Author Archives

When the Dishes Are Done, I Wonder About Progress

Lady Godiva rides through the streets of Coventry. July 1, 1962. (John Franks/Keystone/Getty Images)

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. Read more…