Rachel Cusk Examines the Power of Motherhood by Ignoring It

While many writers have turned to autobiography in their work, the Canadian author, who was torn apart in the press after publishing controversial memoirs about motherhood and divorce, has developed a unique strategy for critiquing culture in her new...

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Jan 19 2017, 5:30pm

Photo by Siemon Scammel-Katz

One of the only stories that Faye, the narrator in Rachel Cusk's new novel, Transit, tells from her own life is about a time just after her divorce when her sons' pets kept dying: first the cat, then the hamsters, then the replacement hamsters, and finally the guinea pigs. She describes feeling that something in the house had killed them, "like a curse" that each attempt she made to escape only made its defeat of her "more complex and substantial."

She's talking to her cousin Lawrence, a man who has left his wife for another woman and set up house in an English village that is slightly more picturesque than the one he lived in before. For Lawrence, life is about desire and self-control: the discipline to want something better. Decide to become a person who prefers "smoked duck to processed cheese" and by increments you become that person. His is a perspective grounded in a kind of biblical entitlement—God hath given man the earth: a world in which you take what you tell yourself you deserve. Faye isn't convinced. What Lawrence's remarks about desire and self-control have left out, she tells him, is "the element of powerlessness that other people called fate."

"That wasn't fate," he replies. "It was because you're a woman."

Read more: Defining Womanhood Is Almost Impossible, but '20th Century Women' Tries Anyway

It's a ridiculous statement, but Cusk herself has had plenty of people tell her what she's gotten wrong about her own experience as a woman. Her frank memoirs about motherhood and divorce have provoked violent reactions, largely for Cusk's unwillingness to assume the saintly mantle attributed to the roles of wife and mother. After the publication of A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother (1997) Cusk says she was accused of "of child-hating, of postnatal depression, of shameless greed, of irresponsibility, of pretentiousness, of selfishness, of doom-mongering and, most often, of being too intellectual." Written shortly after the birth of her second child, A Life's Work deconstructs childbirth and early motherhood, examining their parts without the usual swaddling of sentimentality. Cusk articulated her unease with the public culture of motherhood and its implicit expectation that the mother yield at every turn to a communal ideal, suppressing "selfish" desires that didn't harmonize with caring for young children—for example, "a great need to write." (According to Cusk, one reviewer "questioned the length of my sentences: how had I, a mother, been able to write such long and complicated sentences?") Navel-gazing and narcissism, some critics called it. Cusk apparently had demanded too much—she had become a mother and wished to remain herself at the same time.

Transit is a slim, strange novel that won't get Cusk off the hook for being "too intellectual"—it is, like its author, almost radioactively intelligent. But unlike her controversial memoirs, Transit is a book that speaks to questions of fate, identity, and power precisely by relinquishing the author's need to control the story.

How had I, a mother, been able to write such long and complicated sentences?

Like Outline, the novel's predecessor, Transit is structured as a sequence of stories that are connected only through being told to Faye. Other than a briefly sketched biography—she's a writer who has bought a bad house on a good street and moved back to London with her two sons following a divorce—Faye is almost invisible. She is never described; in the course of the entire novel, her name appears only once. Her story—the renovation of a wreck punctuated by conflict with a pair of trollish neighbors and tearful calls from her sons, who are staying with their father for the duration—is only a frame for other people's stories to attach and unwind. The book is a net composed of these threads, and if its narrator slips through, what it catches instead is remarkable.

When Cusk published Outline in 2014, she had good reason to find a way of writing without showing her face. After seven novels and three memoirs, Cusk had stopped writing—and almost stopped reading—for nearly three years, struck dumb by the aftermath of Aftermath, her 2012 account of the breakdown of her marriage. The public's reaction was not dissimilar to the response to A Life's Work: Cusk's openness about her desire that the children remain in her sole custody, and her outrage that as the family's principal breadwinner she would remain financially obligated to her husband, provoked fury from some quarters. One Sunday Times reviewer described Cusk as "a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish."

In an interview with the Guardian, Cusk called the fallout "creative death." Criticisms of her personal life were being broadcast on Radio 4. Fiction, she felt, was "fake and embarrassing," yet her mode of autobiography "had come to an end." As an established mid-career artist, she was "heading into total silence."

Photos courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Out of that silence Cusk developed a wholly original authorial voice, one that listens instead of speaks—or rather, that speaks through listening. In Transit we hear from the ex-boyfriend who cemented his relationship with his current wife by losing her dog; from the Albanian foreman who locks his workman's tools in his house at night to keep him from returning to Poland in a flight of homesickness; from the hairdresser who has realized he doesn't want to go clubbing anymore and invited his teenage nephew, a boy who "everyone had decided was autistic or Asperger's or whatever it is people call you these days when you're not like everyone else," to come and live with him. Faye receives their stories without judgment or overt sympathy, like a priest hearing confessions.

