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A Crack in Everything: part 2

Essay | 27 minute read
Grace McCleen questioned the shaky core of her identity after a friendship break-up. In the second part of her series, she explores ghosting in fiction

2. ‘Like a Dog!’

Confident I could find examples of the experience of rejection in literature (I believe that writers, of all artists, are the ones most likely to suffer from interpersonal rejection, and I believe writers draw on their own experiences, even if they don’t – perish the thought! – ‘express’ themselves through them) I went to the bookshelf I keep in my head. I was soon disabused of my assumption: while there were examples aplenty of overt abandonment and repudiation, there were few in which the ghosting was subtle or implicit, and fewer still where the victim was unsure as to why they had been shunned. In the second part of this series, I assemble the texts I found that loosely cohered around the theme of apparently motiveless, inexplicable and uncontrollable loss of a significant other through rejection, cutting off, abandonment or vanishing. Most of these texts dramatise the disempowering and destructive consequences of such; one or two suggest a possible means of negotiation.

Franz Kafka’s The Trial, written between 1914 and 1915, demonstrates more fully the power that random and apparently absurd repudiation has to annihilate an individual than any other text I have come across, except Kafka’s short story ‘The Judgement’, in which the weight of false accusation and rejection is so great that the accused takes the punishment into his own hands and does away with himself. A short story titled ‘Before the Law’, demonstrating a similar preoccupation with the unique torture that dwells in absurd and apparently fathomless judgement, is included in The Trial. Story and novel contain the utmost irony: both the ordeal (the trial) and the door (in the story) are revealed to have been designed (as is the machine in Kafka’s story ‘The Penal Colony’) especially for the protagonist, but only to the end of perfectly enacting his destruction.

The Trial begins with the words: ‘Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.’ Neither we, nor K. ever discover why he is arrested and after a seemingly endless and futile circus of bureaucratic proceedings, he is killed like an animal – the dog of my title. The abruptness of the ending, the initial promise of meaning which is never fulfilled and the nightmarish morass of absurdity and injustice between the two ensure the reader internalises the perplexity, exhaustion, shame and despair of the protagonist. This is an utterly senseless and impenetrable act of shunning not by someone close to Josef K. but the legal system and (so-called) civilisation itself.

Franz Kafka

The concluding sentence of the book reads: ‘”Like a dog!”‘ he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.’ Firstly, it seems to me that surely K. would not be able to speak at this point (he has had a knife thrust into his heart and ‘twisted twice’ just moments before). We are told that his eyesight is failing, as if some part of him is looking down on himself and commenting. Secondly, it seems odd to think that K., whom we know will be dead in the future, should still suffer from ‘shame’ that would ‘outlive him’. ‘Infamy’ could outlive K, but not shame, which is a personal emotion.

Kafka writes ‘it was as if’; it seems that another dimension of K. – as would befit this non-narrative, which possesses no reasonable beginning or ending – will live on, in an interminable hell of incomprehensible knowledge. After all, K. has already been tormented by self-alienation, a feeling of otherness or separateness from himself throughout the novel. He is often portrayed to be watching himself with the same paranoia with which he surveys others.

The upshot is that as a result of the initial baseless accusation, the accused can no longer trust or even know himself. He has internalised the accusation. It is a perfect reversal of Meursault’s trajectory in Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942). Meursault is guilty (of murder or manslaughter) but feels nothing and finds his time in prison, awaiting trial, to be generally agreeable. K. is apparently innocent but tormented and expends huge amounts of energy attempting to clear his name and mount a defence. Meursault is petitioned to tell the truth and explain himself but refuses. K. spends the entire novel hoping he will be given just such an opportunity. Meursault finds happiness in his indifference towards the world and its perceived lack of meaning. He anticipates his ignominious execution eagerly as an end to his separation and a resounding ‘answer’ to the contradictions of living. K. foresees the ‘shame’ of his death outliving him – or rather, granting him a kind of nightmarish immortality; even now, it is sensed, his trial is not over. The absurdity of society’s rejection of the protagonist is a form of agony for Kafka, and yet for Camus it is simply testament to society’s maladjustment.

