In one of Outline’s many stories within stories, a recently divorced father recounts a perilous drive into the hills beyond Athens. It was, Paniotis tells the novel’s narrator, the first time he had taken his children on his own. As a storm descended, the steep mountain roads turned to mud. Herds of pigs and goats surged across their path and the children, pocked with mosquito bites from their stay in a filthy motel – bites Paniotis feared would become infected – screamed as floodwater poured into the car. Later, still panicked by their predicament, Paniotis phoned his ex-wife from a mountain inn. Her silence, her failure to ‘take up, as it were, her part in our lifelong duet’, pitched him deeper into distress.
This post-divorce saga is one of several in Rachel Cusk’s new novel. It is one of the more dynamic episodes. Yet Outline is most concerned with the storyteller’s inner drama. One of Cusk’s key themes is the workings of the self when it is forced back on its own resources in the wake of separation, loss and solitude. It is no accident that Paniotis, with his mounting calamities and jittery persona, seems to have catapulted out of a Thomas Bernhard novel. Cusk’s work evokes the Austrian writer’s in several ways.
Cusk’s seven previous novels are each works of restrained and elegant lyrical realism. Several, such as Arlington Park (2006) and the most recent The Bradshaw Variations (2009), explore the dissatisfactions and conflicts in the lives of middle-class artists, parents and married couples in urban and rural settings. In Arlington Park, Cusk drew on the single-day design of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) to follow the lives of five discontented suburban women. The Bradshaw Variations describes the dynamics between a couple and their extended family. Thomas Bradshaw becomes a stay-at-home father, and takes up piano lessons when his wife takes a senior academic job; both struggle with art and ambition, with intimacy and waning desire.
The style of these works gives little sign of the shift to come in Outline, though all of Cusk’s novels share an interest in the conflicted inner lives of their characters, which often contrast with their comfortable surroundings. ‘She writes to rebut the idea that domestic life, as subject matter, is trivial and whimsical,’ observed Hilary Mantel in a sharp review of The Bradshaw Variations.
There is perhaps a precursor to Outline’s preoccupations in that novel: when Thomas Bradshaw reads aloud to his young daughter, he finds in her books
explanations for everything for love and survival, struggle and pleasure, happiness and grief, for belief, for the shape and arc of life itself. The only thing that is never explained is reality.
Reality is one of Outline’s key themes and it extends beyond the content and the characters’ concerns, calling into question the very idea of the novel. This existential inquiry is embedded in Outline’s autofictional approach.
Those who have read Cusk’s controversial memoirs, may feel they know quite a bit about her personal travails, and this will likely inflect their reading of Outline, with its protagonist who resembles the author. Both A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (2001) and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012) met with considerable controversy in the British press. Cusk’s memoir of motherhood was welcomed by many for its frank depiction of the often sentimentalised subjects of pregnancy, birth and mothering. But it was damned by several reviewers for its unsparing depiction of the depravations, competitiveness and sublimation that can also characterise this phase of women’s lives.
Of Cusk’s fictional characters, Mantel writes: ‘Cusk is curt and merciless.’ And I suspect it is this same talent for skewering that offends when it is deployed in her memoirs. The surprising intensity of the first memoir’s reception has been the subject of several literary forums. Some, such as Katie Roiphe’s recent article for Slate, noted the comparatively benign response to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s unflinching account of fatherhood in his My Struggle series. Cusk’s response to the reaction, published in the Guardian, summarised the reviewers’ most caustic moments:
I was accused of child-hating, of postnatal depression, of shameless greed, of irresponsibility, of pretentiousness, of selfishness, of doom-mongering and, most often, of being too intellectual. One curious article questioned the length of my sentences: how had I, a mother, been able to write such long and complicated sentences? Why was I not busier, more tired? Another reviewer – a writer! – commanded her readers not to let the book fall into the hands of pregnant women.