In Transit, life appears as a feat of narration and credulity—a willingness to believe in the dramatic arcs we assemble out of the accidents that befall us. It is the same suspension of disbelief that takes us over when we read. Many of the characters in Transit are themselves all too aware of life's interweaving of fact and fiction. There is the woman who tears her house apart looking for a trace of "Taffy," the dog she either once owned or read about in a book; the writer who as a child returned unaccompanied to a petting zoo to discover whether he has injured a horse's eye. (His mother accused him of doing so; he had no memory of it.) Whether the incidents are real or imagined, each story in Transit makes clear the necessity of fixed points or events by which we can measure change or set a future course. A fellow writer at a literary event with Faye confesses that—while he'd intended his thousand-page novel to capture the "low-lying truth of his ordinary existence" by chronicling its senseless stream of "eating and drinking and shitting and pissing and fucking"—when prompted to read an extract, he betrays himself by drawing on the few moments at which life can be "observed in a meaningful arrangement."

When it's Faye's turn to read at the same event, however, we get no insight into how she chooses to arrange life's parts, nor even the story she has chosen to tell: "I took the papers out of my bag and unfolded them... There was the sound of the audience settling into its seats. I read aloud what I had written."

Afterwards, Faye is treated to condescension by the other of the two male panelists ("We enjoyed having you in our sandwich... You were less chewy than expected... and tastier") and a creepy attempt at seduction by the event chair who, after a conversation spent pouring a great deal of wine into both their glasses, asks if he can walk her home. Outside her hotel he pushes Faye against the door and presses "his warm, thick tongue" into her mouth.

Cusk developed a wholly original authorial voice, one that listens instead of speaks—or rather, that speaks through listening.

The scene is a brilliant study of a routine invasion, and it's perversely more powerful because it denies us Faye's emotional reaction. It's one of several moments in the novel that links the desire for freedom with violation or violence. (Many of the characters in Transit tell Faye how they strive to feel free: forgiveness, partying, failure.) In the absence of the freedom to determine one's fate, characters exercise freedom by crossing boundaries, whether another's or one's own. Later, when Faye is being insulted by Paula, one of a pair of downstairs neighbors who embody a kind of "elemental negativity," she notices that the woman is "goading herself on," that Paula wants "to traverse boundaries, as though to prove to herself that she was free."

In both situations, Faye remains silent, but moments like this usher in a shift in her belief in the "virtues" of passivity. On a date with an old acquaintance, Faye explains that for a long time she believed "it was only through absolute passivity that you could learn to see what was really there." But renovating her house "had awoken a different reality." Faye confesses that she has started to become angry, even to "desire power," because she realizes that other people have had it all along. What she had called fate was really "the reverberation of their will, a tale scripted not by some universal storyteller but by people who would elude justice for as long as their actions were met with resignation rather than outrage."

Fate—the idea that our lives have already been dictated—is seductive, until, as Faye discovers, "you realized that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy." For Faye's cousin Lawrence, who ascribes Faye's feelings of powerlessness to "being a woman," the characters we choose to play are essential to controlling the action.

Lawrence explains to Faye that she has disadvantaged herself in her dealings with her ex by refusing to "accept that femininity entailed certain male codes of honour." Without these codes and boundaries—"for instance, a man knows not to hit a woman"—the woman is "basically powerless." Faye says she isn't sure she wants the kind of power he's talking about. It is "the old power of the mother... a power of immunity."

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In an essay she wrote 11 years after the publication of A Life's Work, Cusk explains how she came to understand the malice the book unleashed, particularly from other women (Cusk was trolled on the parenting forum Mumsnet before the word trolling had even entered our cultural vocabulary):

I see that, like all intolerance, it arose from dependence on an ideal... I see that many - most - of my female detractors continue to write routinely in the press about motherhood and issues relating to children. Their interest in these issues has a fixated quality, compared with their worldly male equivalents. I am struck by this distinction, for it is clear that they hunger to express themselves not as women, not as commentators or intellectuals, but as mothers.

The reviews that disturbed Cusk the most were those by women who had searched A Life's Work for "evidence" of Cusk's conduct as a mother—women who didn't judge it as a book but "as a social situation." When Faye rejects "the old power of the mother," she rejects the ideal that power is derived from: a selfless superhuman whose sole source of achievement and satisfaction is her child. To accept the mother's power would be to relinquish both her accountability to her own actions and her freedom to say things that don't fit the script—which is exactly what we need our writers and our intellectuals to do. By handing the narrative reigns over to a cast of characters as hopeful, foolish, and full of fear as we are, Cusk captures the ways we claim or disavow our power through the stories we tell and the roles we assign ourselves in them. Without even seeming to open her own mouth, she urges us to start telling better ones.