Sometimes the inscrutable other that is perceived to have abandoned the self can be divine; for religious and mystical writers God is the lynchpin of their identity, yet because he is God, His apparent desertion is entirely a matter of interpretation on the part of the adherent. Poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson pass through passages of unutterable darkness and wrestle with what reads very much like desertion, looking forward to the existential struggles of the mystical poet Rainer Maria Rilke. It is unclear if Dickinson was directly or indirectly rejected by a person she esteemed but it seems possible given that she chose a life of hermitage and many of her poems suggest parting (‘I cannot live with you’), shutting down (‘My life closed twice before its close’), renunciation and sometimes hopelessness.

It would appear that at around 1860 Emily suffered a final disappointment, after which she shifted the atomic power of her focus from her fellow man to the universe instead. In a style of wild eccentricity, she ‘weds’ the universe, becoming its bride. Her new identity veers between exultation and an annihilating sense of exile and despair. ‘I alone … /A Speck upon a Ball –’, she writes in ‘I saw no Way’, ‘Went out upon Circumference – /Beyond the Dip of Bell’, the speaker beginning as a speck and moving beyond temporal and spatial coordinates altogether. In ‘It was not Death, for I stood up’, Dickinson’s speaker describes reaching a point

When everything that ticked – has stopped –

And space stares – all around –

But most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool –

Without a Chance, or spar –

Or even a Report of Land –

To justify – Despair.

In her famous ‘I tried to think a lonelier Thing’, the speaker feels an ‘Omen in the Bone/Of Death’s tremendous nearness’, her only ‘haggard comfort’ that there may be a ‘duplicate’, ‘Horror’s Twin’, as destitute of love and light as she, within a neighbouring cell, who might pity her as she does it. The motif of the twin or double returns often, a small-scale version of the dichotomy that informs her entire worldview and implicitly speaks of the loss of such an essential other, just as the ellipses of her verse, ‘slant’ meanings and her deployment of assonance and alliteration instead of rhyme continually foreground absence and aporia; the near but total miss.

In ‘One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted’ she writes of a meeting with an entity far more dangerous than an ‘external Ghost’: ‘one’s own self encounter[ed]/In lonesome place’, the ‘Ourself behind ourself’, a ‘superior spectre/More near’. In another poem, this ‘Horror not to be surveyed’ turns out to be none other than ‘Loneliness – ’ the word ‘One dare not sound’ whose ‘worst alarm/Is lest itself should see.’ Perhaps never before has the irony that in deepest isolation the self is split in two so that it can observe its aloneness been so perfectly expressed. The torment for this speaker is in just such witnessing.

The Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dickinson’s English contemporary, was similarly a conduit for both rapturous and infernal inner weather fronts. In general, Hopkins seems to have internalised an attitude of rejection, abandoning his deepest self through wilfully resisting his poetic calling and the prospect of publication in his lifetime as well as squashing all sexual impulses, but in his ‘terrible sonnets’, a group of untitled poems probably written shortly before his death, during 1885–1886, when he was teaching classics in University College, Dublin, the entity that has abandoned him is God.

In ‘Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord’ the faithful worshiper feels he has been neglected and addresses a divine ‘Sir’ capable of hearing but seemingly unwilling to listen, while the speaker of ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’ likens his prayers to ‘dead letters sent/To dearest him that lives alas! away.’ Ill at ease in his teaching role, estranged from his family, an Englishman in a foreign land and at odds with the Irish politics of the day, Hopkins was also confronting his lifelong sense of inadequacy coupled with religious doubt. But the turn his wretchedness takes in this sonnet is a splitting, as in Dickinson, a doubling horror of self-recognition:

