Wednesday 18 September 2019

Cusk's metaphorical world where myth meets meaning

Essay: Coventry

Rachel Cusk

Faber, €16.99

Rachel Cusk is the central anti-hero of her own public life story
Rachel Cusk is the central anti-hero of her own public life story

JP O'Malley

Being ignored by somebody you love is a cruel psychological game that most of us have been on the receiving end of at some point in our lives. We know how it feels to be pushed against our will into an emotional sinkhole where the ego's infinite layers of resilience are tested with brutish brutality. Such dark psychological storms are usually the time when literal language fails to reflect the primal anger, anxiety, and confusing pain we are going through.

Rachel Cusk believes entering into the linguistic arena of metaphor provides a more beneficial gateway to unravelling such emotional trauma. Mainly because symbolism's two key ingredients are nuance and myth. Cusk therefore refers to this subtle game of psychological power dynamics as "being sent to Coventry": the metaphor's origins arise from a violent act inflicted upon Britain during World War II - in 1940 the city of Coventry and its beautiful cathedral were flattened into rubble by Nazi bombs.

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"By sending someone to Coventry you are in a sense positing the idea of their annihilation, asking how the world would look without them in it," Cusk declares with spiky conviction that is as angry and neurotic in its delivery, as it is paradoxically eloquent, lucid, and brimming with self-compassion in its intellectual and moral reasoning - all of which are very much rooted in the European humanist existentialist tradition.

The 52-year-old English novelist, essayist and memoirist has been sent to Coventry many times by her parents. Cusk no longer talks to either. Communication stopped following a rather frank telephone conversation where Cusk's father told his own daughter she was "full of s**t". Cusk may still be in Coventry, but stopped caring a long time ago when she arrived at a philosophical epiphany: her parents' silent power game of family politics is really about their lack of control concerning her life narrative.

Cusk is what you might call a sceptical writer. And injects questions of doubt any time she appears to be reaching a moment of intellectual certainty. She asks, for instance, if only that unfortunate phone call with her father took a more placid direction? Maybe some semblance of human civility might have been maintained and the possibility of acrimonious harmony might appear one day on the horizon.

Perhaps, say, a life where confusion, alienation and judgment are not the dominant themes of one's chaotic inner psychological turmoil and confusing external ontological reality.

But such questions are merely clever literary conceits in a book of essays that purposely meanders with self-deprecating irony.

In any case, Cusk isn't promising the reader a self-help type road towards the promised land of milk and honey where happiness shows up in the concluding life-changing chapter.

The style and content of these essays have numerous parallels and overlaps with Cusk's other award-winning writing: where kitchen sink domestic realism rapidly trades places with first person confessional narratives, where the story sporadically shifts between the public and private sphere, sometimes without warning, and, in the case of her experimental fiction, in the form of chaotic modernist monologues.

Cusk therefore sticks here to the age-old tested dictum: write about what you know. Namely: driving; feminism; sexuality; art; literature; the body; motherhood, the hypocrisy of the bourgeois good life; self-hood; marriage; divorce, and the lonely process of ageing.

The central message of this book really comes down to two fundamental principles. Firstly, the creative process is one that mirrors the process of living.

Secondly, anybody who doesn't understand that failure and suffering is an intrinsic component of both really shouldn't be in the business of calling themselves an artist.

A generous reading of Cusk's work might label her a staunch realist. A harsher critic - of which there are many - might paint her work in the light of an angry cynic: frivolously using the content of her personal chaotic family life to wash her dirty linen in public to make a living.

I'd be inclined to go with the former reading. Cusk is no attention-seeking neurotic. Her honest, emotional, measured, and intellectually rewarding prose is modernist in both form and content; mainly because they share their fundamental roots with the most appealing branch on the tree of psychoanalysis: it offers a semblance of sanity to anybody wishing to spend their life exploring the inner world of the mind in all of its complicated neurological paraphernalia and perpetual paradoxical neurotic chaos.

Cusk is thus the central anti-hero of her own public life story - endlessly searching for some kind of transcendental truth.

It's a rewarding road where the Holy Grail can indeed result in a multitude of meaning. But one, alas, as Cusk herself admits, that for the most part is travelled alone.

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