In the evening I was meeting an old friend of mine, Sarah, at a restaurant in the centre of town. She called to give me directions as the restaurant was hard to find – there was no sign, and it was tucked down an unprepossessing set of stairs inside a building that appeared to be, from its shabby exterior, occupied exclusively by cheap tailors and tax accountants. She also wanted to remind me that someone else – Angela, a friend of hers from London – would be joining us. She’d felt obliged to ask her along as she was staying with her, but admitted she’d always hoped for an opportunity to bring us together. ‘You’ll like her,’ she said. ‘Perhaps even more than you like me.’

In the restaurant I waited, seated at one of the black velvet booths that formed a ring around numerous tiny tables occupied by fashionable diners like an atoll encircling a lagoon full of exotic fish. This was, Sarah acknowledged when she arrived, a trendy place; but Angela would certainly be pleased, and at least it was possible to talk here. She had gone out of her way to spoil her the last time she visited London on holiday – dinner at the Clove Club, a play at the Almeida, drinks at Soho House. She wanted to return the favour.

They had gone to see Rachel Cusk’s adaptation of Medea. Angela bought two tickets in advance to all the best shows; she always found it easy to find a plus one amongst her friends and acquaintances. Sarah had been delighted to be asked along: modern interpretations of ancient Greek tragedies were very much the rage on the London stage at that time.

She said she hadn’t been surprised to hear that Cusk was given the job of writing a new version of Medea. She had read Aftermath when it came out and remembered the controversy about A Life’s Work in the British newspapers when she was living over there in the early 2000s: acrimony in divorce and ambivalence in motherhood were her specialty.

But she did not like this contemporary Medea at all. This verdict did not have anything to do with the north London setting or the references to answering machines, Hollywood and Johnnie Walker: after all, her favourite production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream transposed its forest into a nightclub, and she had loved that recent version of The Wild Duck in Australian vernacular. It had to do with a failure of imagination. Then Sarah rolled her eyes behind her thick black glasses at the preposterous seriousness of the charge.

‘The thing is, Medea does not kill her children,’ Sarah said. ‘They die, but Medea doesn’t do it.’

Sarah said that the new ending had been a point of contention between Cusk and the play’s director, Rupert Goold: Cusk did not believe in the child-killing as a literal event and Goold could not conceive of a Medea in which the children are not killed. Cusk had justified the decision by saying that the problem of women murdering their children is not a problem we actually have; that there are only a handful of women on the planet today who have done it and they did not do it for reasons Medea does.

However, the evidence that infanticide was no less rare and shocking an event in ancient Athens is right there in Euripides’ play – she had checked: ‘You murder them! In all Hellas there is not one woman who could have done it,’ screams Jason.

I said I had read somewhere that Medea’s infanticide was an invention of Euripides’ own; in the myth, the children were killed by a crowd of angry Corinthians. Euripides made the change as the result of a bribe; the Corinthians wanted liberation from this story so they paid the writer to pin the murders on someone else.

Sarah said she couldn’t help thinking that self-interest was behind Cusk’s ending too. She remembered Faye proposing in Kudos that ‘the narrative impulse might spring from the desire to avoid guilt, rather than from the need – as was generally assumed – to connect things together in a meaningful way; that it was a strategy calculated, in other words, to disburden ourselves of responsibility’. In her Medea, the children go to live with Jason and his new wife and it is in their house that they swallow a bottle of painkillers between them, and not before they kick the dog to death. The implication is that Jason’s negligence, not Medea’s lust for revenge, is to blame. When Jason tells Medea it is all her fault we sympathise with her triply: her husband has betrayed her, her children are dead, and she is wrongly accused of their murder.

In Euripides’ version, Sarah went on, we understand Medea’s pain even while her rage is, frankly, terrifying. Then she goes too far: we find we must pull back from her.

But Cusk identifies much too strongly with her Medea to have her do anything truly wicked: we are urged to identify with her fully. Without the infanticide we get a partisan Medea. There is only one side of the story – hers. She is no longer a tragic hero; she is the victim.

It was the worst kind of hubris: to turn Medea into a writer, who is herself, and then get the chorus to voice the kind of criticisms that were hurled at her when A Life’s Work came out. She’d never really understood why people were so upset about that book; having a baby wasn’t on her radar but the hardships of having one and then having to raise it were, to her at least, self-evident. But seeing Cusk’s Medea did lead her to think that the response might have more to do with Cusk’s claims to her own exceptionality than any taboos that exist about motherhood.

Unseen by Sarah, a slender woman with a platinum bob and a shiny moonbeam of a necklace was approaching our booth. I took this to be Angela. She slid in next to Sarah and tugged playfully at the right arm of her jacket.

‘You and your dark clothes. They make it so difficult to find you in places like this. You as well,’ she said turning her face towards me. I noticed then that her almond-shaped eyes were lit by a streak of bright orange shadow on the brow bone instead of the lid, which made her look like she had come off a spaceship or from the future.