Having become ‘the mother mums love to hate’ after vitriolic posts about A Life’s Work appeared on Mumsnet, an online parenting blog, Cusk was again chastised for exposing her family when she published her second memoir. Some of the criticism rightly questioned Aftermath’s uneasy blending of Greek mythology with a personal account of separation, loss and divorce. But this hardly justified the double-exposure Cusk was subjected to when further personal details were revealed and raked over in the press.
These controversies are now widely known and Cusk will often raise them in interviews, yet I hesitated to include them here. While this context partly explains the author’s shift away from conventional realism and memoir in favour of Outline’s essayistic mode of fictionalised autobiography – a move she directly attributes to Aftermath’s reception – none of the background clamor accounts for Outline’s mesmerising qualities. It is, for me, Cusk’s finest work to date. Its rhythmic, associative, looping episodes contain a series of portraits of the mind at work understanding itself.
Outline’s narrator is Faye, a recently divorced British writer and mother, who travels to Athens to teach a summer creative writing class. During her stay, she meets several people, some loosely connected, from many parts of the literary world. The gaunt Paniotis, with his wild hair and ‘eyebrows winging off like exclamation marks’, publishes English-language translations, but his business – impacted by the Greek recession – is failing. He is trying to make sense of a life that once seemed governed by the ‘story of improvement’ – a story that ‘commandeered our deepest sense of reality’ – but has taken a less idealistic turn. Angeliki is a tawny-haired literary celebrity, whose novel A Lonely Place has made her, as Paniotis sneers, ‘a spokesperson for suffering women’. ‘My neighbour’, as Faye refers to him throughout, is a heavy-set Greek man she meets on her flight to Athens. His family saga – which involves shipping fortunes, broken marriages and a mentally ill son roaming a Greek island while under a form of house arrest – rivals the Greek tragedies for its tales of feuds and personal ruin.
Each character’s story is partly paraphrased by Faye, but even when they are directly quoted we feel the writer-protagonist continually at work, framing and shaping the narrative. We could call Faye an unreliable narrator – and the novel suggests there is no other kind: everything we receive, it says, is mediated, everything is subjective – and, by extension, all narrators are unreliable. This may sound like something from Postmodernism 101, but at no time during Outline did I feel like I was being lectured. It can often seem unjust, when considering a novel of ideas, to pluck some out for scrutiny. Pinned to the page they will seem too bright and obvious, their liveliness rapidly ebbs. Within Cusk’s novel, however, the ideas float up obliquely within long, flowing paragraphs, and this effortlessness is one of its finest qualities.
Outline’s milieu of middle-class, educated artists and thinkers (variations on characters in Cusk’s previous novels) may seem hermetic. The novel is, for example, less wide-ranging in scope, less airy and amply detailed than those of Knausgaard, whom Cusk admires. If Knausgaard’s My Struggle series presents the entire set of family albums, then Outline gives us a few double-exposed portraits from mid-life. Cusk’s fiction has always been stylised, taut, and at times too neatly composed. But Outline’s design arises organically from its content and has a resulting rightness. Its themes are so seamlessly incorporated that they are sensed rather than signaled right throughout the final architecture.
Faye and her storytellers so precisely narrate their predicaments that we immediately grasp the novel’s central concern: it is not the stories we tell but how we tell them that truly reveals who we are. Outline is preoccupied with the relationship between narrative and identity, and has a fascination with point of view. In this way, it is more akin to what Michael Hoffman, writing on Bernhard, calls ‘sculptures of opinion’ than ‘contraptions assembled from character interactions’. This is a very talky novel. It is philosophical and remarkably dynamic, considering that it consists largely of people speaking to each other – in restaurants and apartments, on boats and planes.
Faye’s fellow writing teacher, an Irishman named Ryan, is literally fractured, appearing to consist of ‘unrelated elements so that the different parts of him didn’t entirely go together’. Having learned a little of the local lingo during his stay, he tells Faye that in Greek the word ellipsis means, ‘to hide behind silence’. The first detail comments on the novel’s interest in fragmentation; the second on the narrator’s elusive presence in the novel. These ideas unspool without undue emphasis, making Outline less overtly cerebral in tone than, for example, Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014). Both Cusk and Lerner use fictionalised autobiography to shape digressive narratives which feel seductively allied to reality; both feature self-reflexive narrators who closely resemble their authors. But they do this with markedly different effects.
