Coventry: Essays by Rachel Cusk – Book Review

Over the last ten months, I’ve began to look to Rachel Cusk’s work with a reverence bordering on religious fervour. Her Outline trilogy* is revelatory, and does what few novels ever manage – it updates character, changes the narrator’s role to little more than a lens to look through. Further, it sacrifices that central individuality of the focalizer almost to the point of eliding the very notion of that individuality.

As you see, discussing Outline awakens a deep passion within me, for the craft as much as the ideas given voice. The same can be said of Coventry, which demarcates its seventeen essays into three parts: the first section, “COVENTRY,” examines topics of a deeply personal nature to Cusk, drawn from her own experiences; the third section, “CLASSICS AND BESTSELLERS,” tells of important authors and their works, and is generous in its praise (and on one account, in its deft critique) of all of them; and last but not least is “A TRAGIC PASTIME,” the second section, which seems to criss-cross the boundaries between the two, its four essays on topics both personal and literary.

The six essays falling into the “COVENTRY” section are universally strong; “Driving as Metaphor” takes a topic I would find snore-inducing on any other day, and turns it into an engaging conversation about this strange activity, which isolates and shifts the behaviour of the individual. It examines also people like myself, who “appear to have known from the beginning that driving wasn’t for them: often they are individuals society might label as sensitive or impractical or other-worldly; sometimes they are artists of one kind or another.”

“Lions on Leashes” is about children, and how they grow from the protagonists of a story told by their parents into free agents with a will of their own. It’s about the way parents dictate their children’s lives, and about that point when it is no longer impossible, when the physical authority parents use to enforce their will is no longer an available tool. It’s also about “the hysteria around maternal ambivalence,”(93) which society “turns into something blatant and grotesque.”

Cusk’s words here, especially, connect to one of my favourite Greek tragedies: “Medea doesn’t kill her children because she dislikes them or finds them irritating. She kills them because her husband has abandoned both her and them for someone young, beautiful and rich. She refuses to be made such use of. She refuses to let him get away with it.” This fits in exceptionally well with my essay on Euripides’s Medea. Find the time to read it — this Greek tragedy is still relevant today. If you get your hands on “Lions on Leashes” — which, outside of Coventry, can be found in the NYTimes — read the two together, there’s almost a dialogue between them.

“Making Home” and “On Rudeness” are phenomenal works, which pushed me into deep introspection, as did “Coventry,” the titular essay of the collection examines a very specific phrase I had no familiarity with, “being sent to Coventry.” The connotations it has for family, the relationship between parents and children, and silence make for captivating subject matter.

My favourite piece in the second part, “A TRAGIC PASTIME” is “How to Get There.” It is a beautiful love letter to creative writing and its role in society: “If creative writing culture represents only that — freedom — it is justification enough.” A particularly poignant part of this piece says:

The reattachment of the subjective self to the material object is where much of the labour of writing lies — labour because, in this one sense, writing feels like the opposite of being alive. The intangible has to be reversed back into tangibility; every fibre of subjective perception has to be painstakingly returned to the objective fact from whence it came. The temptation is to elude this labour by ‘making things up’, by escaping into faux-realities or unrealities that are the unmediated projections of the subjective self. This is not the same thing as imagination or inventiveness: the feeling of not believing something you are reading arises not from the fact that it is set in Hogwarts School but from the suspicion that it is pure projection. A writer who knows how to give subjective content an objective form can be as far-fetched as she likes. A writer who doesn’t can make even the most creditable things unbelievable. (185)

Seems to me that this penetrates at the heart of what makes good speculative and SFF fiction.

“I Am Nothing, I Am Everything” was perhaps one of the weaker essays, though that says little — even the least of them offers an engaging intellectual debate between what’s on the page and the reader.

In “Shakespeare’s Sisters,” the question of “women’s literature” is examined, dissected with a scalpel and brought home to a conclusion many will find contentious — I, myself, question it with great relish.

The pieces on Lawrence, Ishiguro and Edith Wharton made me care for each and every book Cusk mentioned — I’ve long wanted to read the former two, but I don’t think I’d heard of Wharton, except maybe in passing.

Cusk’s esssay on “Eat Prey Love” is a meditation on the nature of that bestselling book, its main critique that Gilbert’s voyage of self-discovery is, in a word, vapid. “…[Gilbert] might have chosen not to live entirely and orgiastically in the personal — in pleasure — but instead to have renounced those interests in pursuit of a genuine equality. But to say that, of course, would be to take it all much too seriously.” (233)

“On Natalia Ginzburg” offers an excellent cut-off point to the anthology, with a final line that offers a stark glimpse at the role of writing, from Ginzburg’s own collection of essays:

And you realise that you cannot console yourself for your grief by writing . . . Because this vocation is never a consolation or a way of passing the time. It is not a companion. This vocation is a master who is able to beat us till the blood flows . . . We must swallow our saliva and tears and grit our teeth and dry the blood from our wounds and serve him. Serve him when he asks. Then he will help us up on to our feet, fix our feet firmly on the ground; he will help us overcome madness and delirium, fever and despair. But he has to be the one who gives the orders and he always refuses to pay attention to us when we need him.’

An excellent reflection on writing to close the non-fiction anthology of a writer so inquisitive, so searching as to the nature and function of writing, don’t you think?

The only element of Coventry I would bemoan is the lack of a proper introduction to this collection, either from Cusk herself or from whichever editor aided in the collecting and publication of these seventeen essays in their single, 250-page tome. I would’ve so enjoyed some small foresight as to what drove Cusk to explore some of these themes — but that’s less criticism than a thoughtful shrug at what could’ve been.

Coventry is a must-have anthology for any lover of the essay, by a modern master of the form.

*I have spoken of both Outline and Transit, here and here.

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