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When Others Speak

Updated: May 13, 2020

Outline, (2014), Transit (2017), Kudos (2019) by Rachel Cusk, Faber & Faber

What is a novelist to do when they wish to speak in their own voice, air their own views, meditate on their own sentiments, convey the facets of their own lived-experience while still deploying the guise of the novel itself? In the traditional shape of the novel, if an author veers too closely to their own material they get accused of ‘authorial intervention’, of injecting themselves as an interloping voice in their own narrative at the expense of the validity of their characters, their creations. This is especially dangerous in first-person narratives. Readers and reviewers seem to demand a total absence of the notion of intervention in what they read; the author, as we are told by Barthes, should ideally die in the service of their creation; they should really dissolve silently and unobtrusively into the remotest of backgrounds. But of course, there is a paradoxical complication inherent in the manufacture of fictional literature: the author is, like any creative entity, invariably first and foremost an inward centred consciousness, if not a full-blown narcissist of some pedigree. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, except the conflict it generates in an author trying to wrestle helplessly against the temptation to turn the pen on themselves. Seldom does any writer truly succeed in fully erasing themselves from any given writing exercise.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. And not particularly, as long as authors apparently make a declaration of intent to their readers. Hence, there has in recent times been a proliferation of the conceit of deploying a fictive character who is especially designed to be just a whisker away from the real-life author themselves, a virtual carbon copy, give or take a few minor and incidental fictional embellishments. Hence we have the genre of ‘auto-fiction’, most explicitly exemplified by Karl Ove Knausgaard´s My Struggles series. We have the two ‘novels’ of Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You and Cleanness. We have Leaving the Atocha Station and 10;04 by Ben Lerner. And, here we have the Outline trilogy by Rachel Cusk.

Rachel changes her name to Faye, but she needn’t really bother as the name of her protagonist is only – and strategically – uttered once in each of the three books. The absence of ascribing the explicit use of a name to her narrator both intensifies the notion that it is really ‘Rachel the writer’ narrating while at the same time adding a powerful note of dislocation to the entire project: what is in a name, after all? What does the shape and formation of the actual noun matter when the explicit structure of the narrative is predicated on the concept of a writer who is intentionally injecting themselves into their own narration? Also, there is the idea – quite ingenious of Cusk – to mitigate against the vanity of the authorial injection by making these books not about Faye/Rachel the writer but rather the people she meets; the conversations she strikes up and the monologues she somehow incites them to reveal to her. If the true virtue of the writer lies in listening to others, of reproducing the experience of ‘the Other’, then Cusk has produced a masterpiece of invention. I was also tempted to wonder at certain points whether the name ‘Faye’ was in fact a sly pun by Cusk, as if she wanted to evoke a certain ‘feyness’ about a central character who is present at all times and yet seems very much to stay in the shadows, forsaking her own stridency yet through some kind of magical agency managing to channel the voices and stories of other characters she meets on her various and intentionally repetitive travels?

The theme of repetition is central to the sense of cyclic rhythm in the trilogy. There is much travel, particularly airline travel in Outline and Kudos, and visiting of distant cities and going through the rather clinical and bothersome routine of literary conferences, book tours, teaching gigs, interviews and meetings with other literary types. The central novel, Transit, is more grounded in and around London and serves to pivot the other two by giving Faye a sense of suburban ennui which she both seems to welcome and abhor. Wherever she is, she never seems to be truly comfortable in her own surroundings and appears, as the title of the second novel implies, to be in this permanent state of transit. She is divorced and has two sons who are young when we first meet them but are late adolescents by the time Kudos concludes. And this is more or less the extent of what we get to know about the private life of our narrator.

The continual cycle of repetitive conversations she seems to find herself partaking in constitutes both a problem and a triumph for Faye. It is clear she lives vicariously through the prism of the monologues she solicits from this retinue of strangers encountered here and there, as if she is constituting a sense of self entirely through the pronouncements and disclosures of others. In essence, she remains a vehicle, partially vapid and undeveloped. And yet at the same time we appreciate just how enriching and satisfying these encounters are: her mode is to sit back and let others enlighten her. By doing so she is exposing herself to the gamut of the human spectrum of experience and insight and we feel as if her entire surrender to the interior worlds of these subjects is what somehow forms her, or creates the mesh wire structure onto which her own life is fleshed out. Time and again, wherever she is, she induces the people she meets to speak. Their stories become her stories, transposed onto the narrative surface she creates for us. In some respects, we are reading third-hand recollections, filtered through the conduit of Faye’s compulsion for reportage. If a novelist is ultimately tasked with writing the lives of others, then arguably Cusk has settled on the purest form of fiction writing. Her novels have an element of the Chaucerian about them, the grand tradition of the humbling oral account.