During one of their several encounters, Faye’s ‘neighbour’ describes one of his three marriages. The relationship had culminated in physical violence. The ‘story of who had done what to whom’ was unfolded in court, in order to establish guilt and determine punishment, in a process that promised a ‘resolution that never came’. This dispute, says Faye’s neighbour,
could never be resolved, not so long as the aim was to establish the truth, for there was no single truth any more … Each of them saw things now solely from his own perspective: there was only point of view.
This neatly encapsulates another of Outline’s themes: the impossibility of encompassing reality in one single story, and the damage that limited accounts can wreak on intimacy and love.
In her role as intermediary, Faye seems at first an outline. We are told very little about her. But slowly we gather the facts. Now a single mother of two boys, she has recently moved from the home which, since her divorce, had ‘become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion’. As she shapes what we learn of the other characters, she gains in contrast and volume, light and shade. By filling us in, she also fills out herself. Her internal life is revealed in how she responds to others’ experiences. Her still, attentive presence suggests that she has repressed any former exuberance – yet this inner material still smoulders.
At one point, Faye evokes a scene from Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff and Cathy look from the darkened garden into the Lintons’ drawing room. Faye writes,
What is fatal in that vision is its subjectivity: looking through the window the two of them see different things … But neither of them can see things as they really are. And likewise I was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself, was beginning to see in other people’s lives, a commentary on my own.
This is, of course, an allegory of her own isolation. Faye is glassed off from those around her. She cannot decide how to be: ‘in the moment and living outside it – which was more real?’ It is partly the prospect of her breaking through that keeps us reading. Yet Outline is uninterested in any kind of redemptive narrative ‘progress’. Faye’s discomfort with the (‘fatal’) subjectivity that separates us from others evokes the postmodern turn in psychology, where notions of a stable, objectively ‘real’ self were relinquished in favour of a concept of fractured identity. This model, influenced by Eastern philosophies, including Buddhism, also acknowledged how inseparable identity is from the language we use to describe it – think of Lacan’s dictum ‘I am not a poet but a poem’. In this light, another way to read Cusk’s novel of many selves is to consider each storyteller as a split-off aspect of Faye herself. Read in this way, the novel becomes a kind of collective biography, which in the words of David Shields ‘when read as a whole and tilted at just the right angle’ can ‘refract brilliant, harsh light back upon the author’.
Faye evokes the figure of the analyst in the way she likes to listen; the novel’s introspection and free-associating attention circles from the conversation at hand to literary allusion, sensory or concrete detail, and on to philosophical reflection. But Faye is no neutral observer. She can be flinty and disapproving, or gently observant. After her ‘neighbour’ dissects one of his divorces, Faye observes:
I remained dissatisfied by the story of his second marriage. It had lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to those extremes were often incorrect.
Here is an authorial figure, talking about narration in lawyerly terms; but here too is Faye, bristling at the storyteller’s lack of objectivity, a concept she appears to have once put her faith in. Can we really ‘objectively’ narrate the decline of a marriage? We sense that Faye (and Cusk) has asked this of herself. Her inquiring is part of the novel’s momentum and makes Outline into a kind of bildungsroman. As the storytellers recount their fractured contemporary lives, and their resulting disenchantment, and as Faye grapples with the relationship between narrative, truth and identity, we witness her education in a postmodern reality.
After her divorce, Faye must jettison the security she once gained from that state of collective delusion: marriage. There is a moment early in the novel, on the plane to Athens, when we see how lulling a shared belief can sometimes be, how it can shield us from the chaos of too much reality:
We were strapped in our seats, a field of strangers, in a silence like the silence of a congregation while the liturgy is read. [The hostess] led us through the possibility of death and disaster, as the priest leads the congregation through the details of purgatory and hell; and no one jumped up to escape while there was still time.
