Saturday 6 July 2019


Aftermath by Rachel Cusk    {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“All my memories are being taken away. Nothing belongs to me any more. I have become an exile from my own history. I no longer have a life. It’s an afterlife; it’s all aftermath.” Does Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath, published in 2012 on the brink of the three years of silence that preceded Outline, the first of the three books of Cusk’s completely remarkable ‘Faye’ project, provide any gleanings for readers of those novels as to the preconditions for their eventual production and for the austere perfection of their style? Aftermath is comprised of a series of personal essays (and one story) written in the painful period following Cusk’s separation from her husband and the father of her children, a period in which she tries desperately, obsessively, to make sense of the harm done to her indivisible concepts of herself and of her world. “Everything that was formless in our life together now belongs to me,” she writes. She surprises herself by declaring at the moment of crisis that her children belong to her alone and not to her husband. “The children belong to me: once I would have criticised such a sentiment, but of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge.” Cusk attempts to defend her unexpected claim with an appeal to a generalised form of biological privilege, though she is perhaps using the wrong wrench to grasp her situation (blame her therapist) and, in any case, the ambivalence between the particulars of her personality and the generic role of motherhood is suitably unresolved (and unresolvable): “I felt inhabited by a second self, a twin whose jest it was — in the way of twins — to appear to be me while doing things that were alien to my own character.” Cusk’s interpretative statements may flatten the pieces in which they appear, expelling the reader, but these pieces also contain details and descriptions as so sharp and enduring that they could only have been recorded in the vacuum created by the abandonment of pre-existing structures and approaches that accompany the self-abnegation that Cusk plays out in this book. The passage describing her visit to the dentist with her daughter, for example, or that describing the landlady of the place she stayed when she took her daughters on a horse-riding holiday in Devon, or that describing her boarder’s emotional disintegration, leave impressions against which a reader can have no defence. When Aftermath was written, Cusk had already repudiated most of the conventional novelistic crutches of fiction (plot, character, ‘invention’, &c) as “fake and embarrassing” and was convinced that the author’s own life was the only authentic subject for literature. Aftermath displays the perils of that approach but also shows the first stages of another, even more acidic ‘cleansing’ process: the removal of the author herself. When Cusk started writing again in Outline, this process is more or less complete (but can’t be more than complete): the author exists only as others say to her they see her to exist (self-definition is not possible, after all; we are only ever usefully — and non-definitively — defined by others) and, although the ‘Faye’ novels are full of ideas, they are not obviously imposed by the author as defining interpretations but are voiced at a degree’s or several degrees’ remove. In Aftermath Cusk suggests “the problem usually lies in the relationship between the story and the truth. … The closer the cut the more pleasing the effect,” and consciousness of this ‘problem’ is the impetus for her eventual production of the ‘Faye’ novels, which recalibrate the relationship between literature and life. At this stage, however, “it’s too late to run away from something whose nature I can’t in any case discern. It’s just a shape in the darkness, understanding or its opposite. I can’t tell.” She is approaching the silence that she will eventually pass through, shedding what will not serve.

Read Thomas's 'reviews' of the 'Faye' novels: >Outline, >Transit and >Kudos

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