When the Dishes Are Done, I Wonder About Progress

In “Coventry,” Rachel Cusk draws a connection between politeness and narrative death, rudeness and tragedy, storytelling and war.

Sarah Haas | Longreads | October 2019 | 11 minutes (2,825 words)

In the days after reading Coventry, Rachel Cusk’s newest book and first collection of essays, I knew I’d been affected — deeply — but struggled to understand how. A binding together of pieces published between 2006 and 2019, it’s not clear whether Coventry was written with its final product in mind. Sure, the architecture seems intentional — as in it makes sense to read the collection from left to right — but without a central nor obvious thesis at its core, interpretation of the whole seemed to require an unfounded creativity. To make sense of Coventry I’d created a narrative that positioned the book against Cusk’s own storied life, imagining the collection as an allegory for the author’s experience of having been pummeled by so many critics. Reviewers of her other nonfiction works have called Cusk “condescending,” “terrible,” and cruel — an adjective that still sticks to her persona today. Wanting for narrative, I imbued Coventry with the arc, protagonists, and villains I’d imagined part of her life story. But then I heard Cusk’s voice like a whisper, proclaiming the death of exposition and character, as she did in a 2017 interview with The New Yorker. Cusk has been careful to ensure the absence of both in her work but, habituated to expect it, I’d struggled to yield. Just past the edge of my attention, my mind filled in the void by assigning Cusk the burden of the narrative’s enactment. It was the first time as a reader that I felt the success of a book depended not on the author’s ability, but on mine.

In Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” he writes of the difficulty of understanding a work without author as subject: “The Author, when believed in, is always conceived of as the past of his own book: book and author stand automatically on a single line divided into a before and an after. The author is thought to nourish the book, which is to say that he sits before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, in the same relation of antecedence to his work as a father is to a child,” or in Cusk’s case, as a mother to two daughters.

This distinction between father and mother appeared of particular importance as I thought of Barthes’ quote, which was while I cleaned the dishes. Because my husband makes most of the money and I make very little we’ve come to an economic agreement, which is also a domestic one, that I will do most of the household chores. Some of them I hate to do, specifically folding laundry, but I enjoy doing the dishes — I like the ritual of mixing water and soap, the work of scrubbing remnants of food off plates, and the sense of progress made as the sink empties and the rack fills. When doing the dishes, I am at peace. But still the kitchen sink has been one of the most contentious places throughout my life and the dishes the number one topic of argument with my mom, then roommates, and now with my husband. Some believe that the person who dirties the dishes ought to clean them. Others think that the birth is also an act of labor and so relieves the cook of at least some of the responsibilities. But amid the debate, the fact of doing the chore is the only solution and when I’m elbow deep in water, who made the mess hardly seems important. This is how I wanted to be able to think of Coventry: as a book to be dealt with, on its own terms. But I struggled; the author kept turning up.

It was the first time as a reader that I felt the success of a book depended not on the author’s ability, but on mine.

The book opens with “Driving As Metaphor” which begins: “Where I live, there is always someone driving slowly on the road ahead,” which I imagine is as common a cause for consternation as there is. The largely observational essay presents many familiar perspectives on driving — of how silly a traffic jam appears to walkers-by, of the marvel of the social contract on which driving depends, and of the two-sided privacy a car provides. The more generous aspects of driving (i.e., what it takes to “share” the road) shimmer beautifully in Cusk’s description, while other aspects seem newly contemptible, no matter that, like capitalism, the system depends on self-interest. In turn it reveals our ‘cruder prejudices’: “Women drivers, for instance, have been openly pilloried, and it is noticeable that even those who would not normally regard themselves as racist or xenophobic frequently describe driving in other places — Germany or Italy or the Middle East — in ways that draw upon or lampoon national characteristics.”

The essay’s title is the only hint toward its interpretation, the narrative of the text otherwise made only of Cusk’s patented point of view — made only of what the author notices and chooses to write. And so it is that lack of narrative becomes the subject, and the essay a meta essay, as revealed in a moment when Cusk finds herself driving foreign roads in a rental car, immersed in an instance of defamiliarization: “On that wide, grey unfamiliar road, swept along in the narcotic tumult of speeding cars, every moment all at once seemed to contain the possibility of disaster, of killing or being killed. It was as if driving was a story I had suddenly stopped believing in, and without that belief I was being overwhelmed by the horror of reality.”