God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

… Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

The intimacy with his own abandonment constitutes the terror, his self-reflexivity affording a depth of recognition that is well-nigh inescapable. The result is that the the self effectively implodes. Hopkins writes in ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’, in which the speaker observes evening being overwhelmed by night, of earth’s ‘self ín self steepèd and páshed’. ‘Heart,’ he writes, ‘you round me right/ With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ‘ whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.’ The inner schism he experiences is displaced onto ‘life’, which despite its glorious and disparate fullness, must wane, must

… wind

Off hér once skéined stained véined varíety ‘ upon áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck

Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds – black, white; ‘ right, wrong …

Such a world, instead of amassing unity, is one of interminable and self-spawning internal division, ‘a wórld where bút these ‘ twó tell, each off the other’; of a rack/Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, ‘ thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.’ This diabolic doubling – the inverse of Hopkin’s love affair with the divine in ‘dappled things’ – returns in ‘Patience, hard thing!’ where the speaker writes: ‘We hear our hearts grate on themselves’.

For both Dickinson and Hopkins, the last turn of the screw is the horror of self-division, the shame of witnessing one’s own abandonment and abasement. Yet for Dickinson loneliness is also ‘The Maker of the soul,’ possessing caverns and corridors that, depending upon our imaginative response, ‘Illuminate – or seal’. And the ability to see the self from within the self, in Hopkins’ ‘My own heart let me have pity on’ facilitates a decision and possible way out: ‘let/Me live to my sad self hereafter kind … not live …/With this tormented mind tormenting yet.’

No such possibilities open up to Heathcliff, the anti-hero of Wuthering Heights. Already orphaned when Mr Earnshaw brings him home, Heathcliff is rejected first by Hindley (Earnshaw’s son), then the Lintons, then his beloved Cathy when she chooses to marry Edgar Linton instead of him. He never hears her confession to Nelly of everlasting love for him, only that she feels she must marry Edgar. Perhaps such a lifelong litany of rejection could almost excuse the monster he becomes. The same splitting is evident in Heathcliff’s character, as a result of this deepest betrayal. ‘It is unutterable!’ he cries, ‘I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!’ We may wonder, if he really is bereft of life and soul, how Heathcliff can still live. Brontë provides the answer a number of times, referring to him as a ghost, ‘goblin,’ ‘vampire’ or ‘ghoul’.

Heathcliff perfectly dramatises what happens when a person is the victim of baseless (if not mysterious) rejection from an esteemed other: they become half a person, half in the world of the living, half in the land of the dead, Dickinson’s ‘whiter host’; part of their consciousness possessed by the one who has been lost. So great is Heathcliff’s grief that he welcomes his ‘haunting’; his pleadings at the broken casement for the imagined spirit to ‘Come in! Come in!’ are attempts to have the missing part of his being return to itself.

King Lear suffers a rejection that is similarly inexplicable, at least to himself, if not to the audience, in act one of Shakespeare’s tragedy, probably written around 1605 or 1606. (Shakespeare ensured it was a tragedy, being the only rewriter of the story of Leir, king of the Britons, to have the character of Cordelia killed.) When his youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to express her love for him in exchange for her dowry, her reply – ‘Nothing, my lord’ – is interpreted by Lear as a blunt and provocative rejection.

What makes her implicit disavowal of daughterly affection all the more hard-hitting is that until this moment Cordelia has been Lear’s ‘best object’, the ‘balm of [his] age’. The splitting of identity I have traced in other literary depictions of rejection and abandonment is never clearer than in Lear’s descent into a madness riven with knowledge of what he once was. ‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ he asks his Fool, who replies: ‘Lear’s shadow.’

