Coventry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) proves my long-held suspicion that the essay is the ideal vehicle for the glittering, merciless omniscience of Rachel Cusk. You never know where Cusk will lead you in her novels, and her essays are no different; thank god it’s possible to hold your breath for the couple of minutes it takes to read one. In her revolutionary Outline trilogy Cusk immersed the reader in the dialogue and stories of the characters that Faye, the protagonist, interacted with in her journeys. But in the tight coil of Cusk’s essays there is no escape into other characters, and as a reader, I was ecstatic to stay in her company for once. The strongest pieces excavate her personal life, and her tone, though never sentimental, is ferociously protective of what she considers valuable. Her essay on raising teenagers, “Lions on Leashes,” is one of her best, Cusk at her most Cuskian; vulnerable, dry, unrelenting and singular.
Olivia Laing’s amazing first novel, Crudo (W.W. Norton, $21) drives at a furious pace. This is key: the world is heating up, but it’s also speeding up. That’s part of the “numbing” process authoritarian regimes are using to beat down resistance. It worked with the Nazis, it may work for Trump, too. But it’s the artist’s job to stop this. To un-numb people, make them feel, care, think. This is where the book’s protagonist and muse, the post-modern/punk writer Kathy Acker (1947-97) comes in. Acker “wrote fiction…but she populated it with the already extant, the pre-packaged, the ready-made.” Laing, an accomplished nonfiction writer, also dips into “the grab bag of the actual” for her fiction, and in a frenetic rush of free associations, her Kathy broods on art, marriage, and emotions, as well as the horrors of August and September 2017—Trump’s tweets, the Grenfell Tower fire, the Houston flood, and the Charlottesville supremacist rally. But as much reality as it mirrors, this is a work of fiction. History would only “provide the furnishings,” while Laing is after “the attitudes.” Though her book has a blithe breeziness to it—“what’s art if it’s not plagiarizing the world?”—this mimicry would mean nothing without the deep compassion and moral outrage that fuel Laing’s every sentence.
Told from the perspectives of prisoners, victims, and staff, The Mars Room (Scribner, $27) Rachel Kushner’s stunning depiction of a women’s prison centers on Romy Hall, twenty-nine and serving two consecutive life sentences plus six years. Technically, she’s guilty: she killed a man. But only after enduring all she could of his abuse. Because she worked as a lap dancer, however, her exhausted public defender believed she would hurt her case if she testified, so her story never came out in court. Kushner evokes this and other injustices in an even-toned manner, letting the outrages speak for themselves. They speak most volubly and poignantly concerning mothers and their children. Romy, mother of a seven-year-old, loses her parental rights, though no one tells her this until her own mother dies and she doesn’t know where her son is. Her instinct is to go to him. But she can’t. Nor is there anyone to call. In a brilliant narrative leap, Kushner juxtaposes Romy’s helplessness with that of Ted Kaczysnki. Outraged by the despoliation of nature, and with few resources to stop it, he turned into the Unabomber rather than into a second Thoreau. As Kushner powerfully shows, the road to prison is made of many small, irrevocable steps.