“Driving as Metaphor” is a tragic essay; Cusk ends with a story of coming across an accident near her home: a sports car overturned, its passengers lying beside it dead on the road, “their shocked faces as rigid as doll’s faces their summer clothes askew.” Yet the tragic quality does not lie in the obviousness of life lost, but in the subtlety of the lines that follow to conclude: “the accident had only just happened, but no one had seen it and there was no one there.” According to Barthes’ understanding of Greek tragedy (which he borrows from the French structuralist Jean-Pierre Vernant), the tragic tale will conclude in demise, but occurs in the absence of an observer who could correct the confusion at play. Whatever redemption can be found in a tragic narrative exists in the audience’s ability to act as witness, and it is the lack thereof which “Driving as Metaphor” upholds as its ultimate misfortune.

And so the following essay, “Coventry,” begins:

Every so often, for offenses actual or hypothetical, my mother and father stop speaking to me. There’s a funny phrase for this phenomenon in England: it’s called being sent to Coventry. I don’t know what the origins of the expression are, though I suppose I could easily find out. Coventry suffered badly in the war: it once had a beautiful cathedral that in 1940 was bombed into non-existence. Now it’s an ordinary town in the Midlands, and if it hasn’t made sense of its losses, it has at least survived them.

As the essay proceeds, the reader is uncertain of what truly happened in the real town of Coventry. Cusk will tell you more: that she has seen pictures of the original damage, and that she has been to the actual place to find that the cathedral was rebuilt by artists following the war. In a later essay she will explain the significance of art commingling with the divine: “The saint says, ‘I am nothing’; the artist says, ‘I am everything.’” (Barthes, again paraphrasing Vernant, also defines tragedy as “[a text] woven from words with double meanings that each character understands unilaterally.”) The destruction and rebuilding of Coventry begins to resemble Cusk’s own inner conflict, and is perhaps the reason she develops a kinship with her proverbial prison.


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But maybe a bit of history on Coventry would be helpful, too. A number of books have claimed that Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew Coventry was to be bombed by the Nazis, but chose to do nothing to defend it, protecting the intelligence of the Allies instead. The town and its people are said to have been sacrificed for the greater good. But this utilitarian version of history remains in the terrain of conspiracy; to date, no state official has confirmed or denied the story. You would think being “sent to Coventry” comes from this near-history of being ignored as the issuance of a kind of death, but the phrase is much older, dating to some earlier, hazier violence; perhaps the Coventry Act, which made the slitting of a man’s nose punishable by death: named not after the place but a man to whom that terrible thing happened. Cusk, however, remains detached from the centuries-long history, keeping her focus on the city as metaphor instead. As she wanders through the purgatory she inhabits when banished there by her parents, never with reason or explanation, she wonders not about what came before, but about what her present reality amounts to: “It was a test of an individual’s capacity for survival, of her own psychological strength: if other people pretend you’re not there, how long can you go on believing you exist?”

Perhaps this need for recognition has always been vital; Hegel first described it with the phrase ‘kampf um anerkennung’ in 1807’s The Phenomenology of Spirit. Seeking recognition might seem like an innocent search for confirmation, i.e., a subjective truth made to feel objective, but it’s also inextricable from power — a confusion Cusk confronts on intimate terms. In being ejected from her family’s narrative, Cusk was subjugated, too: an act of authorship in real time that Cusk cannot separate from violence: “War is a narrative: it might almost be said to embody the narrative principle itself. It is the attempt to create a story of life, to create agreement. In war there is no point of view; war is the end of point of view.”

Ultimately, Cusk decides to stay in Coventry; it is, in effect, a reclamation of her point of view. But still, hers is a harsh exit from her parent’s life, and one that forsakes reconciliation. Cusk’s choice is not just a personal one to end the story in order to start anew, but an authorial one that hints toward yet another death, the death of story at large. Rather than seeking the balm of amended relationships, “Coventry” enacts the alternative of individuality.

I think of all the arguments raging in our midst and I wonder what sustains them. Is it in each of us? Or is it between us and so somehow beyond us?

Writing in the midst of Brexit, an exemplar of our modern social confusion, Cusk stops fighting in order to yield to the fact of fundamental separateness. Which is not to say she has stopped wanting or believing in reunion — the most transcendental moment in “Coventry” comes when she’s walking alone, out of the woods, and toward the sea, describing “the feeling of clarity and expansion as though a word you’d been searching for has suddenly come back to you.” But if not reunification, evidence of progress exists in the relief Cusk feels in existing, even for a second, within the union of objective and subjective truths — no matter that it might get lonely out there on the edge.

