JANUARY 26, 2020
IN 1908, HENRY JAMES pronounced that “the house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,” consisting of “apertures, of dissimilar shape and size.” About 15 years later, Willa Cather took up the metaphor again but replaced those airy, asymmetrical windows with the tchotchkes of realist description. For her, the attempt to capture “real life” in words inadvertently crowded it out, like the towering stacks of newspaper in a hoarder’s home: “How wonderful it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window […] all the tiresome old patterns, and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre, or as that house into which the glory of Pentecost descended.” Boring novels are overcrowded with cleverly worded approximations of what it feels like to live, but great ones have the good sense to leave the best bits off the page.
Though the metaphor is now a little tired, Rachel Cusk’s new essay collection, Coventry, flips it over to articulate her own desires for writing. In “Making Home,” one of the book’s best essays, she imagines houses to be like novels, rather than the other way around. The piece follows the psychic — as well as architectural — turmoil that accompanies remodeling her flat in London, a project that throws out of balance the same life that she’s ostensibly enhancing by undertaking the renovation. This forces her to consider whether, deep down, the creative destruction she’s enacted carries a more thorough desire to destroy. She wants a better home and garden, but what if “enhancing it, dignifying it,” actually exposes a deeper problem? What if “what I really wanted all along was to erase it”?
“It,” in case you didn’t catch it, isn’t only the hardwood floors. Any reader even vaguely familiar with the expanded Cusk universe — which to date consists of 10 highly acclaimed novels; three stunning memoirs; one very public divorce; and now Coventry, a book that collects the odds and ends of her occasional essays, reviews, introductions, and forewords — will recognize that her writing and biography teem with such multilayered metaphors of renovation.
This isn’t the first time that Cusk has turned to household infrastructure to ponder the casualties of self-reinvention. Transit, the second novel in her Outline trilogy, follows the narrator, Faye, as she remodels a London flat eerily similar to that in “Making Home.” Even earlier in Outline, the first novel of the trilogy, Faye adopts the metaphor to explain how family fights often hinge on who notices the smallest infraction of household decorum: “[I]t was as though everything that had been inside was moved outside, piece by piece, like furniture being taken out of a house and put on the pavement.” Like Cather, Cusk throws out the furniture, but instead of standing alone in the newly spacious interior she then walks to the curb and describes how everything landed. In fact, that’s a workable metaphor for how Cusk’s novels differ from their early 20th-century ancestors: whereas the Jamesian novel is interested in the interiors of minds and family manors, Cusk’s works give us something like the novel of exteriority: they consist almost entirely of recounted talk and external description, so we judge the characters not by what they think but by how they look and what they say.
Or, in the case of “Making Home,” how they decorate. Even better, how they imagine themselves decorating, because that projection of a better future is the place where storytelling resides. Before she threw everything out, Cusk recounts how she would bring in visitors to “describe what was going to be done to it and what it would look like, as though creating a home out of mere words.” Later, she compares her ambivalence over creating a more comfortable living situation with the unpeopled showrooms of her childhood residence — the unused drawing room, the “study with its unread leather-bound volumes.” Both, she concludes, are versions of storytelling: “In their way these rooms were expressive works, attempts to perfect reality and hold it in an eternal moment.”
Coventry is organized into three sections: six long-form, generally personal essays; four shorter essays that all circle around artistry and authorship, from Renaissance painting in the Italian town of Assisi to the contemporary creative writing workshop; and, finally, a miscellany of book reviews and introductions. It is a sturdy and worthwhile collection of previously published material, but it won’t change anyone’s mind about Rachel Cusk. It will not convert any of the haters, nor will it leave any of her fans thinking that she’s flown the coop. That’s not a bad thing for those in the pro-Cusk camp, who I assume will appreciate how the essays follow in the narrative and thematic footsteps of her most recent work. They approach their main topic obliquely, like the Outline trilogy, and yet they also offer moments of raw self-assessment (and occasionally condescending assessment of others) like A Life’s Work and Aftermath, her memoirs on motherhood and divorce.
In fact, Coventry might best be read as a publisher’s guidebook on Cusk Country’s dominant themes and narrative strategies — something along the lines of the map of Yoknapatawpha that Malcolm Cowley requested for The Portable Faulkner. At the beginning of “Lions on Leashes,” Cusk does a little of this work herself, creating a laundry list of her recurring topics:
[T]he difficulties of continuing to create while bringing up two small children, the conflict between artistic and familial identity, the attempt to pursue your own truth while still honouring the truth of others, the practical and emotional complexities of motherhood and recently of divorce and single parenthood — all these tensions were real, so real that sometimes their causes were difficult to locate.
The “tension” that colors every aspect of one’s own identity and shared relationships but that is “difficult to locate” in language: that is the meat of Cusk’s most riveting work. It’s true of the novels, which (as Merve Emre puts it) confront the “‘mush’ of feelings and cast it into a hard, gleaming image for her readers to admire.” And it’s true of the memoirs, which invoke previous literary treatments of bodily and familial transformation such as childbirth and divorce (in such disparate sources as Greek tragedy, the novels of Flaubert, and Dr. Spock’s guide to dealing with colic) only to, like Cather’s ideal novelist, burn down that whole tradition with her unblinking stare. If this is what you look for in Cusk, then Coventry delivers.