Note the language of the devout, the shared delusion. The passengers mutely accept the aircraft’s flimsy safety devices, while repressing the possibility of their use. After the spiel on oxygen masks, Faye says, ‘no one protested or spoke to disagree with this commandment that one should take care of others only after taking care of oneself. Yet I wasn’t sure it was entirely true’. This passage foregrounds the novel’s preoccupations: the field of strangers, Faye’s silence, the nostalgia for belief systems that promise safety, survival, selflessness.
Outline’s setting among the ruins of Athens – the ancient stones, colonnades and monuments of the Agora – reminds us that these personal dramas, envies and torments are eternal. While the mode of storytelling may have changed over time, the elements are familiar. Cusk evenly doles out her lightness and shadow, her passages on loss and beauty. Even Paniotis’s disastrous family journey gets its transcendent moment. After the rain, the mud, the mosquitoes and flood, after the call to the ex-wife (which is, inevitably, answered by her new man), Paniotis and his children are struck suddenly by sunlight. As they walk through the Lousios Gorge, they come upon a pool beneath a waterfall. All three leap in, naked. ‘How cold the water was,’ Paniotis tells Faye, ‘and how incredibly deep and refreshing and clear – we drifted around and around, with the sun on our faces and our bodies hanging like three white roots beneath the water.’
It is this experience of being uprooted that interests Cusk, and the possibility of renewal. The family’s immersion becomes a secular ritual, a purification after crisis. How do we galvanise our inner resources, however scant, or underused? What are our secular resources for emotional survival? The existence of the novel itself is one kind of answer, for Cusk has said that Aftermath’s critical reception reduced her to a two-year silence (slower writers would not consider this a particularly catastrophic pause). Since Aftermath, Cusk told the Guardian, memoir as a form of autobiography ‘had come to an end … I could not do it without being misunderstood and making people angry’.
How better to recover from that double-exposure, from attacks on your subjective narrating, than with a novel about the inevitable distortions that occur in every life story? Having exposed, and in turn been exposed herself, Cusk has turned to a form that keeps her partly hidden; in creating Faye, she has invented what Shields calls ‘a surrogate self’. With a narrator who closely resembles the author, with its long paragraphs and seamless shifts from direct to reported speech, from reflection to exposition, Outline recalls Bernhard’s ‘imaginary autobiographies’. In his novels The Loser (1983) and Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982) famous figures are invoked, as Mark Anderson writes, as ‘a foil for Bernhard himself’. Bernhard’s writing is characterised by the use of what James Wood calls ‘repetitive attribution’, where we are constantly reminded that the narrator is relaying a story told to him by another character, a style superbly adopted by W. G. Sebald and echoed in Cusk’s narrative technique. This rhythmic, circumlocutory approach creates a manic energy in Bernhard’s work, a haunting tone in Sebald’s, and in Cusk’s a mood of meditative languor.
Cusk may be indebted to Bernhard, and to Sebald – Outline’s design brings to mind Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992), in which the narrator encounters four people displaced by world events – but her tone is entirely different. It is less wry and intractably tragic than Bernhard’s, and though it shares Sebald’s dreamy timelessness and his elegantly formal register, Outline is never entirely melancholy. Outline’s focus on reality, its lack of interest in the machinations of plot, scene setting and character manipulation – what Wood calls ‘realistic wadding’ – feels decidedly contemporary. Though its technique has numerous literary predecessors – Proust, Phillip Roth, Elizabeth Hardwick, Renata Adler, J. M. Coetzee – it has acquired a new status partly due to the rise of Knausgaard and Lerner and the publication of Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010). Another fictional autobiography with a writer / teacher narrator – Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (2014) – has just been shortlisted, with Outline and Lerner’s 10:04, for the 2015 Folio Prize.
