‘To be sent to Coventry’, Rachel Cusk explains in the title essay of her brittle new collection, means in Britain to be frozen out, given the silent treatment, collectively ghosted by friends, family, schoolmates or colleagues. (‘I don’t know what the origins of the expression are, though I suppose I could easily find out’, writes Cusk in her own small act of sly refusal.) Such nonverbal violence may seem curious for a writer whose recent fiction has been so garrulous. The widely admired trilogy of Outline (2014), Transit (2016) and Kudos (2018) is built largely of anecdotes told at second or third hand, indulgently vouchsafed by centrifugally disposed characters, so that the narrator, Faye, is oddly mute and spectral. But silence, of course, may be madly eloquent, and Cusk is especially interested in things unsaid, bottled and in need of blurting. Her aged parents, she reports, are the latest people to send her to Coventry. ‘The last time my parents spoke to me, my father said something rude. He said I was full of shit.’
Coventry begins with six personal essays – where ‘personal’ entails such an exacting authorial remove that events seem to be happening to somebody else, to a person Cusk exposes and judges without mercy. The opening piece, ‘Driving as Metaphor’, was first published in the New York Times Magazine under the dispiriting headline ‘What Driving Can Teach Us About Living’. What seems at first a self-regarding (not to say potentially dull: who cares about driving?) account of the timid failings of other road users turns into a canny disquisition on our perennially dumb habit of ascribing stubborn personality and culpable ethics to the most fleeting or contingent of behaviours. ‘Driving as Metaphor’ reads at first like a laconic parody of Lydia Davis, then ends with silent, wheel-spinning brutality, as Cusk contemplates the aftermath of a sports-car crash on a country road. She doesn’t tell us if the man and woman lying in the road have died or survived.
Perhaps for Cusk such an answer is not the point of telling stories, real or imaginary. She certainly seems interested in scenes of frozen catastrophe, where one cannot tell if things have already come to an end, whether resignation or panic is the apt reaction. Passing through British airports in 2016 – this in an essay on contemporary rudeness – she regards coolly the Brexit predicament: ‘It is already being said that this situation has arisen out of hatred, but it seems to me that if that is true, then the hatred is of self.’ In the pubs and restaurants of coastal Norfolk, where she lives part-time, she spots older couples who seem to have nothing left to say to each other. Are they bored? Or are they stunned, having finally woken ‘from family life as from a bacchanal into the cold light of day’? Cusk is a keen observer of such ambiguous moments.
Until the trilogy, and in spite of seven other novels, she was best known for her 2001 book A Life’s Work: an autobiographical study of childbirth and motherhood that scandalized certain fragile British critics with its furious lack of sentiment. In Coventry, Cusk remains an incomparable writer about family, its intimate distances, its subtle tectonic shivers and lurching reversals. In ‘Lions on Leashes’, an essay on her teenage daughters, she notes: ‘we wanted to put them to sleep; they wanted to wake us up’; her children ‘have realised they can exist in the space between words and deeds, a space we once denied was there.’ One of Cusk’s peculiar skills is the sudden, abstracted, Henry James-like intuition of what is really going on behind the routines of daily, domestic life. As in this crystalline description of her parents’ traditional roles at home and work: ‘The rationality of this behaviour was what irrationalized hers, for her womanhood was all imposition and cause, all profligacy, a kind of problem to which his work was the solution.’
Glutton for this kind of thing, I’d been hoping Coventry was an entire essay collection made of such sentences and intuitions. Not quite. There are enriching pieces on the painterly representation of St. Francis, Louise Bourgeois’s ‘Suites on Fabric’ exhibition (2011) and ‘women’s writing’ (scare-quotes Cusk’s) in the 21st century. This last was written a decade ago, around the 50th anniversary of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), and with its assertions about contemporary writers’ uncommitted distance from feminism, may already seem antique. So too Cusk’s plot-summarizing essays – mostly repurposed prefaces – on canonical writers like D.H. Lawrence and Edith Wharton. She’s an astute critic but hardly a dazzling one, and at her best when finding close affinities with her subjects or turning from their work back to the world. As she puts it in a piece about teaching creative writing, ‘The rules of writing are mostly indistinguishable from the rules of living, but this tends to be the last place people look.’
Main image: Rachel Cusk. Courtesy: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; photograph: Siemon Scammel-Katz