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Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation
Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
160 pp., 20.00

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Linda Buturian

In the Land of Ashes

Is marriage built on a lie?

Rachel Cusk's new memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, confronts me with the invisible work I do to shield myself from a shibboleth of my married-with-children existence. Neither I nor my spouse can choose to divorce. As I plant gardens, drive children to music lessons, and lie next to my husband at night, there is some part of me occupied with the subterranean effort of shoring myself against this forbidden path. Experiencing Aftermath is cathartic, like plunging into an ice floe, downing a shot of whiskey, or reading Nietzsche. As you read Cusk's first-person narrative of her life following her divorce from her husband, you are making your way not only through the ashes of Rachel Cusk's marriage but also through the charred remains of the institution of matrimony.

I've wondered from time to time whether it is one of the pitfalls of modern family life, with its relentless jollity, its entirely unfounded optimism, its reliance not on God or economics but on the principle of love, that it fails to recognize—and take precautions against—the human need for war.

Aftermath has an Old Testament feel with its imagery of battle, blood, and tombs and Cusk's unrelenting judgment on gender constructs, the "holy family," and most especially herself, what she refers to as "the discipline of self criticism." Mercy is scant, and the law of the land is decreed by Rachel Cusk's mind.

Before you settle in among the ashes, you must work to keep up; the pace is brisk in the first chapters. I imagine Cusk as a British docent saying, "We are walking, we are walking." The path is strewn with paradoxes she sets up and moves on from, with little sense of obligation to resolve or even acknowledge her contradictions. Do stories have power to relay truths? Early on she writes that her husband believes that she "treated him monstrously" and that "his whole world depended on this belief. It was his story and lately I've 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."

Questions about the efficacy of stories—and of words in general—appear in Cusk's earlier works as well, even as she continues to write. In her most recent novel, The Bradshaw Variations, Tonie, a literature professor, broods: "Language takes her further away from it, the mystery of her expectation. You can't teach if you're sick of books." Her colleague's response? "Books make you sick …. Literature. A virus." In Aftermath, the story is a log Cusk tosses on the fire in pursuit of the truth. And yet throughout her memoir, Cusk employs story techniques, turns to Greek myths to help her make sense of her own tragedy, and chooses to conclude with a fictional story written in the third person.

"The day feeble Joseph agreed to marry pregnant Mary the old passionate template was destroyed. That was an act of fundamental dishonesty all round: the new template of marriage—a lie!"

There are other contradictions. Cusk is an avowed feminist intellectual, yet when her husband claims equal right to custody of their two daughters, a visceral maternal impulse asserts itself. Meeting with her lawyer, a "petite solicitor," Cusk writes, "in her presence I felt enormous, rough-hewn, a maternal rock encrusted with ancient ugly emotion." She doesn't justify acting upon this impulse, and we are still walking, walking now to the kitchen, the epicenter of domestic travails.

It is hard to enjoy cake when you're covered in ash and reeling from grief. In a memorable scene, Cusk is making a three-tiered cake to bring to a birthday celebration among her extended family (three generations strong and a not a divorce among them, until now). Her excruciatingly detailed account of the making and the public failure of the cake brings to mind the unbearable scene in Michael Cunningham's The Hours, where the mother from the '50s spends the morning with her young son making a cake for the father, only for it to flop. In the movie version, Julianne Moore, glassy-eyed, dumps the cake in the trash and announces that they will have to start over.

Cusk writes, "I realise that the cake is a failure. There was something fanciful in my conception of it that was somehow allowed to run riot, unconstrained by a proper recognition of the labour involved in bringing it to life. My vision—three different tiers of lemon, chocolate, and vanilla—had become detached from my competence." The cake, like everything, becomes a symbol of "the reversal of meaning; it is failure itself."

When you sit in Cusk's ashes, you get soot in your mouth and eyes and nose. Who among us hasn't experienced something akin to this angst? In Aftermath, she writes:

At night I used to wake up and ask myself the question, who am I? For there in the darkness, in the marital bed, I felt myself wheeling on the edge of a black chasm, wheeling with the planets in outer space, hurtling through a blackness rashed with stars. The reality of my room, my home, my life couldn't seem to anchor me. I was frightened of dying, not because I loved life but because I couldn't distinguish myself, couldn't gather together as one entity this self whose existence posited the fact of non-existence.

Who among married us has not experienced moments of loathing their spouse? While Cusk is examining gender roles in the Greek myth of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, she asks, "Do all women have a special capacity to hate their husbands, all husbands the capacity to hate their wives with a hatred that is somewhere fused with the very origins of life?"