This first rejection is followed by those of his other daughters, Goneril and Regan, all equally baffling to Lear. We see him reduced first to towering rage, then to grief, then to begging, then to child-like confusion, all the way back to rage and grief again. He goes mad because he cannot extricate his own identity from the considerable part of it that is bound up with his daughters’ opinion of him: ‘We’ll no more meet, no more see one another,’ he tells Goneril, ‘But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;/Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh,/Which I must needs call mine …’ Lear cannot live with the knowledge of what his daughters have done, but nor can he live without them. The aporia is expressed later in surgical terms: ‘Let me have surgeons;/I am cut to the brains.’ Lear remains his own ‘shadow’; unable to make sense of the rejections, the mind splits; unable to break free of the delusion, he himself dies while pointing to the dead Cordelia’s lips and crying: ‘Look on her, look, her lips,/Look there, look there!’

Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987) makes the pattern of haunting, lack of control and lack of closure we have seen in previous texts very apparent, though it is not concerned with overt or implicit rejection but rather with indescribable loss and sense of abandonment felt in the wake of the disappearance of a child, for which no reason is ever given and of which nothing is learned – a paradoxical sense of abandonment in this case, in that it is the lost child, rather than the parent, who should ostensibly feel this.

The novel opens with Stephen Lewis, a novelist, viewing standing traffic on a hot May day. Passers-by lend the traffic a sense of relative motion, making it seem that the stationary cars are ‘drifting slowly backwards’. The sense that one is travelling backwards even while standing still enables McEwan to suggest what it might be like to be bereft of someone and never come to terms with it: you lose your place in the stream of your own life and become lost in time. Stephen’s ‘barely conscious’ daily search for a child that bears some resemblance to Kate, his daughter, is ‘more than a habit’, ‘a deep disposition’ we are told: ‘[I]t was not principally a search … now it was a longing, a dry hunger’.

Part of Stephen and his wife’s selves have split away from that part that still (in both senses of the word) ostensibly moves forward, even as their missing child (possibly) grows older and so moves on too, while remaining exactly as she was the day she was lost to her parents. Because the mystery of Kate’s disappearance is never solved and there is no closure, she becomes a ghost-like presence; perhaps living, perhaps dead, paralysing the development and poleaxing the identity of those left behind as surely as if they themselves had been abducted. McEwan’s novel perfectly dramatises the way in which unresolved severance of a relationship can fragment a psyche. It is not the loss per se but the complete absence of meaning (which, nonetheless, is inherent in all loss), which the human mind cannot endure; rather than accept, it buckles, becoming the ghost it itself is seeking.

Just how defining a typical ‘ghosting’ can be is exemplified in Haruki Murakami’s thirteenth novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Tsukuru is a thirty-six-year-old man whose distinguishing characteristics are his love of train stations and the fact his four best friends all ceased to speak to him during his second year at university: ‘Like Jonah in the belly of the whale, Tsukuru had fallen into the bowels of death, one untold day after another,’ Murakami writes, ‘lost in a dark, stagnant void.’ The abandonment induces suicidal ideation. The only reason Tsukuru stays his hand, Murakami writes, is ‘perhaps … because he couldn’t conceive of a method that fit the pure and intense feelings he had towards death.’ ‘[F]ace-to-face with the utter void of extinction’, Tsukuru lives a ‘colourless’ existence (foreshadowed by the fact that his name alone, of his four university friends, did not connote a colour).

Years later, at the urging of his girlfriend, he sets out on a pilgrimatic quest for answers and so is reduced, or elevated, to the status of a religious adherent; a devotee. The injury transforms the injured and sinned-against, into the sinning; it is they who must journey for repentance and make reparation. The abuser becomes holy; worthy of a lifetime of getting back to, extracting meaning from, doing penance and wandering in the wilderness for. For the majority of the novel, journeying forward yet also arrested in time, Tsukuru attempts to get back to the moment of cutting off to understand the reason for his ostracism, to regain his friends and the identity he had then. Though there is some resolution in Colorless, the greatest renunciation Tsukuru has to make is that of meaning. (As do Murakami’s readers; if they are avid fans of his this is a skill they should have honed by now.)