In an interview with the Guardian, Cusk attributed Outline’s form and content to the psychological rupture that followed her divorce. After separation, without the collusive security of married life,
You are chucked out of the house, on the street, not defended any more … you have no history, no network. What you have is people, strangers in the street, and the only way you can know them is by what they say. I became attuned to these encounters because I had no frame or context any more. I could hear a purity of narrative in the way people described their lives. The intense experience of hearing this became the framework of the novel.
Divorce rendered her former self irretrievable and as her faith in conventional marriage shattered, so did her belief in the traditions of the novel. ‘Once you have suffered sufficiently,’ she told the Guardian, ‘the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous’. She abandoned what she calls ‘fake and embarrassing’ invented scenes and characters to narrate the self through the stories of others. She shares Knausgaard’s ‘nausea’ at ‘the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot’. Yet if we are to believe Outline contains no fabrication, we must wonder how much a novel so full of other people’s stories borrows from other’s lives. Whom does Cusk expose in the process of shielding herself? She presumably knows the risks – her travel book, The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (2009), was pulped after someone she wrote about launched a breach of privacy suit.
In Reality Hunger, Shields called for works ‘where the gesture is towards existential investigation on every page’. Deploying the memoirist’s frank intimacy, without the constraints of fidelity to fact, the essayistic novel opens up fresh possibilities for structure, voice and material. The first person narration and ‘wadding’-free milieu; the twin conceits – of secret sharing and lack of artifice – can gild any subject with reality’s reverent sheen.
Yet, as many critics have noted, such works are no freer of artifice than the conventional novels that Knausgaard, Cusk and others have derided as false and ridiculous. The differences are of degree; it is a question of where the writers’ energies are focused and distilled. As with any form, autofiction has its limitations. One lies with the limited quantity and scope of ‘real’ material each novelist will have to draw upon. Another, as Adelle Waldman noted in the New Yorker, is that literature built solely from writers’ lives, from writers self-reflecting, ‘would exclude the kind of people who are not, by temperament or circumstance, likely to sit down and write books’.
One way to avoid this is to give sufficient weight to the stories of others, which can provide contrasts, textures and counterpoints to a narrator’s solipsism. This is what makes Sebald’s work so masterful. In Austerlitz (2001), for example, the narrator is a fleeting presence over which Austerlitz’s story is superimposed. The narrator’s story is sublimated to the epic history of Austerlitz, an approach that both reproduces and highlights the way Holocaust histories can overshadow the stories of the next generation. In Outline, the sharing of stories evokes the confessional mode of contemporary life, where ‘sharing’ and ‘liking’ have become part of a crowd-curated identity. As Christy Wampole pointed out in the New York Times, the essay form is where ‘banal, everyday phenomena’ meld with ‘the Big Questions’:
[The essay] blends inquiry and confession into a hybrid weave that deepens each. It draws personal material into public mattering.
In Outline, neither the existential nor the everyday are given greater status. Outside of marriage and relationships, the act of sharing stories becomes a form of community building; it can be generous – though Faye’s reticence and her elusive presence in the text remind us of its shadow side, of how easily it can become intrusive.
A fully invented John and Jane might not feature in Outline, but people still ‘do things’. Plot devices contribute to the novel’s profluence; it is just that they are not heavily signposted or given undue emphasis. Who is Faye? That is the novel’s first mystery – and her name is withheld until 211 pages in. What will happen when her ‘neighbour’ – whose designs on Faye are clear, but apparently not to her – invites her onto his boat? How does her perspective shift and change as she absorbs the experiences of those she meets? In this story about stories, however coolly self-reflexive, novelistic conventions are unavoidable. During that fateful boat trip, Faye, lulled by the sea and the summer heat falls into momentary reverie. As she swims, she watches a family on a nearby craft soothing a child:
[They] held their positions, waiting, I could see, for the baby to stop crying, for the moment to release them and for the world to move forward again … The baby stopped crying and the family immediately began to stir, changing their positions in the confined space as though they were little clockwork figures rotating on a jewelry box; the father bending and putting the child in its pram, the mother rising and turning, the two boys and the girl straightening their legs and joining their hands so that they made a pinwheel shape, their bodies glittering and flashing in the sun.
