In Coventry, Rachel Cusk’s first collection of nonfiction writing, she has not reinvented the essay as she innovated the novel in her Outline trilogy—what she has done instead is showcase the pleasurable continuity of a mind at work on the same questions over time. We learn that she is less interested in writing about the self than in the often conflicting roles a self can inhabit—writer, mother, wife, daughter, in her case, or passive listener, teacher, and panelist in the case of Faye, the trilogy’s narrator. She is as “attuned to the ways in which humans victimize each other”—as New Yorker writer Judith Thurman so perfectly put it in her review of the book—as ever, but in the nonfiction register she writes with stunning clarity about her own capacity for cruelty, but also for compassion, perseverance, and maternal love. Pivoting between the personally specific, such as an encounter with an airport security official “half-demented with…the combination of power and powerlessness,” Cusk arrives at clear-eyed first-person-plural inquiry: “I wonder how much of what we call conflict is in fact our own deserved punishment for telling the story wrong.”
In fact, Cusk displays weariness toward “the story”—what I took to mean a neat, socially-crafted narrative—over and over again. These essays frame writing as the travail of putting “the subjective self to the test of objectivity,” which, as she suggests in her essay about writing programs, can be a “therapeutic necessity…a matter of real urgency.” For Cusk, the externalization process of the self comes at a price precisely because she believes the truth to be a “threat to the social code.” It is partly for this reason that Cusk’s own truthfulness, particularly regarding her ambivalent feelings about motherhood, have attracted scorn from readers and critics in the past.
Having only read her fiction, which at times can feel like short, scene-driven essays, I experienced these essays less as a departure from her previous work and more like a widening of digressive permission. Here, she fixes her eye on those situations that cause people to be cruel to each other, suggesting that divergent versions of the story are what fuel conflict, whether we are behind the wheel of a car, remodeling a home, getting divorced, or falling out of touch with our parents.
The British expression “to be sent to Coventry” is equivalent to being ignored or froze out. The essay collection is broken into three sections, but it’s in the first—“Coventry”—that Cusk’s digressive style glimmers most, sometimes leading the reader to unexpected places. A falling out with her parents leads to the realization that only from that place of accepted exile, from “Coventry,” can Cusk live and write truthfully. She frames the illusion of passivity as the product of a highly willful self-removal from dialogue, of a decision to stay in “Coventry,” to eject herself from the story, just as the passive narrator Faye who, in lieu of speaking, shapes a compulsively readable narrative about the people, especially the men, who speak to and/or at her. In another essay called “On Rudeness,” she pivots satisfyingly from unsavory interactions with airport security to a rumination on Brexit: “I am trying to substantiate my fear that discrimination and bullying are used against people trying to enter Britain, my country.”
Cusk is a master of the illustrative anecdote, allowing her to telescope between the specific and the abstract. “Driving as Metaphor,” the first essay in the collection, is a digressive examination of the ways people treat each other when they believe they cannot be seen—how their car’s metal shell compels them to harbor cruelty towards others that they could not sustain street-level, or face-to-face. Cusk shifts from driving scenes to larger questions about subjectivity, musing whether the “true danger of driving might lie in its capacity for subjectivity, and in the weapons it puts at subjectivity’s disposal.” She recounts how the experience of renting a car in a foreign city caused her to realize the scope of this danger. “Every moment all at once seemed to contain the possibility of disaster, of killing or being killed: it was as if driving was a story I had suddenly stopped believing in, and without that belief I was overwhelmed by the horror of reality.” Here, driving’s destructive capacity ties back to story she wishes to remove herself from, to the end of her willing suspension of disbelief.
It’s worth noting that Cusk has here included “Aftermath,” the 2012 essay about her divorce for which she was accused of being unforgivably self-interested and unfair. The essay’s inclusion can be read either as an admirable gesture of defiance or as a clinging devotion to telling what she believes to be the truth, no matter how ugly and no matter how far-removed from the “story” that would tidy up and tame her deepest emotional heaving. In either case, the writing feels weaker than in other sections of the book, especially as she doubles down on what felt like an overly gendered division between herself and her husband. She addresses the feminist conundrum of wanting power yet achieving it in a way that is traditionally male-coded—eventually becoming the main provider for her family—regrettably referring to herself as “self-hating transvestite,” which I could have more easily forgiven had she explicitly stayed within the bounds of her own experience. But another line about keeping a home ventures a generality: “it may be the last laugh of the patriarchy that men are better at being women than women are.” This ongoing binarism is tired and clunky, rendering her gendered pronouncements, while compelling, too heavy.
All in all, Cusk’s rare intelligence shines in these essays. But I did find myself missing the subtle situational humor that her eye for irony brought to her fiction—those dazzling moments where, in the latticework of allegory and specificity, a bit of light squeezed brightly through the cracks.