The student Tsukuru listens to Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, which itself refers especially to Goethe’s novel of self-realisation, Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (its original title meant ‘Years of Wandering or Pilgrimage’), of which a major theme is Entsagung, translatable as ‘renunciation’. The journeyman of Goethe’s title referred to a worker who had successfully completed an apprenticeship, sometimes a working trip, which was often called the journeyman years. But Tsukuru’s apprenticeship – if we assume it begins with the shunning by his university friends ­– not only takes up a good portion of his life, but remains ultimately open-ended; while he finally discovers what happened to make his group of friends eschew him, he then suspects that his girlfriend may be unfaithful to him and the novel ends with him still in a state of significant uncertainty.

A novel that speaks just as pertinently of rejection, though infinitely more terribly, is Anita Brookner’s Look At Me (1983), which charts the complete undoing of Frances, a superficially poised young woman who amuses herself with writing about the people she encounters in her dull day-job as a librarian, by three new and glamorous ‘friends’. Understanding how the world works, Frances, like Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe, in Villette, makes a vow to ‘never draw attention to herself’, to ‘never cry my need’, though another part of her screams, ‘Look at me!’ The covert rejection and exclusion that breaks her happens by degrees and then suddenly, one night at a dinner party a little before Christmas, several months after she has been taken into an exclusive but treacherous social circle.

If we only take the terms Brookner uses to describe the disintegration that Frances experiences on this surreal and monstrous night, we would imagine not talk at a dinner table, but a rape, abduction or similar assault. Even before the evening begins, Frances is willing to submit the whole of herself to her tormentors, because despite some part of her knowing that all is not well, she resolves, we are told, ‘to go forward, no matter what the consequences might be’. Soon her foreboding is confirmed; she reports: ‘All I knew was that the resolution I felt earlier that afternoon had undergone some sort of fragmentation, and that I was now in a state of disarray … very nearly like an illness’. She has to use every ounce of her faculties to keep her ‘rage’ and ‘terror’ at bay; she is ‘as alert and wary as an animal’, she feels ‘a touch of nightmare, as if this could not possibly be happening’; a page later she is ‘in such a state of terror that it seemed as if nothing could get worse’. Yet ‘even then,’ Frances says, ‘I would have gone with them …’

Writer Anita Brookner (Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Later, alone in London at night, she is immobilised, overcome with vertigo, and feels she is ‘trying to wade through some viscose substance’. She is ‘electric with terror’, as if something inside her ‘fissured … exposed to some violent and deathly ray’, ‘irradiated by the blast of some great revelation, though [she] could not yet fully understand the nature’. She cannot ‘make contact with any familiar emotion’, feels that ‘the laws of the universe’ no longer apply to her and that she is is ‘outside the normal frames of reference, a biological nonentity.’ She cannot walk properly. She is shaking. She is unaware ‘of any sensation whatsoever’ except ‘a feeling of exclusion’. When she hears a ‘soft, steady pounding of deadly purposefulness’ behind her she can ‘barely be bothered’ to turn her head. It turns out to be only a runner, but if it had been a murderer it is suggested that she is now so psychologically disturbed, she would not have cared if she lived.

Frances’ identity has dissolved in the space of a single evening, though the groundwork, in typical Brookner-fashion, has been laid with mathematical – almost ineffable – precision throughout the preceding chapters. Several mirrors that reflected a newly-improved, previously unimaginable identity to Frances, have suddenly been shattered. One of the mirrors is the love interest James, another her new ‘friend’ Alix, another the social circle Alix has drawn Frances into, another the future that appears to have opened up; a fifth, the recasting of Frances’ troubled past in a manageable light.

