Rachel Cusk’s Many Selves

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Rachel Cusk is tall. She does not take milk. She does not play card games, possibly because she associates them with her childhood, about which she feels ambivalent. She taught writing for nearly a decade and then quit. She believes fate is a female system of self-deception. She does not understand computers. She likes chess because it involves two people and thus resembles sex or war. She has never written a book without a dog in it; in real life, she is allergic to dogs. She hasn’t spoken to her parents in two years. She believes satire promotes political powerlessness; “Once you laugh,” she says, “it’s over.” She sees writing as a job. She is attracted to situations where it’s hard to agree on a common version of events. She does not care what happens to her in the future. She’s always earned the money in her household. She does not make small talk, but she does, for long stretches, talk. She wears all blackish. She is six days from turning 50. She desires a muffin.

Cusk is the author of three memoirs and nine novels, most recently Transit, which came out in January to rapturous reviews. It is the second in a planned trilogy that has, along with her memoirs, made her a cultish figure. She writes about motherhood and marriage and houses. In the hands of a different writer, these might be neutral topics. Neutral love in neutral boxes. Cusk is not neutral. She is divisive. Readers love her or readers really do not love her. She, Cusk, the human being, is often hated.

She lives in London with her two teenage children and her second husband. (She was born in Canada and has lived in the United Kingdom since the 1970s.) In early February, when she was visiting New York, I invited her to my work studio. Last year, Cusk published an essay called “Making House: Notes on Domesticity”; she was both commended and criticized for statements like “Entering a house, I often feel that I am entering a woman’s body.”

I thought — in addition to interviewing her — that I might observe her in the act of observing my woman’s body.

I did not observe her observing much, however, at least not in any way that was observable to me. She was formal. She was contained. She was nearing the end of her U.S. book tour; between coastal commitments, she’d flown down to Baja, where she’d seen whales, though it was the sounds they made, and the color of the light and the water, that most impressed her.

We talked about author photos and the act of putting one’s face on a book. “I hate having an author’s face when I’m reading a book,” she said. “I want to forget about them, you know.” Still, we agreed, it was such a skill to be photographed; it was a self-representational riddle to navigate. Cusk said, “I cannot bear having my photograph taken, and I always think that I won’t be in it.”

We marveled at people who evaded capture by photography. Sylvia Plath, for example; no matter how many images existed, she remained impossible to see. Cusk mentioned meeting Plath’s daughter once; the daughter, like her mother, she wagered, would be too “protean” to photograph. “Tall and like a big, healthy tree in the sun,” she said of Plath’s daughter. “With this sort of amazing smile and madness, madness, absolutely.”

Early in her career, Cusk was not especially controversial. She published three novels influenced by Evelyn Waugh. These books were deemed witty and clever. She won awards and gained notice.

Then, after the birth of her first child, she began a memoir about her initiating years of motherhood called A Life’s Work, which was published in 2001. Most women I know used the word brave to describe this book. Instead of contributing to the affirmation propaganda many motherhood books peddle, Cusk, these women said, wrote a competing narrative, one that allowed (albeit in Cusk’s stately way) for motherhood to totally fucking suck. “Birth is not merely that which divides women from men,” Cusk writes, “it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed.”

Some readers, however, did not agree that Cusk was brave. The so-called mommy police indicted her of the non-literary crime of being a bad mother. Less-reactionary readers accused her of indulging in “beautifully written whining.”

Unlike my friends, I did not find A Life’s Work to be a revelation. To clarify: I did not think she was a bad mother or a bad feminist. I was not putting her on trial for normative gender violations. Moreover, it is impossible to know what kind of mother “she” is, because the “she” of A Life’s Work is not, or is not exactly, Rachel Cusk. Rather, the Cusk that appears in her memoir is — as is nearly always the case with nonfiction “I” narrators — despite what readers might otherwise assume, a construction.

