Sunday feeling, even now; a feeling that is like a bruise or mark on the skin, that is tender when it is touched.

Tender as a bruise, but also, it seems, tender as something to treasure.

Cusk is repulsed by the “giantism” of Assisi’s architecture and by the sheep-like procession of pilgrims hurrying past astonishing works of Renaissance art to genuflect before the bones of St. Francis. “The mania for the tangible is the predictable consequence of the intangibility of religious belief,” she writes. St. Francis’s extreme practices of self-denial both fascinate and repel her, and she judges his asceticism to be “a pure brand of nihilism.” Francis’s great love poem, “Canticle of the Creatures,” is a morbid hosanna not to creation but to “the unpopulated earth.” Cusk wants to celebrate a competing Christian impulse, one found in the “confidence and sociability and insatiable love of humankind” in Renaissance art. As the essay draws to a close, she softens her assessment of the pilgrims and the veneration of relics. “It is meaning we have come for, of one sort or the other. But most of all it is sympathy, sympathy that we want and must have, only sympathy, from bones or from paint.”

Cusk ends the essay with a story about a relic of her own, a small statue of St. Francis she had been given for her First Holy Communion and that remained in her bedroom for years. For reasons she cannot explain, she had retrieved the statue from her parents’ house and placed it in her own children’s room. Even after it was knocked from a shelf and broken, she was unable to discard it. Instead she collected the broken pieces and “hid them in the back of a cupboard,” where they seem to remain a presence. The sensation attached to such a treasured material object, as Proust observed, somehow grants access to the past and all it means to us. It is just such a “Sunday feeling,” heavy with the past, that permeates Cusk’s writing and artistic vision. 

Coventry
Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27, 250 pp.

Published in the January 2020 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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