On Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos)
Night. My head a little fuzzy, not from wine, but from having woken with a migraine this morning. I hope, but nothing fully shakes a migraine, nothing other than a good night’s sleep. Wishing in a cool breeze from the open darkness – 37 degrees outside today – the white ceiling dotted with tiny black flies, I’m waiting for the room to become more accommodating of sleep.
The children two floors up show no sign of going to bed. High-pitched play. They know I exist. They’ve popped their little brown faces around the hedge that borders the garden and seen me, sitting there, reading. Angelic faces with cherub noses; I wish they’d sleep.
Green tea with jasmine. I’ve been reading Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, admiring it without loving it. The third of a trilogy, and probably the one I enjoyed the least (not itself a criticism). The first of the three, Outline, I read for university; not my usual choice because ‘intellectual white British woman’ sits too close to home. I’m trying so hard to push myself into other, less-comfortable spheres.
At first, I disliked Outline. It wasn’t real; the conversations were false, stylised, gossip. Was it all in the narrator’s head? The writing steps back, out of believable dialogue and into a smooth, unbelievable eloquence – Cusk’s voice. Once I accepted its design – accepted the request from Cusk that the reader abandons any expectation for dialogue that sounds like speech – I settled down.
Although, saying that, the passivity frustrated me, maybe because it recalled a timidity of voice I occasionally feel. Maybe, because I get frustrated by people who seem incapable of helping themselves. Creative writing instructors go on about giving ‘agency’ to the protagonist, but the protagonist, Faye, rejects ‘agency’. A sponge, absorbing, barely reacting. Her decision for passivity was her limit.
Surprisingly, suspense didn’t falter. I would have thought it might. Instead, it grew addictive. The narrator holds herself back, restrained, but under the surface, judgement, conflict, anger. A woman’s unsayable, un-permittable anger. The self, destroyed by divorce, ashes of anger.
Despite not being divorced, I have known fire that burns through one’s sense of being, when one’s one narrative, the story of self, the story of being, ruptures. To comprehend myself, my story, I disjoint my own narrative – creating a before and after: I divide into before my loss of self and after I began to reassemble. The space in between too uncomfortable. Faye is trying to identify herself in the ashes, and when she can’t, she refuses to be reborn.
Faye, or Rachel Cusk. An intentionally hazy line. She’s a writer teaching a writing course in Greece, as Cusk has. She’s a writer, divorced, just as Cusk is.
Metaphors hang heavy in the book, giving the impression that the first-person narrator, Faye, reads plenty of poetry. So much, it has sculpted her thinking. At first, I noticed the metaphors, then I relaxed into the rhythm of the writing and left them to my subconscious, now I am going back, looking for them afresh, curious as to their frequency. How beautiful a second reading. Maybe, I am overly self-conscious about using metaphor and simile in my own writing, fearing that such imagery would stand out, maybe I should have more confidence, play more. It would be a declaration of poetic interest in someone who doesn’t read poetry. Then again, Cusk in interviews says how she doesn’t read fiction.
She does, apparently, read philosophy. No surprise then that all three books bloom with the sort of lines that could be underlined, highlighted, used to prompt a journal page or two. Reread and reflect. Apparently, autofiction is often analytical. Cusk’s is a contemplation on passivity and writing; yet writing is not a passive activity. It’s a play with from, creating a character, a narrator, who is merely an outline, but the reader fills the image in, joins dots, creates them for themselves if they don’t exist. What do we know about Rachel Cusk?
Transit, the second book, and Kudos were in some ways easier to read; I no longer expected anything to happen. I read both smoothly and rapidly. Very little happens. Like in the first, strangers, friends and colleagues – none of whom Faye seems to particularly like – offer their monologues.
In a way, these books are like an interconnected short story collection, and each story is like a Russian-doll. I’m weirdly reminded of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with a story being told of a story. Faye is a frame. And, as in Conrad’s work, where the African characters exist as projected fears, voicelessly, there’s something uncomfortable in the voicelessness of the criticised, ex-spouses, children, alluded to but in a way that pats the particular storyteller’s ego. Everybody is lying. They are terrible liars. Lying to themselves and to Faye. Faye too, lies. Deceiving the reader by not taking responsibility for her own story.
Maybe we only tell such aggrandising tales of our foibles when we are struggling to convince ourselves of the truth of them. When I find myself talking in such a way, hiding key parts of the picture, I always end up feeling guilty. Or maybe we tell such stories when we have a dangerous sense of righteousness.
I had a close encounter with a Cusk-esque character recently. My partner and I picked up a hitch-hiker, a woman, maybe in her early fifties, on her way into town. This is nothing unusual to us. What was unusual was how she spoke: she started telling us about her childhood in a rural Santiago – Las Condes where all the skyscrapers now stand – imagine chickens and corn; her date the night before with a younger man who had reminded her of the importance of having a good time; how more soldiers were needed on the streets to eradicate the criminals; how valuable the military dictatorship had been in building these roads we were now driving upon; and it would have gone on. Her father called. She had to apologise, she’d missed his birthday, she’d been so busy, what with work and everything (the younger man?).
The conversation was in Spanish and, from my seat, I could not see her. She, in turn, had the illusion that I didn’t understand what was being said, an illusion I did not want to break. I found myself reminded of Faye. For once, passivity seemed an active choice.
The breeze on my face. Upstairs, the feet of children. Mama, mama, mama, mama, mama! Squeals and cries and more squeals and more cries. Too much stimulation. These children never sleep.
The wind has got up; the window slams shut. A storm comes. A command for bed.
Soon the schools will open again.