Sarah told Angela we had just been discussing Medea. Angela laughed and said that the night in question had had a memorable beginning. There was a couple sitting in front of them – two men – who were kissing with such abandon that they looked for all the world like they would not stop when the actors came onstage.

‘You were so torn,’ she said, nudging Sarah. ‘On the one hand, you wanted an unimpeded view of the play. On the other hand, you were revelling in the uninhibited expression of same sex desire in a country where gay marriage was legal.’

‘Not torn anymore. Give me obtrusive public displays of homosexual affection over self-indulgent renditions of heterosexual uncoupling any day,’ Sarah said.

The waiter came to take our order and Sarah asked for a Manhattan and Angela a French 75.

‘I understand – breaking up is brutal,’ Sarah continued. ‘Must be even worse with kids. But when a member of the chorus exclaimed something like “snooty cow – get a grip, you’re not the only one – with problems”, I admit I felt like cheering.’

Angela pointed out that the very fact a chorus member says this suggests that Medea’s reaction is incommensurate to the situation in which she finds herself and that the playwright knows it.

But tragedy implies a fall, said Sarah, and Cusk strains to insist her Medea’s fallen further and harder than anybody else. ‘I recall Aegeus saying to her, “You were the last people – really the last people – I expected this to happen to. I remember, years ago, watching you play each other at chess and thinking, Christ, can this really be possible, that these two people get to have sex with each other too?”’

This self-aggrandisement by proxy, Sarah said, was a feature of the Outline trilogy too. People are forever propping up Faye’s – and by extension Cusk’s – sense of loss by telling her that she once had the ideal marriage and family. Ex-boyfriend Gerard says, ‘I thought you were living the perfect life’. Cousin Lawrence says, ‘You were the last people I ever thought this would happen to’. And long-time friend Paniotis even provides her with photographic evidence of its reality.

‘She has a schoolgirl’s sensitivity to social hierarchies,’ said Sarah, ‘Whether the measure is success or failure,’ said Sarah, ‘it’s always a competition, and Cusk has to win.’

Angela conceded that her students’ response to Cusk chimed with Sarah’s. ‘I teach her travel memoir, The Last Supper, on my study tour of Tuscany. E. M. Forster to Eat Pray Love. I know, lucky me.’

She set the book on the course because it gave her an excuse to take the students on the Piero Della Francesca trail; he was an artist she adored, and no amount of seeing the Madonna del Parto was enough. Some of the students really liked Piero but none of them liked Cusk’s book.

She had come to understand their response as an accusation of superciliousness. They pointed to the way Cusk sets herself apart from other tourists in Italy: she doesn’t eat gelato, fails to buy any leather goods, and has little interest in scenery. The students also resented Cusk’s inflated lexis: her use of words like ‘integument’, ‘dromedary’ and ‘whereupon’.

‘Old habits die hard,’ said Sarah. ‘There’s “post-prandial” and “beau geste” in Transit.’ She went on to say that throughout the trilogy Faye can’t stop herself playing the language police, correcting non-native speakers’ malapropisms: she tells her neighbour on the plane he means “solicitude” not “solitude” and Tony the builder it’s “homesick” not “homestruck”’.

‘I think that your students are saying that Cusk’s book makes them feel stupid,’ said Sarah. ‘As Faye’s publisher in Kudos says, “More than anything people dislike being made to feel stupid, and if you arouse those feelings you do so at your own cost”’.

Sarah was growing more animated while she spoke, and I had the impression that she was getting drunk, if not on the mix of whiskey and vermouth, then on the feeling of letting loose on someone who was not there to defend herself and having two good friends to bear witness.

Cusk has such a cruel eye, Sarah said. She has Faye notice people’s paunches, moles, dry skin, bad teeth, big noses and excessive body hair. She also sniffs out cheap things like the air hostess’ nylon stockings. And then there’s all that tut-tutting of people’s choice of foods like savoury pastries and hot chocolates with whipped cream and marshmallows. She never misses the opportunity to tell us whether someone’s obese or thin and the description inevitably carries some moral judgement.

‘She’s fatphobic, no question,’ said Sarah as she stuffed a large piece of burrata in her mouth, as if to prove that this wasn’t something you could ever accuse her of being.

‘I actually think the Outline trilogy is marked by huge restraint,’ said Angela. ‘Like that tall man on the plane in Kudos, Cusk has discovered the power and pleasure of reliving events with their sting removed.’

She went on to explain that Cusk had fumigated any residual inclination to be judgy by removing much of the thinking and feeling that comes with real life talk. Conversations have anteriority and posteriority: we anticipate them beforehand and we reflect upon them afterwards. But we don’t hear from Faye in either of these modes.

‘If Cusk really thinks she’s better than the rest of us as you are claiming,’ said Angela, ‘then she has learned to hide it.’