“It’s the trench that I’ve dug very, very, very laboriously between something that looks like a person, that looks like an identity and then the person who’s actually creating,” Cusk said of her literary personae, both the fiction and the nonfiction ones. “There’s a very, very big difference between those two things.”

At the time of A Life’s Work, however, the trench was not as deep or as wide as it would later become, and that is what dissatisfied me about it. In the book’s final pages, Cusk, exhausted and depressed, takes a child-free trip to London. In a shop, she watches a young mother with a days-old baby “raking through racks of baby clothes … her face a fist of concentration.” The young mother is with her mother; the two of them get into a “debate” and the baby starts to cry and, says Cusk, “I know that this means the woman has less than a minute to choose and purchase an outfit.” The young mother, Cusk implies, has yet to accept that motherhood has changed her and that her life will not proceed as before.

Writes Cusk, “Go home, I think … Just give in and go home. She doesn’t give in. She has an image of this shopping expedition and she is clinging to it with sharp teeth.”

Much might have been interpolated from the scene between the two ­mothers — one of whom is mother to the other — but Cusk was not practicing what she currently believes about characters or other people, which is “You don’t become them, you listen to them.” Cusk pronounced rather than listened. She imposed her narrative on the woman in the shop, rather than struggling to hear what, beyond Cusk’s own experience, this woman — this pair of women — might be trying to express.

A Life’s Work explores the many incursions that motherhood makes into the female self; the act of mothering erodes the individual, but equally obliterating is the mainstream cultural narrative of how unceasingly great motherhood is. Cusk generated a competing narrative about motherhood, to be sure, but then she performed a similar act of incursion.

After A Life’s Work, Cusk wrote four more novels and a memoir about traveling through Italy, all comparatively gently received, or mostly gently (the Italian memoir attracted a lawsuit, forcing the original U.K. print run to be pulped). Then, in 2012, she wrote a memoir about her divorce from her first husband. This book — Aftermath — caused her detractors to lose their minds all over again. Many took issue with what they saw as her “self-absorption” and her “emotional narcissism”; a reviewer remarked that the first few sentences in which she spoke of her ex-husband were “vertiginously condescending.”

Aftermath begins with a confession. When the marriage ended, Cusk writes, she believed the children belonged to her. She admitted her reaction was irrational. Her husband did the majority of the domestic labor. He spent more time raising their children. Still, she could not deny that she strongly felt that the children were hers, not his.

(I thought “she” was probably a pretty great mother when I read that.)

What seems most notable about Aftermath, however, is that it introduces a more ruminative narrator, one that prefigures the groundbreaking approach in Cusk’s two most recent novels, Outline and Transit; it’s as if she had chipped a tunnel through her nonfiction to reach a new kind of fiction — one sourced from a deeply disembodied and de­person­al­ized psychic realm.

Both Outline, which came out in the U.S. in 2015, and Transit are narrated by a woman named Faye, who, like Cusk, is divorced, has two children, and is a writer. Faye describes, or really more accurately transcribes, her encounters with other people. In Outline, she travels to Greece and meets a man on a plane; she goes to a restaurant with a friend; she teaches a writing workshop. She is less an interlocutor than a recording device or a processing machine. She receives. Faye, in literary terms, is a cipher. She is a zero, a naught, a nothing.

In Transit, Faye becomes slightly more “visible” (and audible) via her involvement in a home-renovation project; she converses with contractors and pacifies angry neighbors. Nothing happens, really, but these books are nonetheless gripping self-portraits of multiple humans. They are like eavesdropping on strangers, or watching a secret video feed of strangers, if those strangers were also casual philosophers. The conversations vacillate between the mundane and the lofty, as if the characters — enabled by Faye’s ­presence — are always grasping at bigger life questions. Outline and Transit both are welcome breaches of privacy that emphasize the intensely shapeless loneliness of people. They are books about middles.

