When an excerpt of British novelist Rachel Cusk’s new memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, ran in The Guardian last February, a tsunami of vitriol lashed Cusk’s work. Similar excerpts in The Telegraph and Granta drew equal ire for what one Guardian commenter described as dirty laundry “tarted up in literary language,” self-absorbed and cruel to her daughters and husband. There’s no doubt that "Aftermath" is a work of narcissism, a deeply personal account of Cusk’s shattered marriage that leaves little room for her husband’s side of the story.
But there is truth in this narcissism. As Cusk writes, in the depths of bereavement, seeing outside of yourself is nigh impossible. Her work is weighted with the selfishness of the recently split – every object in her life seems to sing the details of the divorce. No activity, however mundane, can avoid representing a meaningful lesson about the nature of grief. A trip to the dentist to have a tooth extracted leads Cusk to revelation. “It is happening: things are being changed, having been unable to change themselves.”
As Cusk explains, "Aftermath" is a way of combing through the debris after the storm passes. It is the dark ages after the barbarians have stormed the castle, the chaos when a civilization implodes. There is comfort in the wreckage. “I’ve wondered from time to time,” Cusk writes, “whether it is one of the pitfalls of modern family life, with its relentless jollity, its entirely unfounded optimism, its reliance not on God or economics but on the principle of love, that it fails to recognize – and take precautions against – the human need for war.”
It leans towards histrionic, and it’s easy to see the objections against Cusk’s impulse to magnify every detail of her tragedy until it becomes an all-enveloping landscape. Reading "Aftermath" feels like being trapped in a trance. Cusk’s prose is heavy and atmospheric. She harbors a near-Sontagian delight for one-liners, and certain metaphors crop up multiple times. “Like seeing a shadow without being able to see what cast it” describes both her new single life and the conversational shorthand she imagines couples on the street having. Her writing vacillates between strikingly beautiful and wearyingly overwrought, like a room filled with too many patterns.
Many of Cusk’s critics accuse her of writing at the expense of her family, violating their privacy for the sake of exorcising her demons. A libel suit filed against her last memoir, "The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy," forced Cusk to pulp the book a month after its publication. "Aftermath" may feel as if Cusk is suffocatingly close, triumphantly displaying the pages of her diary, but she actually holds us at arm’s length the whole time. She is a master of that essayist’s legerdemain, giving the reader a sense of being deeply entrenched in the minutiae of her everyday life without revealing very much at all. The whole memoir is strung-together scenes in the months after a traumatic break-up, but the logistics of the divorce – who left who and why – remain mysterious. When she writes about her conversation with a friend, Cusk may as well be writing the jacket copy for her book: “Our talk is the talk of episodes; the story itself never needs to be explained.”
Cusk is a public figure, particularly in England, and her family history is available to anyone with a search engine. But "Aftermath" is not a direct transcription of a tumultuous period in Cusk’s life, but a meticulously crafted vision of “the consequence and the curse of that divided life,” as Cusk puts it. She is a keen, even brilliant, observer of her own behavior. "Aftermath" is at times a scathing self-criticism, at times a calculating breakdown of a failure, like a football coach retracing the steps of a game gone awry. In one of the most controversial passages of the book, Cusk writes about her refusal to file for joint custody with her husband in spite of her outward belief in splitting the duties of the household. The primitivism of the mother, which runs so much against Cusk’s upbringing, is “that voodoo in the face of which the mechanism of equal rights breaks down.” And it is this sharpness that saves "Aftermath" from its own sense of importance, makes it compelling. Cusk reads too much into the flickering particulars of the quotidian, but she knows it, is utterly helpless to do otherwise.
Margaret Eby is a freelance writer in New York.