Having made it, against the odds, that nightmarish evening, to the safety of her flat, Frances lies in hot bathwater, her eyes ‘wide and staring’, ‘without thought or memory, only aware that something had happened’. A little later, reality now entirely untenable, she gorges on sleep with a ‘pig-like search for unknowingness’ and in dreams enters a ‘state of total regression’, essentially, if temporarily, reduced to the state of a child. The next day she is sure of only two things: she must ‘shed [her] biological characteristics … [and] become subsumed into [her] head, and into [her] hand, [her] writing hand.’ Her acquaintances’ offence, she concludes, is ultimately greed, selfish absorption in their own gratification; in other words, mere thoughtlessness; ‘the true, the saving selfishness’ she had cultivated ‘under their tuition’ – ‘the law’ that required she ‘distance’ herself ‘from sad people’. The mention of ‘law’ here reminds me of Kafka’s fables of doorkeepers, judgements and laws which wreak devastation on his sensitive protagonists; the modern versions of judgement in Brookner’s fiction, though ostensibly trivial, are every bit as destructive.

It seems that exclusion from such a social ‘law’, even if the exclusion is brutal, meaningless and destabilising, may not be a bad thing. Frances began the novel as a wounded yet essentially whole individual, possessed of sufficient integrity to approach her little life on her own terms; yet arguably she ends it in an even more impoverished emotional state, a shell of a person, both excusing and utterly capitulating to the monstrous, hedonistic, grasping law Alix has introduced her to, a law that avers humans are innately unequal, that worth is assigned randomly, apparently by birth (the repercussions of which last lifelong and most do not manage to break free of), and that the only option for the inferior is to accept their status and pander to their masters, offering themselves and others at the high altar of Self.

As I write this I am struck by the fact that there is more correspondence between the ‘real’ world and this law than most would like to admit; that it is generally how the world works. This is the law most of us live by in school, then in social circles; the world of dating and the workplace; and on a larger scale, in politics, global finance and the fate of nations. The glimmer of hope Brookner affords the reader at the end of Look At Me is that Frances will attempt to keep a foot in both camps: she will outwardly adhere to Alix’s law, yet give her inner allegiance to her own instincts and truth; that she will continue to write about her experience (a practice she gave up when first inflated by her new friendship with Alix) and so retain a modicum of distance from it. But the reader is left in uncertainty.

While Look At Me seems to me to be clearly a (small) masterpiece, it does not seem to have garnered that many similar views; nor, in fact, has Brookner’s oeuvre as a whole. Michael McNay, in Brookner’s obituary in the Guardian, puts forward a possible reason for this, noting that ‘her stories of disillusion, personal betrayal, minor failure, and loneliness declining into death are too uncomfortable to have had a wide readership’; not ‘too boring’, ‘too mediocre’, ‘too humdrum’, but ‘too uncomfortable’. More uncomfortable than war, child abuse, rape, murder, bereavement, divorce – the usual, sometimes sensationalist Booker fare? Yes. Too close to home, too intimate. Too close for comfortable reading. Or else Brookner’s subtlety is simply lost on many.

John Carey made a similar point in his introduction to Stephen Benatar’s extraordinary self-published novel Wish Her Safe At Home, in which Rachel Waring, initially merely a misfit and laughing stock, descends into full-blown psychosis. Carey was one of the novel’s first champions and recalls in his introduction that his fellow Booker judges’ response to his recommendation of the novel for the prize was ‘something between embarrassment and physical discomfort, almost as if I’d made an indecent suggestion’. Rather than present ‘a reasoned and systematic critique of the novel’ they evinced ‘a semi-articulated wish to drop a disturbing or distressing subject’ – a reaction he went on to say he felt sure was testament to the book’s power. Some things must not be too closely examined, such as loneliness, the socially marginal and the sexually deviant; the secrets we keep, the compromises we make, and the pretences we make every single day of our lives. ‘Glissez, mortels; n’appuyez pas’, Frances reads on an eighteenth-century painting of skaters that hangs in her bedroom in the final pages of Look At Me, a phrase she has never noticed before: ‘Slip, mortals, do not press’, the phrase reads in English, for there are cold depths beneath.

The most alarming thing about Rachel Waring, at least at the start of Wish Her Safe At Home, is her similarity to most of us; she simply wants the common human lot: to have friends, to have fun, to be deemed desirable and ultimately to be loved. The problem is Rachel has always been socially maladjusted; it is hinted that she has been victimised in the past and such patterns tend to be lifelong. Though the novel ostensibly begins optimistically, with the advent of the middle-aged Rachel inheriting a grand old house from a dead relative, reading between the lines it’s clear she has already been decidedly, if obliquely, rejected by society, and untethered from her job, with new-found illusions of grandeur, everything just gets worse from there. Rather than accept her powerlessness to evade what appears, insidiously at first and then inexorably, set to be a lonely and ignominious life, Rachel begins a glorious ascension to a starry existence as a ‘bride of Christ’.

The trajectory would be redolent of Emily Dickinson, if Dickinson had not, in addition to soaring ineffable heights, periodically plumbed the bloody crucible of existence (or been real and a genius). What makes Wish Her Safe At Home so disturbing is the way in which Benatar ensures that the reader internalises the fallout from such abandonment and exclusion. It is the reader who is tormented by suspicions then made to endure the excruciating realisation that Rachel is losing her grip on reality; the reader who suffers deprivation, abasement, grief, longing, rage, jealousy, confusion, paranoia, self-doubt and who is haunted by the sickening spectre of what might have been, a spectre Rachel herself would be haunted by if she were not careering towards madness. It is as if our identity, rather than the protagonist’s – our sanity, not hers – is dissolving.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole/Unsplash

Incomprehensibility, indeterminacy and powerlessness: three states the human mind deems intolerable because they leave it no position to adopt in response. Motiveless and sudden rejection (along with unexplained vanishing) incites all three feelings, and some of the most insightful writers have dramatised the dissolution of identity that is the frequent result. Most recently the process has been dazzlingly described in Rachel Cusk’s auto-fictional trilogy. Though her alter-ego, a novelist called ‘Faye’, has not been overtly or even implicitly rejected or shunned (though we learn that her marriage has recently ended), we are made to understand Faye has undergone a seismic and seemingly permanent severance from her previous way of being, and perhaps from the world of human relations in general. Because of this she now occupies a strange, liminal ‘half-life’; a perhaps self-imposed, perhaps enforced exile.

In Transit, the second of the trilogy, Faye says in a rare moment of self-reflection (though, characteristically, she only describes what she is not): ‘my current feelings of powerlessness had changed the way I looked at what happens and why, to the extent that I was beginning to see what other people called fate in the unfolding of events.’ We assume she feels this way because of the apparent motivelessness of her loss coupled with her inability to make sense of it. Elsewhere in the trilogy she says she feels merely an outline, a space of transaction, an echoing blank: her apparent emptiness affords other characters almost limitless means to talk. To relinquish personal agency is not all bad, however. In so doing we are opening ourselves to the workings of fate, says a character in Transit, which is ‘only truth in its natural state’ and whose ‘processes are accurate and inexorable’.

In a bravura performance Cusk dramatises what it might be like to lose, radically expand, or massively refract one’s identity as a conscious or unconscious response to trauma. Faye possesses no boundaries; even her speech is undelineated. Like the ideal building one character imagines, she ‘possesses no colours, features, or even any light.’ Rather than reflect versions of Faye back to herself, as most people in our lives and characters in books do, the individuals and events that occupy Cusk’s trilogy function like black holes, continually derailing the narrative we assume we have come to hear. In fact, we later realise later we have possibly gleaned more information about Faye (though not necessarily communicable information) through this new narrative style than we would have otherwise.

There is no self that remains to be reflected, Cusk seems to be saying. And perhaps that is all right; perhaps it is more than all right; perhaps the erasure of conventional ontological contours illuminates something more fundamental and accurate about our selves, and the loss of the various mirror images within which we locate our identity that tends to happens when we lose someone or something we care about. Or perhaps those images actively ‘lose’ us – remove the fiction of ourselves, the grand illusion that we have been clinging to.

Where fiction, and we personally, may go from here I will tentatively explore in the last section of this article; short because I could not find much literature that conceived of such a place, or conceived there was anywhere to go once that place had been reached.