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Cusk with her daughter, Jessye, 16. Photo: Anna Skladmann

Faye, while she shares biographical data with Cusk and appears to present and process events from Cusk’s actual life, is quite different from the characters devised by other autofiction writers of late — Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgaard — with whom Cusk is frequently grouped. The books of these writers, though distinct from one another, more centrally feature an authorial self; about Heti, for example, Cusk says, “She uses herself, her Sheila-ness, much, much, much more than I do.” Cusk does not, in these novels, use her Cuskness. And yet she’s filtering through a narrator that does not by accident resemble her.

Cusk, meanwhile, is not entirely spared from reader controversy, though now the debates involve which of these two beloved novels is more beloved and why. Personally, I prize the formal radicalism of Outline. The novel does not bother with interiors (or even exteriors) save via the briefest brushstrokes. Outline feels composed of voices in an empty room, without any “realist” set designing. But the bourgeois artifacts that so define conventional realist novels, and which Cusk, in a radical act of deaccessioning, gutted from Outline’s interior — those artifacts start to creep back into Transit. Every smelly rug is a means to a crushing revelation about humans, true, but I won’t deny that I was slightly crestfallen by the return of things. Outline suggested a future for the novel in which we might no longer need characters and, by extension, all of their crap. Transit’s formal radicalism seemed more tempered. (A writer and critic remarked to me, “Outline felt like it had to be written.” He praised its urgency; Transit, he said, by contrast, seemed more “obligatory.”)

Sheila Heti, for one, disagreed. She preferred Transit to Outline. She wrote, “What I like about Transit is that you can see everyone except the narrator — which is really true of life, that we see everyone around us but never ourselves. And yet nothing would appear without this void that is ourselves. Transit really revealed the strangeness of that to me. Whereas for me, Outline resembled maybe books of philosophy a bit more, where there is no exterior.”

Of the third and final novel in the trilogy, Cusk will say only that it is “going toward termination and vanishing.”

Cusk does not check the time. She does not ask questions. She does not let her children watch The Simpsons. She cannot, when she’s working, have anyone around. She does not look at her proposed book jackets; she simply replies to the emails, “That’s fine.” She frequently mentions someone named Siemon but never explains who Siemon is. (As it turns out, he is her second husband.) She no longer believes in narrative. Because she is female, and a mother, her time is not her own. She’s not interested in the view of life that promotes being yourself and being comfortable with being yourself. She is not a social hugger. She is not late for her lunch date. She would love to be Anthony Trollope, but she would not love to be old and fat and Victorian and dead.

A contradiction Cusk, the public persona — which is just as constructed, I suspect, as both of her nonfiction and fiction personae, i.e., I am probably, while in her presence, peering over another variety of trench — embodies: She is against coercion, she resists being told how to behave and what to think, yet her opinions can seem dogmatic. She is interested in the moral implications of people’s choices — of form, of belief, of behavior — but after making up her mind about, say, the dangers of comedy and satire, she can come across as brittle-minded and doctrinaire. Laugh at John Oliver, for example, and you’ve forsaken your power.

Refusing to laugh is powerful. (Cusk, the public persona, does not laugh.) So is refusing to speak. “Silence,” she said, “is going to become a very powerful thing.”

She will not go back to writing fiction the way she used to write it. Fate, she said, is the fundamental engine of narrative, and women are particularly vulnerable to the fake security it promises. When we spoke about irrational systems of ­prediction — psychics and horoscopes (Transit begins with an astrologer) — she said that people consult these systems because they believe in a happy ending. “You would never consult the runes otherwise,” she said. “That comes from a feminine lack of control with destiny and willful self-deception about what happiness actually is and what the good outcome actually is.”

Willful self-deception occurs in the making of novels, too. Women writers in particular must be mindful of relinquishing their power and autonomy, even (or especially) to the voices of imaginary authorities in their own heads. “There’s a type of writer — and always has been — who claims not to know what’s going to happen in their own book,” she said. “And they say, ‘I sit down and just let the characters take over.’ When I hear women say it now, I think, Well, be careful. These are dangerous times.

