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To Endure the Void: On Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” Trilogy

WHO IS THE narrator of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy of “autofictional” novels? Her name appears only once in each book. “Faye […] will you just listen?” says her son on the phone, in the final few pages of Kudos. Harsh words, especially from her child, since for almost the entirety of the trilogy that’s all Faye seems to do.

In an introduction to a recent reissue of The Little Virtues (1962), a collection of essays by the midcentury Italian author Natalia Ginzburg, Cusk compliments Ginzburg’s “grasp of the self and of its moral function in narrative.” For Cusk, Ginzburg’s novel Family Lexicon (1963) is particularly remarkable, mostly for the woman at its center: the narrator, Natalia, who closely resembles the author. As the book’s “observational core,” Natalia offers sharp descriptions of everyone around her, while she herself remains opaque. Cusk is particularly impressed by how Natalia positions herself: at a distance, but never detached. She explains, “You come away from it feeling that you know the author profoundly, without having very much idea of who she is.”

The manner in which you describe others reveals a lot about yourself: your values, desires, epistemology. Cusk’s trilogy — Outline, Transit, and now Kudos — also features a narrator who is effaced, hidden, largely silent on the subject of herself, whom we nevertheless come to know in a profound manner through the stories she relays about others. The trilogy began in 2014 with Outline, in which Faye, a writer, boards a plane to Athens. In Transit, released in 2016, Faye wanders familiar routes of London. In the final installment, Faye travels once again, negotiating the air conditioned rooms and hot streets of an unnamed European city. The books — spare, simple, but sharp — have been met with great acclaim.

The trilogy marks a major departure in style from previous work, presenting a refreshing new model of storytelling for Cusk, who since 1993 has written a number of stylized (some have said overwritten) novels and outspoken (some have said narcissistic) memoirs. Cusk’s debut novel, Saving Agnes, remains emblematic of the verbose style she has employed for decades. It revolves around a precocious and opinionated young Oxford grad called Agnes. She doesn’t gossip, but rather engages in “conspiratorial solace.” Street beggars don’t ask her for money, they “inveigled her into sparing them her change.” Rather than simply study math, her housemate “frolicked untrammelled in Elysian groves of quantum mechanics.” Stuck in an entry-level publishing job (“determined from the start swiftly to make good her escape”), Agnes looks forward to the day she can furnish her home with “elegant accoutrements” and move away from the “windswept reaches of Finsbury Park.”

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It is clear from the outset that Cusk is doing something different with Outline. “I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything,” Faye muses from her seat on the plane. As she observes the air hostess leading passengers “through the possibility of death and disaster,” her neighbor turns to ask the reason for her trip. Faye responds that she is going there for work. Her reticence is contrasted by her neighbor’s eagerness to talk, intimately and at length, about his own past: his Greek parents and boarding school education, the several wives, the dislocations he’s suffered in the wake of multiple divorces.

Eventually, “as though he had learned to remind himself to do so,” her companion questions Faye in return. She explains, with restraint, that she’s a writer visiting Athens to teach a creative writing course, she lives in London with her two children, having moved there recently from the countryside home she shared with their father, a place now “the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.” She doesn’t say whether her own divorce causes similar worries, or whether she too suffers from feelings of alienation and regret. Her neighbor talks at her instead: “[Y]ou, he said to me — at the moment you’re sad, but if you were in love the sadness would stop.”

Faye’s recent change in perspective has been significant and traumatic. The dissolution of the sanctity of marriage has precipitated a series of revelations — for Faye, for Cusk — and yielded a capacity for suffering and insight. Rather than speak, she watches. In this, Cusk seems to be saying something valuable about shutting up and listening. And also about attention. Attention, she suggests, can yield grace. It is an approach to narrative that, Cusk believes, could be explored further by her feminist contemporaries — a way of writing that grows, and gives voice to, the specific conditions, and conditionings, of women in society, raised and required to facilitate others.

Meeting this stranger on the plane introduces a pattern for Faye that will repeat itself through all three novels. In Outline, she meets a fellow writer, then an old friend, then a publisher. In Transit, she meets an ex-boyfriend in the street, speaks to an estate agent, a builder, an abusive neighbor. In Kudos, probably in Lisbon, Faye meets another publisher, more writers, takes part in interviews. It becomes clear that in this third book (her children are finishing school) perhaps a decade has passed since the previous two books. But things progress as before: Faye moves through a city, meets people, listens to them. She doesn’t interrupt, whether it’s a 15-year-old tour guide or an elderly patron of the arts, and the conversations are personal and searching; they flow naturally and inevitably from the mundane to the ontological.

Standing in a street of that European city, Faye meets “a man called Eduardo.” He tells her about the city’s gorgeous jacaranda trees. The trees bloom for only a few weeks every year, and take decades to grow. Those who want to grow the trees in their gardens can become frustrated, almost come to hate their jacaranda tree, perhaps because “it reminds them of the possibility that it is patience and endurance and loyalty — rather than ambition and desire — that bring the ultimate rewards.” Faye gives no explicit sign of assent or disagreement. It is the care she takes to relay the story that hints this idea holds import, though how remains oblique.

