Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline’ trilogy: thinking out loud

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Daring. Truthful. But fictional. Does that discount the courage and honesty of writing? And is it less believable?

Rachel Cusk has found a way to perplex readers and confound expectations with her trilogy Outline, Transit and Kudos. Unlike the glory days of exhausting genre-busting books (James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves), these three short novels have the episodic efficiency of a diary, written with chuckle-inducing perspicacity.

It’s like you’re up the back of the theatre sitting alongside a wickedly funny friend who is sharing her brilliant take on the speakers, the rest of the audience, the society from which they hail, and, if it takes her fancy, you and she both.

In Outline a writer boards a plane heading for a temporary teaching job in Athens, and reports the conversation she has with the man in the neighbouring seat, the first of a series of reported conversations that make up the entire book. In Transit, the writer is back in London, and has bought a flat in a house that needs renovating. She reports the almost monologic conversations she has with a real estate agent and a builder, as well as the abrupt interchanges with her hateful downstairs neighbours. In Kudos, she is travelling again, to an unnamed city that seems to be Lisbon, attending a writers’ festival.

From all three novels you can build a partial portrait of Faye, not just by catching at the moments when she actually talks about herself, but also because every time she reports a conversation as though it’s verbatim reportage, she is sketching imagined stories. Particularly in Kudos, the people she listens to go on at impossible length, relating their lives and attitudes as though people are honest and lucid enough to speak like this.

Cusk creates for Faye a style of thinking out loud; imagine you’re in a meeting, and looking at the people in the room around you and then voicing in your head what you think these people might say to you, if by some miracle they spoke the truth. And you write it down. That’s pretty much the methodology of this book.

When you underline a sentence in Cusk’s book, who are you quoting?

Readers report being surprised that they enjoy reading Cusk, and mention how many sentences they’ve underlined, and page-corners they’ve bent. While the reactions vary from “work of genius” to “clever but nasty”, not since Karl Ove Knausgaard launched into his confessional memoir has there been such intrigue around an author and, in this case, people appear to be actually reading the books – and finishing them. (Knausgaard – who possibly makes a heavily disguised appearance in Kudos as a writer fawningly praised by a feminist writer for his truthful accounts of the domestic and familial, goes on and on and on and on in his six big books; Cusk’s little books stop, almost short.)

The need to mark so many passages in a book because they strike the reader as worth remembering would be less surprising if Kudos was a work of non-fiction: essays, say, or a memoir. But when you underline a sentence in Cusk’s book, who are you quoting? What does it mean to believe the truth or integrity of a statement, when that statement is spoken by a “character” named Faye (inverted commas needed, because Cusk claims she doesn’t do character – there’s a thesis-length discussion possible right there).

Faye’s reportage has no plot, according to her creator Cusk – and there’s another invitation to thesis-length commentary because there is a kind of story. Time passes, events occur and characters reappear, so what do we mean when we talk about plot? Faye is not Rachel, but narrator and author share many checkable life-facts, from divorce, to house renovations, to remarriage and the public business of being a writer, including presence at festivals with other writers and interviews by journalists.

Many but not all: Faye has two sons and Rachel two daughters, for example. And as for all the people Faye meets and describes along the way, as tempting as it is to see them as “real” people, Cusk’s experience of having a book pulped as a result of legal threats will have made her and her publishers very good at making sure the difference between real and imagined are straightforward, legally at least.

What Cusk has done, with such panache that it’s easy to think it’s easy to do, is to take up the discussion about a literary form within that form itself.

What Cusk has done, with such panache that it’s easy to think it’s easy to do, is to take up the discussion about a literary form within that form itself and in a way that both furthers it and finishes the discussion. If that sounds post-post-post modern, maybe so, but if this kind of writing comes available to us as a result of all that posting, isn’t that a good thing? It would be very sad if the reams of discussion about authorial voices, reliable narrators, appropriation, formal experimentation, point of view, the role of the reader and whatever else had NOT enabled and resulted in writing’s evolution.

Someone said to me, giving me Kudos to read, that she didn’t know if I’d like it, and that I’d probably get tired of the narrator’s voice along the way, but that it was a really interesting book. She also said a reviewer had praised it but said that the ending was weak. The ending is, I think, the best part of all three books; the voices are quieted, it’s just Faye and the sea and a pack of men who don’t want her there and if ever you needed a metaphor about gendered society, this one is superb.

That’s classic Cusk, a web of our words in the middle of which sits the spider with all her eyes.

The fact my reading differs from that reviewer quoted by that book-lender – that’s classic Cusk, a web of our words in the middle of which sits the spider with all her eyes. She labours the point that an interviewer/critic writes as much about themselves as the interviewee perhaps too much in Kudos, but it’s about reading too, and what is put in as well as taken out by who is reading the book. She even gets ahead of any notion you might have of trying to get ahead of this pass-the-parcel reading experience when one of Faye’s interviewers tells her he was going to write the interview in her voice.

Towards the end of Kudos, Faye describes a journalist armed with all her books (“the pages bristling with Post-it notes”), who holds forth on “changing perspectives of identity”, the power of the reader, his own power as a breaker of reputations, about negativity in writing, about mirroring as a literary technique and, deliciously, about imagination. Quoting a sentence or two of Cusk is likely to misrepresent the books, and Kudos contains within it its own analysis and critique, as well as a very efficient summation of its reception, so I do so with caution. Cusk as Faye reports the long speech of this very self-satisfied, high-minded young journalist who rails against second-rate literature and derides imagination, before completing his thought by not asking, but telling Faye that she agrees. “He expected, he said, that I would agree with this assessment, since he had deduced from my work that if I had an imagination I had the sense to keep it well concealed.”


Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy is out now in Australia through Faber.

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