But still Cusk exists as we all do, wondering about what to make of our social existence, and the book’s third essay, “On Rudeness,” opens with a moral rhetorical: “In a world unmannerly as this one, how is it best to speak?” In the next line we meet Cusk as one among many, in the security line at the airport, watching an employee directing travelers toward various cues. As Cusk nears him, she observes the man shouting at passengers and when she’s close enough she says, “there’s no need to be rude,” only to find that, as evidenced by both his retort and popular consensus, she is the one being rude.

“The social code remains unwritten, and it has always interested me how many problems this poses in the matter of ascertaining the truth. The truth often appears in the guise of a threat to the social code. It has this in common with rudeness.” She goes on to write of the sense of relief that so often accompanies both truth and rudeness, expressing a skepticism that can be taken as an indicator of either. Without ever mentioning her own embattlements with her critics, the essay portends toward what it’s been like to have been punished and disowned for her own truth-telling, and of the fundamental confusion she, and her country, endure. Written in 2016, Cusk considers Brexit as an allegory for narrative itself, wondering if it’s doomed toward irreconcilable differences, two different truths which, if tragic dramas are to serve as a guide, will surely result in violence, as if the domestic had been in reference to both personal and national borders all along.

But just then we’re asked to consider a different kind of border: Cusk inside a dressing room guarded by a store-attendant who refuses to stray from her script or to leave Cusk alone to try on her clothes. Cusk feels trapped. She wants to say:

I feel that people always have a choice where language is concerned, that the moral and relational basis of our existence depends on that principle. I wish to [tell the attendant] that there are those who have sacrificed themselves to defend it. If we stop speaking to each other as individuals, I want to say to her, if we allow language to become a tool of coercion, then we are lost.

Instead she says something short and rude. The attendant gets upset and leaves.

I wonder about this choice of language that Cusk offers up as a social fact because I’m not so sure the collective “we” really does have a choice. Do we live in a society that’s fair enough, and kind enough, to allow for that kind of freedom? But nevertheless I too grieve the loss of individuality that occurs when people either can’t or don’t stray from a script, whether as a part of a job or, under the guise of citizenship, of opinion. I think of Brexit’s Leavers and Remainders, I think of the Democrats and the Republicans, I think of all the arguments raging in our midst and I wonder what sustains them. Is it in each of us? Or is it between us and so somehow beyond us?

I’m wondering all this while I look out the window above the kitchen sink, doing the dishes that would never get done if the argument were all that mattered. I imagine all of the turmoil of our age like the landscape below which I know is full of movement, of life and death and all of the requisite dramas, but from where I stand it appears perfectly still. And when the dishes are done I wonder about progress: what does it require? I wonder if it is as Cusk had hinted, the word “sacrifice” ringing louder and louder in my mind like the church bells that sound every Sunday from the church that’s hidden in the forested valley below.

The final section of “On Rudeness” culminates in a section about Jesus Christ, the ultimate victim of opposing sides. Taking the question — What would Jesus do? — literally, Cusk considers his demeanor leading up to and during his crucifixion — a most brutal instance of progress. She notes that “he remained for the most part, polite.”

Even though Christ is meant to be used for such moral comparison and leadership, it’s awkward to watch as Cusk narrowly juxtaposes herself to the son of God and then adopts his demeanor as her new personal edict. It didn’t seem as much of a sacrifice as it did a form of betrayal. And it wasn’t until Cusk found her way forward through Christ that I realized how much I enjoyed her writing when she was still lost and a little rude, which is an oddly familiar tone, isn’t it? Sure, I understand why Cusk might want to live more mannerly, but I wonder about what this will do to Cusk, not as a character or as a person, but as an author. I worry that it could ensure Barthes’ promised death, not just the end of the story but of story itself. Then again, maybe the end isn’t meant to be regarded with fear, but rather as it is by Cusk in “Coventry” when she writes: “When what you’re used to is irretrievably gone, it’s hard to believe in something new … but the [people of Coventry] suspended their disbelief. The new things came to be, became reality. What needed to change was changed, just as the old things were destroyed — not by time, but by force of human will.”

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Sarah Haas is a writer living in the mountains of New Mexico. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Paste, Westword, and more. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky