The Art of Cruelty is not the book’s full title. It’s important to remember that A Reckoning is on the front cover as well—a clarification, it seems to me.
Lately, as I read I’ve tried to become more disciplined in looking up words in my Merriam-Webster. Not just tough and rare words like adumbrate and obdurate, which sit on some dusty shelf in my vocabulary—not even slippery words with which Nelson incorporates secondary or even tertiary meanings, like cleavage and cant. But I also force myself to look up words I believe I know, like reckoning. “Account, bill; computation; a settling of accounts; a summing up” are all part of reckoning’s definition.
I found myself often asking, What is cruelty? while reading this book. Is it something that can only be done to other people or to oneself? Or can cruelty just sort of happen? I’m not sure the intention of this book is to answer these questions, per se. Yet at the same time I wonder if maybe this book answers these questions in a great deal of depth through a wealth of examples, illustrations and exposition. This book is an account and a summing up of a notion so complex that I’m not sure Nelson would do her subject justice if she aimed to leave us with a certain idea.
One of the qualities of Nelson’s work I most value is that she constantly drives against my desire to know the precise “point” of each work. We see her do this swerving in Bluets, Shiner and The Red Parts: A Memoir as well as The Art of Cruelty. For better or worse, when her readers set a book down, we do not seem to be left with an explicit attitude she wants us to feel. We’re left instead with many feelings—not all of them hopeful or resolute. And I appreciate that.