After reading Aftermath, one senses more keenly the heat of the flames in her earlier works. In The Last Supper, Cusk's account of traveling through Italy with her husband and young daughters, most of the narrative revolves around Italian art, the countryside, and her intellectual insights, but interspersed are embers of questions about navigating domesticity with the life of the mind. In A Life's Work, a memoir on mothering, we are confronted with Cusk's odyssean struggle to find her own way amidst the culturally inscribed assumptions of birthing and mothering. The Bradshaw Variations, in the fierce light of Aftermath, can now be seen as taking us to the millisecond before the explosion. Consider these thoughts on mothering from one of the main characters:

Claudia remembers, when Lottie was born, the prospect of self-sacrifice coming into view like a landscape seen from an approaching train; she remembers the steady unfolding of it, a place she had never seen before in her life, and herself inescapably bound for it; and then after a while the realization, pieced together from numerous clues, that this was where her mother had lived all along.

Mothering alters women. Behaviors rise up. Stakes are claimed.

Judgments are like ashes I must brush and brush off again as I read Aftermath. As a literature teacher, I tell my college students that they will invariably judge characters, but their essential task in literary analysis is to move beyond judgment in order to understand the characters. Reading fiction and nonfiction alike, I teach them to use cultural context, landscape, imagery, and dialogue to help them enter into the reality of the characters' lives. But I do judge Cusk, in part because she herself is unstinting in her judgment. Consider her excoriation of the "holy family":

I blame Christianity—as far as I can see, that's where the trouble started. The holy family, that pious unit that sucked the world's attention dry while chastising it for its selfishness, that drew forth its violence and then in an orgy of self-glorification consigned it to eternal shame, that sentenced civilization to two millennia of institutionalized dishonesty; compared with the households of Agnes and Thebes, that family has a lot to answer for …. The day feeble Joseph agreed to marry pregnant Mary the old passionate template was destroyed. That was an act of fundamental dishonesty all round: the new template of marriage—a lie! The family was reinvented, a cult of sentimentality and surfaces; became an image, bent on veiling reality—the stable in all its faux-humility, the angels and the oxen, the manger to which kings come on bended knee, the 'parents' gathered adoringly round the baby—an image of child-worship, of sainted unambivalent motherhood, of gutless masculinity and fatherly impotence.

In a memorable scene, Cusk's sister has come for a visit with her kids in tow. They are walking in the rain along a block of Victorian homes of artists, which are open to the public on this day. The children run ahead and disappear into a house. Cusk and her sister enter a "disorderly room full of a strange, jewelled light." A tall lady stands at a large table with

a number of curious hats or headdresses; and standing at the table are the children, who as we enter turn around. One of my daughters has become a stag, with dark branching antlers; the other a fox, with a long russet nose and a velvety head. My little niece has become a fieldmouse, my nephew a badger with a bushy white crest. They look at us with dark glossy eyes through the tinted light. In the few minutes of our absence they have been transformed: they are creatures startled in a forest glade by the approach of danger ….
Presently the children take the masks off, all except the stag …. Can I have it? she asks me. Will you buy it for me? She says this within the face of the stag, for I can't see her mouth. The mask is richly made, … its transformation of her is complete, yet it seems too to have accommodated her own nature, so that I find I'm already quite used to her looking like that. The lady tells me the price. It is high, but not as much as I expected. My stag-daughter watches me, alert, bright-eyed, perfectly still. Please, she says. Please, I love it.
Everyone waits to see what I will do.

Including me. For god's sake, the girl has lost so much, this is the first time she's uttered a wish in the book. Please. But the law of the land belongs to Cusk.

Alas, Aftermath is what it looks, tastes, feels, smells, and sounds like when, as Chinua Achebe wrote, "Things fall apart." Grief informs this land of ashes, and for Cusk, who is repelled by feelings of vulnerability, grief is acceptable terrain: "Grief is not love but it is like love … romance's estranged cousin, a cruel character, all sleeplessness and adrenalin unsweetened by hope."

One of Cusk's gifts is to know when to let a sentence be. " 'I have two homes,' my daughter said to me one evening, clearly and carefully, 'and I have no home.' " Readers who grew up in the aftermath of divorce will find this simple sentence sending them back to the painful "new reality" of their parents' choices.

While on holiday with her daughters, Cusk writes:

I feel buoyed up … by the feeling—so powerful and so fleeting …. that we have been liberated from the strictures of some authority and are free. I don't identify this authority as my husband: the authority is marriage itself, and in these moments of liberty I feel him to be just as browbeaten by it as me, feel, almost, that I could conscript him into my own escape and reencounter him there, in non-marriage, both of us free.

The brief fictional coda of Aftermath offers food as a symbol of nurturing equality for a man and woman who have separated—an elusive vision elsewhere in the memoir. I re-read the story with the empathic hope of understanding what purpose Cusk had for it, and came up short. But I will continue to read her traveler's tales from the strange country of domestic life.

Linda Buturian teaches literature and writing at the University of Minnesota, and is the author of World Gone Beautiful: Life Along the Rum River (Cathedral Hill Press). Buturian and her husband and two daughters live alongside three other families in their intentional cul-de-sac in rural Minnesota, where she is working on a book about art, water, and community.

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