Can you feel it?

A friend is writing a book which prescribes books as cures for emotional ailments.

It’s a great idea, and one that already seems to be taking hold. GPs, for example, are considering handing out a reading list in lieu of pills.

And, interestingly, readers/patients themselves are insisting that these lists should contain fiction as well as – or instead of – self-help books.

As this thread shows, many feel that so-called ‘self-help’ can actually make you feel worse, particularly if you ‘fail’ at the ‘six simple steps’ to whatever state you are seeking.

Stories have a way of showing ‘how it is,’ with shards of hope built-in. Because we instinctively understand the rules of story – the likely ups and downs of the heroine’s journey, the ‘dragons’ she must defeat to avoid obliteration – we accept that change has to come. If nothing changes, there is no story. And though we might shed a tear or resist, we will go through the dark times with the heroine and, with her, step out into whatever – expected or unexpected – chink of light beckons in the end.

So far, so beautiful. But something has been troubling me a while. I wrote about Rachel Cusk’s book AFTERMATH a while ago and I’ve been thinking about it again as I read poet Sharon Olds’ latest collection STAG’S LEAP. Each work charts the death of the writer’s marriage. But while Cusk was vilified for washing her dirty laundry in public (a phrase I’ve chosen carefully as a lot of her book wrestles with what constitutes mother’s work), Olds has been praised (and won the TS Eliot poetry prize) for her thoughtful, exquisitely argued poems, and reviews often mention the fact that she promised her ex husband and her children that she would wait ten years before publishing. An atmosphere of silent approval hovers around this decision.

And you can see why. Cusk’s book is messy. Its narrative is fractured, the language skitters from leaden to agonised to pure sad. It doesn’t always make sense, or hang together. It is, for some, too immediate. Too raw. ‘She’ll regret writing that,’ you can almost hear them say. But for me, having gone through something similar, this mess needs saying too. Not always with hindsight when the feeling can be measured and weighed, the perfect word found, the great analogy created. Language is for articulating how we feel now, as well as for helping us gather our experiences into a satisfying, cohesive whole at a later date.

Separation and divorce can be agony for men and women. But still too many women are silent through the process. Often to protect their children. But also because of fear of the power their ex partner still wields over them, frequently economically, but emotionally too. Men often seem to feel their ex partner should pay in emotional hurt for a situation it took two people to make.

That’s why Cusk’s book is important. We need to hear what a mess this thing called divorce is, while it’s still not making sense. We need to try and get what uncontrolled emotion sounds like, while it’s still uncontrolled. Otherwise a relationship break-up becomes something we simply wait for our friends to get over, while the horror of it all spills into every aspect of their lives.

For example, in AFTERMATH, a sad attempt at a holiday is almost funny in its bleakness: ‘The town is a soundless heaped outline in the night, of roofs and spires and well-kept streets. Its beauty and its desertion are unnerving. It is as though some disaster has just occurred here and all the people have run away.

‘The thing is, I believe in chaos now: it’s normality I’ve lost faith in.’ (p106)

What’s happening doesn’t make sense to the writer. And the fractured, mixed up clumps of narrative don’t always make sense to the reader. But that is the deliberate effect that is being conveyed. And those who are in similar states or have been, will recognise it and know they are not alone. Which is the first step to restoring mental health.

Sharon Olds has the ability to express the most complex responses to divorce in poems so beautifully structured they are very hard to quote from – the trains of thought wind like ink through water. Her poems are filled with memories twined with ideas twined with maybes  that give her experience form and offer the reader ways of understanding what happens when two people outgrow each other before one of them has noticed. The book wears its hindsight lightly, maintaining the freshness of astonishment that this can be happening, that she can feel as she has felt:

‘…When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from.
I am half on the side of the leaver. It’s so quiet,
and empty, when he’s left. I feel like a landscape,
a ground without a figure…’ (Stag’s Leap, p15)

It’s sensual, too. About the dark longing that occurs when a couple is broken in two.

At the end of AFTERMATH we are left with a tender description of a girl, an au pair, making a cake and dividing it, sending ‘…one to the man and one to the woman’ as Cusk tries using the third person to scramble for another look at the two people in her detonated marriage, still in the midst of their death-fight. Perhaps this points the way to the next stage, now helping the reader step out of the subjective bloodbath to take a clearer view of how both sides are diminished.

STAG’S LEAP ends with a powerful mantra:

‘I believed in him, he believed in me, then we
grew, and grew, I grieved him, he grieved me,
I completed with him, he completed with me, we
made a whole cloth together, we succeeded,
we perfected what lay between him and me,
I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me,
I did not leave him, he did not leave me,
I freed him, he freed me.’ (What Left? p89)

Both writers wrestle with the need for equality. Whether it’s possible for two whole people to emerge from the wreckage. In Cusk you can hear the gasps for survival. It’s like that. It needs to be said and I’m glad she has shouted as she tried to keep from drowning.

In Olds, the quiet insistence on equality in the face of all that pain is medicine indeed.

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The aftermath of a true story

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.

Hope.

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.