While Cusk is a formidable writer brimming with a penetrating intelligence – (‘the parts of life that are suffocating … are so often the parts that are the projection of our own parents’ desires …’ (Outline) or ‘there had been a great harvest … of language and information from life, and it may become the case that the faux-human was growing more substantial and more relational than the original …’ (Transit) – there are issues around the delivery of her material which compromise their credibility. Firstly, it suspends disbelief to breaking point. This is all the more noticeable as the tone of her writing is so careful to establish a pace and control which is fixated on the banal and mundane aspects of the writerly life and yet we are somehow meant to buy the fact that in the midst of this, she happens across a cross-section of people who with no particular incitement to doing so, just begin to speak to her unrelentingly. It’s not as if Faye is bursting with the kind of extroverted energy which naturally puts people at ease, induces them to open up. So where are those normal barriers of caution and reserve we erect in the presence of strangers? Do people really just unburden themselves so fully and intimately to someone, say, standing behind them in a queue, or sitting next to them on a plane? The sheer randomness of her subjects’ intersection with her own life would, you would suppose, ordinarily censor their willingness to place trust in someone so unknown to them, but yet each and every encounter Faye has and reports on, these people are actively ready and prepared to unburden themselves to her. The verve and energy with which they do also creates a discordant note. There are barely any expositional flourishes before they are deep into the most personal of diatribes.

Even if readers can overlook the neat and exacting contrivance of how Faye comes about her material, there is the issue of the register her speakers deploy which is, throughout the three books, aggressively similar. The pattern of the indirect speech she recounts has a very determined and unwavering stylistic sameness to it – each speaker seems to deploy the same verbal tic ‘so to speak’ or ‘for instance’ – and so what begins as the retelling of a domestic scenario rapidly becomes an extended ontological thesis into some nuance or dynamic of how human relationships function or how humans relate to the corporatisation of the world, mainly in terms of art and lifestyle consumption. In other words, although each speaker has a different tale to tell, each one of them sounds identical, even down to minute speech patterns and idiosyncrasies, to the next and the next after that.

The cumulative effect is that they all appear to be one single speaker; no real sense of any other actual character ever evolves. This is true whether it is a fifteen-year old boy ‘with lustrous black hair’ who guides her through the streets of a foreign city or a billionaire with ‘liberal credentials’ who she sits down to lunch with. The fifteen-year old sounds just as insightful and philosophically aware as the worldly billionaire does. In addition, are we meant to believe that all these people just go about thinking as deeply, intellectually and philosophically as they all seem to? There is something explicitly rehearsed and programmatic about all her characters. As a result, they amount to a compendium of talking heads with little else that animates them or brings them to life. As Cusk herself says at the beginning of Outline, ‘It seemed possible that the same computer algorithm … had also generated the astrologer herself: her phrases were too characterful, and the note of character was repeated too often; she was obviously based on a human type to be, herself, human.’ One begins to wonder whether Cusk herself is functioning off some kind of algorithm too! Once they are done spilling their guts to her, they are discarded and we seldom revisit them. Comparatively, J. M. Coetzee’s slightly devolved auto-fictional creation, Elizabeth Costello, at least actively engages with people who often radically oppose her own outlook, in settings where they have a credible reason and a purpose to be debating her. There is little that is at all believable about the world that Cusk’s humans inhabit.

The repetitive nature of the dialogues is so over-stylised that it soon becomes clear we are not in fact listening to a story told by a passenger next to her on a plane, for example, or a builder on a building site, but we are listening to her version of these stories: her implicit retelling. If you like, her authorial ownership of the material. She is reprocessing it for us, repackaging it in a way which is specific to her own kind of rhetorical branding. Whether she admits to this or not, there can be no denying that what we hear from Faye’s first-person account is, primarily, her account of things, her embellishment. Even the pretension of saying ‘… he said …’ begins to lose all legitimacy because what she really means is that ‘he said something to the effect’ or even ‘he said something which I am now going to decipher as this …’ As far as unreliable narrators go, Faye might just be one of the most compromised in all of modern fiction.

The three books have a great deal to say about contemporary culture and life. There is no doubt that the insights Faye gleans from her speakers are prescient and highly original. Cusk has the ability to read so witheringly into what is otherwise piecemeal and banal: the ordinary and oft experienced becomes illuminated and refreshed in her hands. Take this missive on the publishing industry from Kudos: ‘In fact, he went on, you could see the whole history of capitalism as a history of combustion, not just the burning of substances that have lain in the earth for millions of years, but also of knowledge, ideas, culture and indeed, beauty ...’ The speaker – her publisher – goes on to talk about how Jane Austen has been, ‘burned one after another as spin-offs, sequels, films, self-help books, and even, I believe, a reality TV show.’

I cannot help wondering, however, whether it all would have amounted to a more credible and engaging read if she had simply had Faye come up with all of these notions herself. If you can get past what eventually starts to become the rather stodgy predictable mechanics of the books, then at a sentence by sentence level, there is real beauty and profundity in what Cusk has to say. The closing page of Kudos glows with a kind of incandescence which is truly breath-taking: ‘The beach shelved so steeply that I was quickly sucked out into the moving mass, whose destiny and power seemed to keep me effortlessly on the surface so that I rose and fell along with its undulations.’ She also has a wonderful ear for the bizarre and archly hilarious: the account of the writer’s retreat at the ghastly Italian Countess’ country pad is a delight in observing how Machiavellian tendencies always seem to sit hand in hand with acts of charity. She is particularly good at conveying the ironies of a writer forced into the various degradations of public life while desperately - as is the whole manner that Faye exhibits - seeming to seek only solitude.


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