To Faye, the nuclear family is a series of repetitive, mechanised gestures. It is decorative and quaint. The gestures are as outdated as the conventions of the traditional novel: conflict, action, resolution. Yet this scene produces in Faye the opposite effect: she has ‘the sense of everything in life having become atomised, all its elements separated as though an explosion had sent them flying away from the centre in different directions’. She wonders where her own children are and remembers being a child watching the landscape from the back of the family car, a landscape ‘so full and ripe at that time of year that it seemed impossible it could ever be broken down and turned to winter’. We are made starkly aware of Faye’s solitude, her intermittent loneliness, and what she has left behind.
Pristine points of stillness punctuate the novel’s cascading stories, reminding us that being in the moment is one possible cure for despair, for the mind’s relentless projecting into the future. This is reinforced when Paniotis, neatly capturing one aspect of postmodern life, tells Faye that the ‘story of improvement’ is a lie:
it has even infected the novel, though perhaps now the novel is infecting us back again, so that we expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books; but this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of.
This is not a particularly new or remarkable observation. But attributed to the melancholy figure of the failed publisher, this meditation on progress and self-improvement becomes poignant. Paniotis, we learn, aimed to publish English translations of writers he deeply admired, writers that ‘commercial publishers wouldn’t touch’, and yet his hope to secure a new audience for these marginal figures was dashed when the Greek recession left him unable to pay the authors.
In the novel’s closing pages, we meet Anne, who has arrived unexpectedly early to stay in the apartment Faye has been renting. Anne, ‘an attenuated, whey-faced, corkscrew-haired person’ eating honey straight from a jar, soon tells Faye about her life. She too is divorced. She has issues with food, which are bound up with post-traumatic stress. After she was almost strangled by an attacker, her first instinct – like the distraught Paniotis – had been to phone her ex, but after his curt and distant response to her distress she realised how different they had become, that her former husband ‘did not share her view’. She turned to more sympathetic strangers –policemen and counselors – to deal with the incident. But, she tells Faye, she is trying not to talk about it anymore.
How she should spend a day in Athens? Faye suggests the Agora with its ‘headless statues of goddesses in the colonnade’, which seems a pretty overt symbol for what Anne has just described, but as Faye continues, the story turns briefly but tellingly toward herself. ‘It was cool there and peaceful and the massive marble bodies in the soft looking draperies, so anonymous and mute, were strangely consoling.’ The Agora becomes a symbol of more than the silence and violence endured by women throughout time. As a place ‘invaded, destroyed and rebuilt many times’ before its final rescue and preservation, it represents the dignity of what is broken, and remade and is perhaps more arresting for all its imperfections. It stands, in the end, for Faye herself.
Rachel Cusk, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (Faber, 2012).
⎯ I Was Only Being Honest, Guardian, (21 March 2008).
Michael Hoffman, ‘Reger Said,’ London Review of Books (4 November 2010).
Kate Kellaway, ‘Rachel Cusk: “Aftermath was creative death. I was heading into total silence.”’ Guardian (24 August 2014).
Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Man in Love: My Struggle, Book 2, translated by Don Bartlett (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).
Ben Lerner, 10:04 (Faber, 2014).
Hilary Mantel, ‘The Bradshaw Variations,’ Guardian (29 August, 2009).
Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation (Granta, 2014).
Miranda Purves, ‘Rachel Cusk on her new novel, The Bradshaw Variations,’ Elle (14 April 2010).
Katie Roiphe, ‘Her Struggle,’ Slate (7 July 2014).
David Shields, ‘Autobiography as Criticism, Criticism as Autobiography,’ The Iowa Review, 39: 1 (2009).
⎯ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Vintage, 2011).
Adelle Waldman, ‘An Answer to the Novel’s Detractors,’ New Yorker (2 December 2014).
Christy Wampole, ‘The Essayification of Everything,’ New York Times (26 May 2013).