Split Opinions: Rachel Cusk and the “Outline” Trilogy

The literary world has always liked a divisive figure. While writers who reap unanimous praise leave very little for readers and critics to disagree about, writers who split opinions — in terms of their ideas, politics or style — give us more to get our teeth into. The celebrity of authors like Michel Houellebecq or Karl Ove Knausgaard would attest as much. And the recent success of the British novelist Rachel Cusk seems to be part of the same phenomenon.  

Writing for the New York Times, Monica Ali described Cusk’s novel “Transit” as “nothing less than the reinvention of the form itself.” While the Sunday Times of London critic Camilla Long lambasted Cusk’s “Aftermath” as “poetic whimsy and vague literary blah, a needy, neurotic mandolin solo of reflections on child sacrifice and asides about drains.” These polarized opinions are representative of the two sides of Cusk’s reception. Some herald her as a bona fide revolutionary, others cringe at her self-conscious literary style. 

Since her debut novel “Saving Agnes” won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1993, Cusk has been a steady presence on the literary scene, with three autobiographical works and 10 novels to her name. Her recent “Outline” trilogy (“Outline” (2014), “Transit” (2016), and “Kudos” (2018)) saw the novelist on bestseller lists across the world and ignited fierce debate about her writing. 

The narrator of the “Outline” trilogy is Faye, a middle-aged writer with two sons, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Cusk herself. Although written in the first person, the novels are made up primarily of the reported monologues of others. The books advance through a series of encounters, as Faye meets strangers, friends, and colleagues, all falling over themselves to recount their own stories. Consequently, Faye’s life and thoughts are eclipsed; she is an omnipresent but largely effaced character — a prism through which we hear the concerns of others.

As you read Cusk’s trilogy, you expect that, somewhere along the line, the contours of Faye’s character will be filled in — that she will wrestle the microphone from her interlocutors and give us her own take. You assume that, as the book progresses, the reported conversations will recede as the plot takes over. This never happens. You soon realize that, all that time you were waiting for the novel to materialize, the very waiting was the novel. This draws your own expectations as a reader into sharp relief. You become conscious of the supporting role that dialogue usually plays in the development of character or the progression of the narrative.   

It was this stylistic device that led The Atlantic to hail Cusk for her “gut renovation” of the novel and The New Yorker to applaud her “new design for fiction.” Some of these claims are overstated. The process of dismantling the conventions of novelistic writing — scrutinizing its mechanisms before putting it back together in some original and subversive assemblage — is hardly new. However, there is still a freshness to Cusk’s writing. She is not merely rehashing the experiments of the past, but has carved out her own distinct form. And it is this distinct form that is both the source of genuine innovation in her work and also what attracts the barbative comments of some critics. 

You can feel a certain sympathy for the criticism levied against Cusk’s writing. The long monologues can feel contrived, even grating in their style. Every character Faye meets seems to be implausibly articulate, launching into an unprompted diatribe on life and its complexities. Whether it be a best-selling author or a man beside her on a plane, the various characters are all excellent storytellers, demonstrating lucid powers of self-analysis through a profusion of aptly chosen metaphors. The result is that the whole thing feels unrealistic. In one scene — albeit set at a literary fair — a character reflects on the ticketing system, which attributes each attendee with a set-price voucher for their lunch: “We invent these systems with the aim of ensuring fairness,” the character says. “And yet the human situation is so complex that it always evades our attempts to encompass it.” Do people really talk like this?

Throughout the trilogy, Cusk operates as a sort of master ventriloquist, giving voice to her cast of characters. From one person’s story to the next, everyone seems to talk in the same style, and they are all preoccupied with the same themes: identity, relationships, the stories we tell ourselves, and how we make sense of our own lives. This thematic and stylistic homogeneity foregrounds the very artifice of the narrative device Cusk adopts. It is as if she wants to demonstrate the inevitable failure of a multi-voiced form of writing, where the subject is largely absent, by allowing her own authorial voice to seep into the patchwork of other people’s words. 

In this respect, Cusk flags up a great truth: other people’s conversations will only ever be filtered through the interpretive prism of the listener. We tend to sift through information, paying closer attention to what aligns with our own concerns and interests. As a consequence, Cusk’s novels are perhaps more honest than a more traditional “realist” novel, where the illusion of realism is sustained by artificial means, such as an omniscient narrator or dialogue that mimics different voices. While the unusual style of Cusk’s trilogy might at first feel strange and contrived, it encodes a thoughtful reflection on how we tell stories and — crucially — how we listen to the stories of others. 

Rachel Cusk’s forthcoming book of essays “Coventry” will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in August. 

Article published on Blouin Artinfo.