Thirteen years ago I wrote about Intimacy, Hanif Kureishi’s gritty divorce novel/memoir, and gratuitously (certainly a little too vigorously) contrasted it to the other popular divorce memoir on the shelves then, Breakup by Catherine Texier. Kureishi’s book was raw, impeccable, fearless. Texier’s book was a catharsis, uncouth, a cry of pain. Now that I have some divorce of my own under my belt, I have a clearer understanding of the divergent approaches. Divorce—or rather its particular combination of grief, agony, fear, and shame—is word chaos. It hurls writers back into the primordial ooze. Some writers freeze up. Other writers gush, weep, rail; become one with the ooze. And other writers start constructing meticulous, crystal structures—barriers, if you will—as if the architecture itself were a stairway out of the ooze and back into civilization. And everyone, responding to some deeply human motivation, is hell-bent on getting his version of the story out. It’s a vexed, and subjective, genre.
In her new divorce memoir, Aftermath, British writer Rachel Cusk is, like Kureishi, an architect. Cusk’s book is a complicated, elegant structure: Renaissance, round and wordy, decorated with chiaroscuro environments and references to the ancient Greeks. Unlike most breakup memoirs, though, Aftermath is a sequel of sorts, and proof that Cusk’s creative mission is to grapple with the word chaos of modern life, to formally pound it into submission. In her novels, such as Saving Agnes and Arlington Park, that pounding has been expressed through pristine, droll writing, often referred to as Jamesian. Her first memoir, A Life’s Work, instead was a kind of chatty yet blisteringly pointed account of motherhood. It was also a bit of a scandal. Some readers accused Cusk of betraying motherhood (“If everyone were to read this book the propagation of the human race would cease”). Others swooned in gratitude—at last someone had broken the mommy taboo to write smartly and candidly about the brain murder of giving birth to and rearing small children.
Of course, making babies—no matter how shattering—has a powerful love jugular. A Life’s Work is thus funny, brave, insightful. It highlights the broad absurdities of becoming a mother:
It starts to rain, hard. I try to pack the baby back into her pouch, and I do it clumsily and unconfidently, and suddenly she starts to cry, to scream with an extraordinary, primitive anguish; and I am in disarray, knocking over coffee cups, fumbling with change, trying to speak, to pacify, to explain, holding the baby this way and that in the drenching rain and finally running through the park, the empty pouch flapping at my front, the roaring baby held out before me like something on fire.
Sadly, there are no absurdities to recover from divorce. Aftermath is not absurd; it’s unvarnished existence, and it’s senseless:
My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth.
In the tradition of the best memoirists, Cusk balances a squirm-inducing intimacy with a total absence of dirty laundry. Yes, she visits lawyers and has dreadful conversations with her husband. She moves through a half-furnished house like a ghost on the days her children are with their father. She reflects (brilliantly) on the tyranny and civilizing force of marriage and motherhood. She tries to depict the aspects of childhood that made her the woman she became. She describes the total debasement of her identity. There are no explanations or excuses here. You will not find complaints about her ex-husband, their relationship, or a less than metaphysical analysis of the dissatisfaction that led her to end her marriage. What she does do instead with insane effectiveness is convey the hollow despair of the dismantling of family, the wild-eyed speechlessness, the numb intellectualizing, the nervous tunnel vision. Her telling is already on the other side of why? and what happened? It has moved on to it doesn’t matter. The damage is done.
In the late sections of the book, Cusk departs dramatically from her conventional memoir mode. The form itself dismantles and becomes a series of increasingly elliptical interludes. There is a long, threatening (almost Stephen King–like) account of her own attempt to take her two daughters to horseback-riding camp in the countryside. There is a bleak minuet, describing interactions between Cusk and three men, X, Y, and Z—ex-husband, therapist, and new boyfriend. It is here that Z delivers the memoir’s title: “Z walks quickly; I have to run to keep up. He says, narrative is the aftermath of violent events. It is a means of reconciling yourself with the past. He says, the violence in the Odyssey is a story told afterwards, in a cave.”
The book concludes with an astonishing sequence called “Trains.” Here, Cusk abruptly abandons memoir and moves into a fictional-ish story, about an Eastern European au pair on her first assignment after being released from a suicide ward. Barely understanding the language and still shrouded in her own pain, Sonia arrives into a comfortable English house, with a husband and wife and two little girls. Her apathy swells as the bucolic little household begins to collapse, in muted increments—like an exhausted horse falling in slow motion. And then, as if her own mental health is the perverse collateral effect of a family’s destruction, Sonia rises up—a healed woman. It is through the off-kilter proxy of Sonia and her total, gleaming, random salvation, I think, that Cusk speaks to the feeling of total hopelessness through which her memoir is written.
Intellectually, Aftermath is exquisite; emotionally, it is process, not progress. An interviewer in the Guardian newspaper once complained that when Cusk discusses her fierce, “terribly dark” novels, “it often sounds like a literary seminar, all about process and structure and narrative method and absolutely nothing to do with her.” On the contrary, the painful lucidity with which Cusk organizes and presents the chaos of her life is soul-bearing. The way her mind works has everything, everything to do with her.
Minna Proctor teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University and is the editor of The Literary Review.