A deep-dive into seemingly otherwise mundane topics makes Coventry both engaging and deeply troubling, forcing us to face the vast uncertainties unacknowledged within our daily lives.
Rachel Cusk has already established herself as one of the more profound fiction writers of her generation, her Outline trilogy having won her a great deal of critical and literary praise. Coventry, her first collection of nonfiction, uses her established approach to writing, turning her insightful eye on the everyday and taking in-depth looks at what the vast majority of us would generally give little thought. It’s this type of deep-dive into seemingly otherwise mundane topics that makes Coventry both engaging and deeply troubling, forcing us to face the vast uncertainties unacknowledged within our daily lives.
The title essay deals with her parents refusing to speak with her for extended periods of time, this rather pronounced shunning being referred to as “being sent to Coventry.” It’s an often amusing, sad look at how we relate to those to whom we are related. More often than not, these are individuals who, were we not bonded by blood, we would have little to no connection with. This makes navigating social interactions on a familial basis a rather dicey proposition, leading to unspoken hurt feelings and raised hackles with little to no explanation or discussion. In Cusk’s case, she explains that it can often be weeks or months before she realizes she’s been sent to Coventry. Without any sort of day-to-day interaction, there’s no way of knowing until well after the fact that someone has dismissed you as such.
Cusk employs an analytical, poetic style in her prose, allowing the words to tumble out conversationally but in a manner that feels like the most erudite conversation of which you’ve ever been a part. This is on full display from the start with the opening essay, “Driving as Metaphor.” It’s a masterful examination of how our driving patterns and habits tend to reflect us as individuals, the lives we lead, how we perceive our place within the world and how all this is shaped by the vehicles in which we convey ourselves and loved ones. With regard to elderly drivers who refuse to give up their licenses she writes, “Without a car…they would become subject to and entrapped by the reality of their own lives.” In other words, driving affords this particular demographic some semblance of freedom and control in the waning years of their lives as their bodies begin to fail them and the harsh realities of time as the great equalizer coming sharply into focus.
“On Rudeness” offers a similar study in sociology and the unspoken social codes by which we all live and interact with one another on a daily basis. This particular essay hinges on an interaction with an airport official and her having called him out for being rude to a handful of fellow travelers. He then accuses her of being rude for pointing this out to him in the first place. Thus ensues a back and forth that leaves Cusk wondering who is truly in the right. “In recounting this incident afterwards,” she writes, “I find myself running into difficulties. For instance, I find myself relying on the details of the man’s physical ugliness to prove the badness of character. Searching for a specific example of someone else’s being upset or offended by him, the only person I can prove he offended is me.”
Because of our reticence in social settings to address such matters, there is no definitive answer as to who is, in fact, being rude. Rudeness as a character trait is often seen as belonging to someone who isn’t afraid to “tell it like it is” or “speak their mind without fear of repercussion,” particularly in contemporary times and with our current idiot-in-chief. This is not a particular positive quality in anyone and, because of the subjective nature of the perception of rudeness, in most cases it becomes difficult to discern who is in the right.