Faye’s way of being in the world is graceful and insightful, but her silence doesn’t always feel healthy, and it’s unclear whether it’s empowering. This mode of telling stories captures a self-effacement that will be familiar to many women. “We fought a silent battle of self-abnegation and I won it,” says a young woman in Angela Carter’s Fireworks, “for I had the stronger character.” Cusk presents these “womanly” qualities as empowering, but also explores their potential, in excess, to become pathological.

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What has precipitated this sudden shift in method? Cusk has said that the condemnation of her memoir Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, and the divorce that the book recounts, were motivations for change — but the ideas that she explores have been long in gestation.

Cusk has made a career out of refusing to censor herself. The controversy began with her first memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, described by The New York Times as “career suicide,” in which Cusk describes motherhood as “a form of disability,” a prison from which she is forever plotting her escape. People were offended on behalf of her children. “I mainly remember being stunned that she seemed to have had no idea that babies woke and cried in the night,” wrote one Mumsnet member. “I was only being honest,” read the headline of Cusk’s self-defense in the Guardian.

In her second memoir, The Last Supper, Cusk described her own mother-in-law as “one of those people in Shakespeare who appear only in the first and last scenes.” Later in the same book, she ridiculed someone to such an extent that they tried to sue the publisher. The case was settled out of court and first editions had to be pulped (Cusk paid half the costs); the passage no longer features in the book. A capacity for viciousness that can be engaging and alienating, depending on which side you find yourself.

Things culminated with Aftermath, which had The Times of London critic Camilla Long describe her as a “brittle little dominatrix.” Cusk describes how her husband quit his job to become a stay-at-home dad, raising the children while she writes books to support the family. It’s all very modern. Except that when the couple separate, and he asks for joint custody of the kids, she declines: “They’re my children […] They belong to me.” What heresy, Cusk admits, to “invoke the primitivism of the mother, her innate superiority, that voodoo in the face of which the mechanism of equal rights breaks down.”

As sole breadwinner, having left child-rearing to her partner, Cusk looks into the mirror and sees herself cross-dressed as a man. “I am not a feminist,” she admits, doubling down, “I am a self-hating transvestite.” She confesses to flipping old orthodoxies, rather than overturning them, motivated not by gender equality but by her attraction to the male role: “My father advanced male values to us, his daughters. And my mother did the same. What I lived as feminism were in fact the cross-dressing values of my father.” These assays show Cusk moving fast and breaking things, examining her feminist credentials in practice — the children, mother-in-law, marriage, the expectations on her as a womb-carrying woman. But her opinions — cranky and unconventional — upset people, particularly when alongside indulgent metaphors and grand comparisons between herself and Clytemnestra. The book was savaged. 

Cusk believes that the British press were resistant because they didn’t want to hear what she had to say: “Society organizes itself very efficiently to punish, silence or disown truth-tellers.” A mechanism all the more vicious if you’re a woman. As someone who prioritizes truth (and the self-lacerating honesty it requires), Cusk must have frustrated by this response; “The more I speak, the less I am heard,” says Medea, mother and divorcee, in her adaptation of the Greek play by Euripides. And it is in certain liminal moments of Aftermath that Cusk can already be seen looking for a new way to press on the bruises and uncertainties she associates with femininity and being female, without being shut down.

On one gray Sunday afternoon, Cusk and her children explore a town in which various artists have opened their collections to the public. The children run ahead into a house. Catching up, Cusk finds herself in a mysterious room lit by stained glass, the air filled with dust motes. The children turn toward her with the faces of animals: fox, dormouse, stag, each with “dark glossy eyes.” They have been trying on masks. One by one they emerge, except: “My stag-daughter watches me, alert, bright-eyed, perfectly still.” Cusk revels in the oddness: the mask seems to have “accommodated her own nature, so that I find I’m already quite used to her looking like that. In a strange way we are both relieved by her metamorphosis.” Cusk is as infatuated with the mask as her daughter. Its transformative power, the permissiveness conferred by its concealment. “It has been my belief that the only way to know something is to experience it,” she explains, “that the truest forms of knowledge are personal. Now I imagine a different kind of knowledge, knowledge without exposure, without risk; the knowledge of the voyeur, watching, assessing, staying hidden.” Here, in the last book she wrote before beginning the trilogy, Cusk describes an alternative way of living, and of writing — one that offers her, and her narrator, the power and protection of the silent, masked observer.

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There is a fertile ambiguity to the mask. It is often unclear to me how to interpret Faye’s silence: is it judicious or judgmental? In Kudos, a man on a plane (yes, another one), explains why he keeps falling asleep and blocking the aisle. In fact, he has spent all of the previous night burying his beloved dog in the back garden. Faye lets him vent his confusion: “I couldn’t tell whether what I was doing was manly and honourable or just fake as well, because at the same time as I was digging I was imagining telling people about it.” People, presumably, like Faye. Attentive, yes, but there is always an edge. Elsewhere, even in her silence, Faye can be remarkably hostile.

