Coventry: Essays

Rachel Cusk

Faber & Faber, £14.99

Coventry, the title essay, is a whole novel crunched into the form of a think-piece, a theory of art masquerading as a few, deliberately disjointed autobiographical musings.

The author is getting the cold-shoulder treatment from her parents for some unspecified dereliction. It happens, God knows. We’ve all experienced the brusquer-than-usual birthday card, the switched on-off smile. But Rachel Cusk, who set contemporary fiction off in a whole new direction with her Outline trilogy, is incapable of leaving the observation there. She notices that being sent to Coventry, like reading fiction, requires the collusion and complicity of the ostracised, or the reader. Whether that “suspension of disbelief” is imposed on us from the outside, say by a writer whose ability to texture a physical world is irresistibly believable, or whether we do it ourselves, is a moot point. The person sent to Coventry knows that she is still in the room, but joins in the cruel but funny pretence that she is not. The whole point of sending someone to Coventry is that they have to play along.

Cusk says we don’t know the origin of the term “sent to Coventry”. We do. Cromwell despatched Royalist prisoners there and the burghers refused to have anything to do with them, or even acknowledge their existence. She overlooks this point, perhaps deliberately, because for her a later wartime Coventry stands for all the war-ravaged places of the world that have been or can be redeemed and remade by art. We might apply her thinking to Palmyra, the World Trade Center site, the fire-ravaged Mackintosh building at Glasgow School of Art, and it might do us some good. Being expunged means starting again, and wholesale reinvention. More bracing, surely, than simply being allowed back into the gang, and the “normal”.

The other essays in the collection are in the more familiar vein of social observation. As a Reichian, I accept that next to a Dalek – all that soft, raw biological rage in a tin can – a person in a car is the most potent representation of “body armour” and our present cultural fix. “Driving As Metaphor” deals with contradiction: we roar through other people’s villages, but snarl at anyone who passes through ours faster than 32mph. Cusk lives in an East Anglian coastal village and follows a network of narrow roads on which, I can vouch, there is always someone driving under 30, just ahead. Are they old, young, purblind, lost, looking for a turning, or enjoying the hedgerows? Irrelevant: they are ahead of us and thus in some evolutionary sense, an obstacle.

I now live, to return to Reich, in a narrow Scottish glen where the greatest physical risk after landslips is the teenage daughter of a local farm who recently passed her test and turns instantly into a sociopath the moment the ignition coughs: hurtling round blind bends, gesturing furiously when she has to back up, muttering easily lip-read obscenities as we wave our thanks to her for doing so, all as if the little deodorant trees in the windscreen are giving off toxins rather than pine; meet her in the street an hour later and she is the same blushing child as before.

Cusk gets all this. It’s a thoughtful essay, as is one “On Rudeness”. Now that we are not allowed to be angry, especially with anyone in uniform or livery, rudeness has become the social combat zone, but so subjectively (solipsistically?) is it interpreted that even a smile and a held-open door can cause offence. Now that no one actually fights, we’re reduced to animal-kingdom subtleties of grimace, grin and submission.

There are essays in addition here on artist Louise Bourgeois, DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow (a strikingly original response), the wonderful Françoise Sagan (does anyone read Bonjour Tristesse any more, as once we all did?), Olivia Manning, Natalia Ginzburg, Edith Wharton and “Shakespeare’s Sisters”, a list that says much about Cusk’s brand of cultural feminism. They’re by no means afterthoughts, but, whisper it, Faber could have sold me this on the strength of “Coventry” alone.