When asked how she relates to the feminism practiced by younger generations, Cusk segued into what might sound like a semi-sexist battle cry in the service of fighting sexism. She mentioned “the disgusting, endless photos of Donald Trump at beauty pageants,” and while castigating Trump (“He is almost communist in his weirdness”) for his sexually abusive behavior, she was also critical of women who partake in male-dominated power dynamics. “I think, Sorry, darling, but you were in a beauty pageant wearing a swimming costume. You know, that is not a powerful position from which to be a woman. Yes, it was wrong that [Trump] did that, but there needs to be something a lot stronger than that to get this person out. You know, saying ‘I was your victim’ when, you know, you … It’s not aggressive enough.”

Cusk, the public intellectual, does not countenance pushback. When her statement about women using systems of prediction to self-deceive was challenged — when it was suggested that men are also vulnerable to irrational systems, for example, superstition — she said, “That’s more like ADHD,” and suggested, “Well, that’s just the pain of being the self in the world.” A person might thus conclude that men are victims of medically (or existentially) diagnosable afflictions; their selves suffer in the genderless grandiosity known as the human condition. Women, however, do not suffer nobly (or pitiably); they eventually become their own victims, falling prey to “female” delusions.

A person might also conclude that Cusk, in person, is certainly not a cipher; that she is thus dramatically different from the literary persona she adopts in her recent novels. A person might conclude that Cusk’s blind spot, as a public intellectual, is her position of relative privilege. A person might conclude that Cusk is struggling to construct a female identity — in books as well as in life — that does not submit to the power structures that oppress it. Cusk’s version of womanhood can seem assembled from warnings and prohibitions. She assembles it from nots.

Cusk said that she aspired to a state of being advocated by D. H. Lawrence. She couldn’t recall his words specifically, but generally the Lawrencian approach, which she said was “not [my] mantra, exactly, but I believe it with all my heart,” decrees that “if you know something with sufficient thoroughness, just one thing, you know everything.” Later, discussing the limits of empathy and imagination in fiction, Cusk echoed Lawrence: “The only way you would ever, you can ever understand anything is through personal honesty. And if you are sufficiently honest with yourself, you will find every quality, every quality that is manifested outside yourself. ”

What works in fiction, however, does it work in life? I ask because while the Lawrence mind-set produced boundlessly capacious novels like Outline and Transit, such a mind-set could also ennoble incuriosity or narcissism and, in the wrong hands, justify the perpetual belief that one is right and knows everything (after consulting nothing and no one).

All these potential uses of Lawrence would seem to risk propagating the peril of self-deception Cusk repeatedly refers to, and the self-absorption of which she is sometimes, in her nonfiction work, accused. Might one believe one is being sufficiently honest, and still be way, way off the mark?

I put this question to Cusk. “I’m not remotely interested in me as a subject,” she said. “I’m interested in me as an object, and my honesty isn’t brave, because it’s not for me, it’s not about me. It’s just that I’m all I’ve got.”

While attempting to sort through Cusk’s various literary and public-­intellectual personae, and wondering how close, if at all, I’d come to witnessing the unconstructed human, I never got as near as this story, told to me by Heti: A few years ago, Heti and Cusk were doing an event together in London. They were smoking outside beforehand, and a young man in an “Oscar Wilde–ish” fur-lined coat walked past. Heti complimented the man on his coat, and because she was cold, he loaned it to her. She wore the coat inside. Standing backstage, Heti started to feel insecure about her outfit. Cusk, Heti said, looked so sleek and stylish, all in black, maybe even leather. Heti decided she did not like her outfit, in comparison. She decided to wear the man’s coat onstage. “That man’s huge, strange, beautiful coat was much better than what I was dressed in,” Heti said. She did not say a word about her decision, but Cusk, it seems, was listening to her; Cusk understood that Heti felt safer in the coat, and she did not want her to feel out of place in front of the audience. So Cusk performed an act of female solidarity. Before walking onto the stage, she put her coat on, too.

*This article appears in the March 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Rachel Cusk’s Many Selves