The essays exhibit a familiar rhetorical tic of her previous work, which is to lay out a counterintuitive claim only, in the next breath, to take the opposing position. “But perhaps it isn’t like that at all” is one of Coventry’s most characteristic phrases. In the opening essay, “Driving as Metaphor,” she uses the occasion of traffic jams in her rural town to ponder how the conflict between different drivers, as well as drivers and pedestrians and cyclists, exposes “a peculiar difficulty in attaining objectivity.” The essays use mundane topics — like traffic, or airport security, or a home renovation — to inquire into the nature of subjectivity, narrative, motherhood and daughterhood and authorhood. And the process of storytelling, of stringing together details to get from Point A to Point B without seriously maiming Person C, is the only available option for giving credence to multiple competing points of view — to see through all of the windows, as James would have it.
There’s also plenty of the meticulous listening and subtly biting judgments of the Outline novels. “On Rudeness,” for example, hinges on several encounters with airport security (some told in the first person and others recounted from acquaintances) and closes by arguing for the place of politesse and manners when the uninhabitable earth reduces us to “eating rats and tulip bulbs.” A long, intricate passage in “Lions on Leashes” reads like the trilogy in miniature. It begins as a conversation among old friends about the ambiguous power imbalance between children and parents, who fight for control of their joint family narrative. As the children roll their eyes while the parents wax philosophic, the narrative abruptly shifts perspectives as Cusk takes over the language of her friend:
What is being controlled, she says, is the story. By disagreeing with it, you create the illusion of victimhood in those who have the capacity to be oppressors. From outside, the dissident is the victim, but the people inside the story can’t attain that distance, for they are defending something whose relationship to truth has somewhere along the line been compromised. I don’t doubt that my parents saw themselves as my hapless victims, as many parents of adolescents do (“You have this lovely child,” a friend of mine said, “and then one day God replaces it with a monster”), but to me at the time such an idea would have been unthinkable.
Part of the challenge and fun of reading Cusk is keeping track of who occupies the various “you”s and “I”s in passages like this one, where the lack of quotation marks makes it hard to tell where the different participants’ statements diverge. “You have this lovely child” really means “I have this lovely child,” but the I isn’t the narrator; it might not even be the other person in the room with her. And, immediately after including the sentiment, she immediately refutes it, calling it “unthinkable.”
All of this is to say: Fans of Cusk’s prose and authorial perspective, her cutting wit and inimitable turns of phrase, will enjoy these essays. But those fans might be disappointed when they read Coventry because, chances are, they’ve already read everything in it. An ungenerous reading might position Coventry as an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the now-complete novel sequence — to extend the Cusk brand, as the marketing department might say. If so, fair enough, but for the reader looking for original material: be forewarned.
It is worth reading Coventry more generously, though, and not just because no one wants their own criticism alchemized, in Cusk’s next novel, into a sublime portrait of their own limitations. Bringing these writings together under one roof, so to speak, showcases Cusk as one of the 21st century’s great novelist-essayists, which is no small task considering the proliferation of that category of writer. As many critics have noticed, the last decade saw a proliferation of W. G. Sebald–influenced essayistic novels, as well as a general embrace of the autobiographical in literary fiction. The Outline trilogy certainly fits that mold. But the same period also found a wide range of early-to-mid-career novelists, such as Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sheila Heti, and Uzodinma Iweala, who have embraced the essay as a genre with its own history and expressive possibilities separate from and even equal to the novel. With Coventry, Cusk now clearly needs to be seen as a singular voice in this camp, too.
But this collection also makes some themes, such as the relationship between silence and narration, that travel in the lower registers of her fiction more apparent. In fact, in Coventry, silence emerges not as the opposite of narration but as an aggressive, and even maybe a uniquely feminine, kind of artistic gesture. It’s there in the title essay: sending someone to Coventry, we’re told, is an English idiom for the silent treatment, and when her parents institute this punishment to her, as an adult, for the umpteenth time, she begins to understand it as a kind of cold war against her own version of their relationship: “[W]ar is the end of point of view, where violence is welcomed as the final means of arriving at a common version of events.” This leads her to see the variety of familial silences. Her husband’s mumbling, a parent staring into the distance while her family walks ahead, her own parents’ cold shoulder, elderly couples eating silently at her local pub.
Initially this final silence terrified her, the thought that after “all those years of joy and toil and creation,” building a family story might end up running out of narrative steam: “[N]othing — or nothing palpable — to look forward to.” That’s silence as indifference to one another, as withdrawal from the common story. But, again with trademark circulation around an idea, she reconsiders: “[P]erhaps what they represent is not the failure of narrative but its surpassing, not silence but peace.” It’s a rare hopeful moment in a collection and oeuvre — to say nothing of the political and ecological season — not particularly forthcoming with them.
But perhaps the most bracing and provocative version of silence arises when Cusk imagines it as a type of feminine creativity. In “Shakespeare’s Sisters,” an essay on Woolf, Chekhov, and Lessing, she hypothesizes about what “women’s writing” (her scare quotes) would look like given the same support as men — a room of one’s own, total control of content and zero concern over domesticity, equal pay. Looking back at her favorite “woman writers,” as well as nonwoman writers who imagine female creativity, she sees that a “woman writer […] is more likely to produce silence” than what we would recognize as narrative. Which brings us back to that shared fiction of a house because, as Cusk tells it, those manicured, lifeless rooms of her childhood “told me something about the person — my mother — who created them.” A home “is powered by a woman’s will and work, and […] a curious form of success could be measured in her ability to suggest the opposite.” It’s a vision of female writing that, as she says of Chekhov’s representation of gendered silence (echoing Adrienne Rich’s conception of nonuniversal female writing), “does not consider the female in terms of the male” and hence does not expect “women’s writing” to follow the same expressive outlets as “men’s writing.” For Coventry to convey such resonances across its eclectic content is justification enough of its excellence. The rest is noise.
Donal Harris is an associate professor in the department of English and director of the Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities at the University of Memphis. He is the author of On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines.