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Rachel Cusk Questions Everything

When her memoirs attracted moral outrage—and got her sued—she found a new way to frame stories.

In August last year, the British estate agency the Modern House featured an interview with the author Rachel Cusk and her husband on its website. Accompanying the dreamy, washed-out photographs of their enviable “self-designed house on the Norfolk coast” are disjointed paragraphs in which Cusk’s husband discusses experimental stone cladding and Cusk reflects on what the creation of a home really means. “I remember when I was at school and somehow I’d been given a part in a play—I’m a terrible actor—and I was really obsessed with these lines I had to speak,” she says, “and afterwards someone said to me, or it was made obvious to me, that for the entire play I’d had my back to the audience.”

COVENTRY by Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $27.00

Cusk is making a point about the difficulty of keeping multiple factors in mind: Just as obsessing about her lines made her forget her presence on stage, fixating on cost could mean that a builder forgets how much light she wants in her house. The comparison is weak—memorizing lines puts a performer under pressure, but not in the same way that finances put pressure on a homeowner making renovations (even when that pressure is only imaginary, as any admirer of Cusk’s covetable modernist digs might assume). Still, the anecdote reveals something essential about the author. The child who turned away from the audience to hide a part of herself grew up to become a writer whose work and public persona are defined by a denial of a self that only serves to emphasize it.

The author of 10 novels and three controversial memoirs, Cusk is now best known for her Outline trilogy, which is widely considered a masterpiece intervention in the form of the novel and was completed in 2018. Even her first novel, 1993’s Saving Agnes, has marks of the quality for which she is beloved, a great sensitivity fortified by artisanal bitchiness. (One chapter begins, “Once Agnes had been in love and since then she had just been in pain”; this passage is followed by one in which Cusk puns on the diminutive height of a stranger who hits on her protagonist, who is very tall and seeking someone who sees “eye to eye” with her.) Yet Cusk came to be disillusioned with what struck her as the ludicrousness of traditional fiction—the absurdity, as she put it in an interview with The Guardian, of “making up John and Jane and having them do things together.” She condemned traditional fiction as “fake and embarrassing,” claiming that literary elements such as description and character “are dead or dying in reality as well as in art,” and said that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts.”

At the same time, autobiography held its own problems. Over 11 years, Cusk published three memoirs that attracted disproportionate moral outrage from critics (and forum users). People hated 2001’s A Life’s Work for its ambivalent (and supposedly callous) attitude toward motherhood; they hated 2012’s Aftermath for what they said was a self-exonerating treatment of her divorce. (The other memoir—2009’s The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy—was mostly inoffensive, except that it got the author sued.) After this, she realized that her “mode of autobiography had come to an end.” She “could not do it without being misunderstood and making people angry.”

With the Outline books, she hit upon a form that illuminated the complicated “relationship between the story and the truth,” and between fiction and autobiography. These novels put forth a provocatively inverted form of autofiction, a genre that usually features a fictional first-person narrator who is presented as possibly real through an often realistically meandering accumulation of events, thoughts, relationships, and details that may or may not overlap with those in the author’s own life; though often considered petty or irrelevant, the question of “how true” an autofictional novel is inevitably becomes part of the experience of reading it. In the Outline novels, instead, Cusk’s narrator, a divorced writer named Faye, relays stories that other people have told her without revealing much about herself. From her taste, voice, and the stories she selects, the reader can infer a character, but the character is not explicitly constructed with any backstory. Faye and Cusk share biographical details, but the desire to connect narrator and author isn’t there—who really cares if both renovated their houses?

While Cusk’s memoirs gave her a reputation as a slippery egotist—uninterested in the perspectives of her children and ex-husband, though the stories she told about herself overlapped with their own—the novels have effectively overhauled her image: She is a weathered, previously misunderstood genius, whose stony exterior is special evidence of her discernment.

Readers hoping Cusk’s new essay collection, Coventry, will incorporate all her declarations on form and style into a manifesto will be disappointed. Divided into three sections—“Coventry,” which is made up of personal essays; “A Tragic Pastime,” essays on being an artist or writer; and “Classics and Bestsellers,” which comprises several short pieces of literary criticism—the book feels like a step backward, particularly because it contains no new pieces. What’s more, two are taken from the memoirs whose reception hit Cusk so hard. Following Aftermath, and the hateful responses it received, she said she experienced “creative death.” (Though that, of course, may be mere “story”—her next book came out just two years later.)

The obvious explanation for the appearance of this collection is a cynical one: that its publication is an attempt to capitalize on the success of the Outline novels, which have recently been reissued with striking photographs and set in a modern sans serif font, the sort of objects that might look good in Cusk’s home. But, to perform a rhetorical move that defines Coventry, “perhaps it isn’t like that at all.” The essays here can be read as an opportunity to view Cusk’s old problem of story from another angle; in them, she is constantly adjusting, reframing, and questioning. They demonstrate a fixation on the truth—identifying it, drawing meaning from it, separating it from the “stories” or “narratives” that tangle themselves in it.

One does not need to know the story of Rachel Cusk’s life to understand and appreciate the Outline novels, and the essays in Coventry discourage this kind of narrativizing. At one point, she even proposes that the fictions we construct around ourselves are a possible cause of car accidents. But by including the first chapter of Aftermath in this new collection, she seems to be telling a story about herself, suggesting that perhaps critics might decide they were too quick to judge her in the past and offering them the opportunity to reconsider their opinions as she reconsiders hers repeatedly here.

In the strongest essays in Coventry, Cusk often overturns the assumptions she started out with. In “Coventry,” she recounts times during her life when her parents punished her by sending her “to Coventry,” which means giving someone the silent treatment. At first Cusk argues that her parents’ actions signified “their failure to control the story, their failure to control me”; the next paragraph begins, “But perhaps it isn’t like that at all.” Windingly, via considerations of childhood, motherhood, and her marriage, she comes to see that Coventry is “a place where the worst has already happened” and is therefore peaceful—a site with the potential for rebuilding.

If her initial approach to conflict is to treat it as a battleground, she eventually comes to see all relations as stories that can be deconstructed to show the truth. An essay about Brexit, grievances, and blame, “On Rudeness,” parses the individual and political implications of a disagreement between Cusk and an airport employee, who shouts at and picks on travelers at passport control:

There’s no need to be rude, I say.
His head jerks around.
You’re rude, he replies. You’re the one who’s rude.

Relaying her encounter with this angry worker later, Cusk knows she believes him to be in the wrong—not only for being rude, but for representing the “discrimination and bullying” that “are used against people trying to enter Britain, my country.” Yet she finds herself “relying on the details of the man’s physical ugliness to prove the badness of his character”; she cannot actually prove he was rude to anyone (except her, after she scolded him, possibly quite rudely herself). Faced with the obvious disconnect between their interpretations of the situation, Cusk analyzes his position, as well as the damage she’s done to her own “narrative authority” by framing the interaction in the way she has. He is “someone who lacks any meaningful authority while also being forced into constant interaction with members of the public, someone for whom the operation of character is both nothing and everything”; another employee she encounters is nearly driven mad by her “combination of power and powerlessness.” This shifting measure resembles the unsteady relationship Cusk describes between parent and (adult) child, wherein the question of who is actually in power becomes uncomfortably unanswerable.

By the end of the essay, Cusk has a minor identity crisis that represents how all of these seemingly uncomplicated power dynamics—parent and child, author and reader, well-educated liberal and working-class Brexiteer—are confused: “‘Make her stop!’ my daughters used to beg me when they were younger and one was doing something the other didn’t like.” They wanted Cusk to tell them who was right and who was wrong, but she always found “impartiality” impossible in the face of two stories she couldn’t merge into one truth. “I have prided myself on my willingness to object to injustices, to speak my mind when I thought I saw wrong being done,” she continues, referring to her righteous interaction with the airport employee. “But perhaps all I was ever doing was trying to make it stop, trying to return the world to something I could bear to live in, without necessarily understanding it first.” What may seem like a both-sides kind of stance flashes its political edge: The shiftiness of power relations means one must understand and depict things as they are, or else the worst may happen, and you will have to rebuild.

It follows that the least successful essays in this collection are the pieces of literary criticism. Her brisk takedown of Eat, Pray, Love notwithstanding, Cusk loses much of her precision when she celebrates or dismisses. Her authoritative pose in these pieces bears some resemblance to the haughty traveler telling off a low-wage worker, or the supposed feminist who, in Aftermath, tells the husband whom she is divorcing that, despite the fact that he has probably performed more childcare, “They’re my children. They belong to me.”

There is something exhilarating about the possibility of gaining an alternative perspective on yourself. The reality of seeing yourself from the outside is more difficult to bear. From one angle, it takes courage to present oneself the way Cusk does here, as a woman whose confidence in her own life must first be destroyed in order for it to be remodeled; from another, challenging one’s own narrative authority seems an evasive misdirection, a way to absolve oneself of unmentioned transgressions. “I’ve never thought of myself as a terribly subjective writer,” Cusk has told The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz. “I’ve always stayed very close to the line of my own life and I’ve never sort of made things up or been particularly interested in narrative arcs or fantasy of any kind.” This sounds more than a little obtuse; her subjectivity dictates the form of both her nonfiction and her fiction, not the other way around. Yet she continues to suggest that “things inevitably happen” without her involvement. “You enter these structures, you exist in these structures, they collapse or you leave them. Why?”

Is undermining oneself a condition of a truthful existence? This, too, seems slightly political, but it fails to consider that structures are built, maintained, and altered by people who enter and exist in them, that they do not just appear one day on the Norfolk coast. Cusk may not be a “terribly” subjective writer, but she is a writer who examines the subjective. In turning her back to the audience, she only demonstrates that she is the sort of person who thinks turning her back to the audience means she isn’t there. It’s just a way for her to do what she needs to do: recite her lines, write a book. While reading Cusk’s work, I often think of her as cowardly or tentative. Still, I very rarely think she’s wrong.