The title of a book is the equivalent of a first glimpse, a first touch. The catching of an eye.
Aftermath. On Marriage and Separation seems, at first acquaintance, an appropriate and satisfying title for Rachel Cusk’s memoir of what came after the death of her marriage.
Either of the ‘aftermath’ definitions at oxforddictionaries.com work:
* the consequences or after-effects of a significant unpleasant event. For example, ‘food prices soared in the aftermath of the drought’
* Farming – new grass growing after mowing or harvest (late 15th century, from after + math ‘mowing’)
Thus Aftermath successfully captures both a sense of things having passed, and of things being renewed.
It’s the subtitle, I think, that’s the problem. On Marriage and Separation immediately conjures kinship with scholarly yet accessible works such as Susan Sontag’s On Photography, ideas assembled with the benefit of experience which have been assessed, contextualized, in some way understood, and re-presented in an argument to which the author is thoroughly committed.
But this isn’t what Rachel Cusk’s book delivers. And I wonder if that’s why so much eye-watering vitriol has been spat at it in the Comments column of any Guardian article that has appeared about the book.
Rachel Cusk prides herself on being a forensic writer. Towards the end of Aftermath when her therapist wants to explore why Cusk might be so ‘cruel’ to herself, she writes: ‘What he calls cruelty I call the discipline of self-criticism.’
And there is much in this book that achieves dispassionate clarity. But what I find fascinating is the way the writer cannot keep a grip. For every cold, clear, punishingly accurate observation:
‘Days and nights of hunger, white and abstract, hunger and the feeling of excitement that is in fact its opposite, dread…’
there is a spillage, a kind of helpless lapse into lyricism, often in descriptions of the natural world, the weather:
‘Winter comes; the days are brief and pale, the sea retracted as though into unconsciousness. The coldly silvered water turns quietly on the shingle. There are long nights of stars and frost, and in the morning frozen puddles lie like little smashed mirrors in the road.’
It is too much. 24 white chocolate truffles after a single slice of plain toast.
In promising cool argument – On Marriage and Separation – and delivering a bare-knuckle fight between dirty realism and lyricism, Rachel Cusk has foxed many of her readers (and most of those who decided to have an opinion without the inconvenience of the few hours required to read her book).
There is not enough distance between writer and subject to give what is promised. And the problem is not the book, but the promise. This is not a dispassionate appraisal of how feminism and marriage struggle and fail to co-exist. It is not a ‘looking back’ as the new grass grows tall and strong. It is too rooted in the more general definition of ‘aftermath’ – the awful, raw mess of relationship collapse, the appalling annihilation of the thing human beings most need, way up there with light and water.
If Cusk is not far enough away from her subject, her readers can’t be either. Experiencing the fallout of separation as it occurs is like seeing a bloody just-born baby with a pot-belly and elastic limbs when you have only ever been exposed to the chubby three month old advertisers adore because of their irresistible ability to shift product. As TS Eliot noted in Burnt Norton, human kind cannot bear very much reality.
I suspect our anger at Rachel Cusk is anger at our own relationships, at why marriage won’t, for so many of us, work, and at the things we put up with for fear of the pain of separation.
The title is our first sniff of a book. Does it promise answers, securities? Or questions, explorations? Promising one and delivering the other could be read as grounds for early divorce.
I wonder if simply replacing On Marriage and Separation with A Marriage and Separation might have made a radical difference to readers’ relationships with this book.
And to its own aftermath.