In her observations Faye is capable of great sanctimoniousness, a holier-than-thou posture: she disapproves of excess, inconsiderate behavior, selfishness, a lack of style. With sleight of hand, she will let a person hang themselves. Angeliki, a Greek writer Faye meets in Athens, suffers under her baleful eye. Having invited herself to dinner, Angeliki arrives late, complains loudly about the restaurant, orders for the table then doesn’t eat the food, rants continuously during the meal before checking the time on her “little silver watch,” can’t help but mention she’s being interviewed on television in the morning, then leaves. “I will treasure our conversation,” she tells Faye, “squeezing [her] fingertips” and inviting her to meet “woman to woman” again. It’s difficult to catch Cusk, or Faye, in the act. How does she manage to paint such an abominable picture of this woman with a series of neutral, apparently reasonable, observations?

Control is key to her method: of self, and of others. In interviews, writes Janet Malcolm, both subject and interviewer “are always being seduced and distracted by the encounter’s outward resemblance to an ordinary friendly meeting.” Instead, Malcolm reminds us, the interview is “a special, artificial exercise of subtle influence and counterinfluence, with an implicit antagonistic tendency.” Faye is interviewed about her writing many times through the books. Again and again, she persuades her interviewers to talk at length about themselves instead, revealing far more than their subject, often to humorous effect. In one, interrupted in the middle of a slightly haughty statement about truth, a distinguished critic is horrified to learn that the interview “had now run its allotted course” and has to irritably pack his books and notes into his briefcase. Another journalist talks for a very long time about her sister’s divorce, leaving no time to ask Faye about herself. It’s fine, “I looked up all the details before I came,” she admits, “I read that you got married again.” The next beat is a scene change.

Of meeting Jacqueline Rose, Malcolm writes, “on a scale of how people should conduct themselves with journalists I would give her a score of 99. She understood the nature of the transaction — that it was a transaction — and had carefully worked out for herself exactly how much she had to give in order to receive the benefit of the interview.” Kudos, indeed. One imagines that Faye herself would score highly, since she too has carefully worked out how much of herself she is willing to show. I read a quiet pleasure into Cusk’s tendency to construct interviewers who use up all their time talking about themselves. Faye in her abstinence “wins” such interactions — learning much more than she gives away. But, Cusk encourages us to ask, what exactly has Faye won? Perhaps nothing more than the pleasure of an in-joke with herself, and her readers. As my friend WhatsApped me, “The great thing about autofiction is that when you’re on your book tour for your autofiction novel, and you’re hating it, you can just write about that and then you have another autofiction novel.” And eventually, one presumes, a trilogy.

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The concluding passage of Outline offers the most explicit deconstruction of Cusk’s technique. Faye wakes to find a woman named Anne outside her bedroom door; like Faye, she is recovering from trauma. Violently mugged, strangled by an unknown attacker, she has since been unable to eat or write. Anne, too, had recently found herself the passive participant in a conversation on the plane to Athens, one in which her male interlocutor spoke at length about “his childhood, his parents, his education, about the development of his career, the meeting with his wife and the marriage and family life that ensued” and so on. Anne explains that

the longer she listened to his answers, the more she felt that something fundamental was being delineated […] she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her for the first time since the incident a sense of who she now was.

Faye too delineates herself by acting as a mirror, for instance, through the many people she meets who have also divorced their partners, and through their stories she shows the violence this process enacts on children. Sophia, an author, explains that her son is left alone when he stays with his father: “If he took care of our son […] he would in a sense be giving something to me, and he has devoted his life to making sure that is something he will never do, even through the medium of our child.” Felicia, a translator, believes that her ex-husband Stefano is “finally getting his revenge, by poisoning my own child against me and filling her with his own arrogant nature.” It’s a fear that has occupied Faye’s mind throughout the trilogy, and it’s clear in Kudos that her relationship with her (now teenage) sons is warm but distant, and one son has chosen to live with his father. Having given her children freedom, Faye admits, “I couldn’t start dictating its terms.”

Faye suffers as a mother, as do many of the women whose experiences she relates. There is a tension between Faye’s vulnerability and her power — and sitting with this tension is one of the triumphs of the trilogy. Cusk’s portraits capture how women can be trapped by society and its expectations; but also, through the indomitable Faye, she shows the strength one can wield through silence and stillness, passivity and observation.

“To love truth means to endure the void,” wrote Simone Weil in her notebooks, suggesting perhaps that we should resist the temptation to fill the empty spaces of ourselves with our own stories, and instead welcome grace into the absence. In remaining largely unknown, Faye allows Cusk to explore universality, which is a sort of truth, perhaps a sort of grace. “She has a task and she applies herself to it soberly: the trapping, if only in a mirrored surface, of some fragment of reality that might yield a truth about the whole,” wrote Hilary Mantel in 2009. “I had found out more […] by listening,” Faye tells us in the conclusion to the second book, “than I had ever thought possible.” More about the whole, to be sure, but also more about herself.

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Josie Mitchell is an editor at Granta magazine. Her reviews have appeared in Review 31.

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