‘I actually stopped reading the trilogy after Transit,’ said Sarah. ‘The class stuff was really getting to me. I think the last straw was Gavin, that builder boyfriend of Amanda’s, who we’re told can’t commit to her because “the dense strata of his nature” won’t let him stop eating takeaway and watching telly. For God’s sake!’

She should have stopped as soon as the couple in the council flat downstairs appeared, she said. The wife, Paula is described as physically monstrous. She has a bloated face and a large, slack body that exudes ‘an unmistakable core of violence’. When Faye knocks on her door to let her know they’ll be some noise with the renovations upstairs she turns into the possessed girl in The Exorcist: “She was growing aroused: I watched her big body writhe slightly, her head twisting from side to side, as though something inside her was rising and unfolding, wanting to be born.” And she is cruel to animals. On one of Faye’s visits downstairs Paula takes a vicious swipe at her shivelled, hobbling dog, sending him flying to the other side of the sitting room. Her flat is constantly emitting rancid smells that overpower Faye even when she’s in her own apartment.

‘You’ve both seen Parasite, right? The way Mr Park holds his nose when he’s in the presence of his driver: he literally gets stabbed to death for that. If Paula is hostile, then it’s because she knows a snob when she sees one.’

‘Would Karl Marx like another cocktail?’ Angela asked Sarah with studied solemnity as she signalled for the waiter.

‘Look, all you’re really saying is the novel is a bourgeois form,’ Angela said once the laughter died down. ‘That’s been understood for a long while now.’ The novel, she said, depends for its existence upon the middle classes and it’s clear Cusk knows it: Faye’s friend Paniotis says at one point that writers ‘must hide in bourgeois life like a tick hiding in an animal’s fur, and the deeper they’re buried the better’.

‘On the one hand, the Outline trilogy mirrors a middle-class view of reality in which money and families and houses and status matter,’ said Angela. ‘On the other hand, these novels express far too much uncertainty about our ability to determine our destinies to be read as any straightforward rendition of bourgeois ideology. Besides, you don’t have to be in the middle of a divorce or a home renovation to relate to these novels. Reading pleasure is never as black letter as that.’

There was a Bakhtin quote that she often used in her classes. She did her best to recall it for us: ‘We are constantly and intently on the watch for reflections of our own life on the plane of other people’s consciousness. And while seeking to catch these reflections, we also take into account that perfectly distinctive value-coefficient which is completely different from the coefficient with which we experience our own life in ourselves.’ Reading fiction can be just like that, she said.

Angela asked whether we remembered when that student Jane tells Faye about what she calls her ‘complete personal revolution’ looking at the paintings of the American artist Marsden Hartley. Jane explains that while his life and art ‘did not mirror the literal facts of her own life, Hartley was doing something much bigger and more significant: he was dramatising them’. He had painted a boat in a storm but she heard him speak of loneliness that she, herself, endured.

This is what novels do, Angela went on, they dramatise rather than mirror. A good story is one whose particulars become a scaffold for their own supersession. There is nothing to stop, say, a teenager from relating to the story of a middle-aged person, or someone who has never been in love with a divorcee: the details are less important than the shape or outline: there is space for us to fill them in. If we allow ourselves to enter into a fiction our reaction can be like that of Julian’s lover Oliver who hears Faye read at the writers’ festival and tells her, weeping openly: ‘I don’t know how long ago you wrote the story you read tonight or whether you still feel those same things now, but it was me you were describing, that woman was me, her pain was my pain, and I just had to come and tell you in person how much it meant to me.’

When Cusk talks of marriages going wrong I, personally, hear stories of paradise lost, Angela said. And I suspect I’m not alone: there isn’t a person over forty years of age alive today who has escaped the feeling that some kind of Eden, whether known in the past or only ever imagined, has been barred to them.

Angela said she had read Cusk’s newest book on the plane over. It slowly dawned on her that the essays in that collection contemplate a variety of ostracisms: from being given the silent treatment by one’s own parents to the exclusion of women writers from the literary canon. Aftermath, Medea, the Outline trilogy – they’re all about being cast out into the wilderness. In an essay called ‘Coventry’ Cusk characterises such exile as ‘ejection from the story’. The only thing to do once you’re ‘living amidst the waste and shattered buildings, the desecrated past’ is to search ‘for whatever truth might be found amid the smoking ruins’.

It’s bad enough for adults when they’re cast out of Eden. But adults have usually had some sort of hand in determining their fate; children have theirs thrust upon them. There are so many vulnerable children in Cusk’s writing: the neighbour from the plane’s disabled son Takis to Faye’s own sons whose absent father makes everything impossible, from finding a tennis racquet to calling for help when a fire is accidentally started. I can’t get the ending of Transit out of my head, said Angela. All those miserable children crying over their baby chickens and deeply resentful of their parents’ choices. Perhaps that is why Cusk’s Medea ends the way it does: it is children, ultimately, who are destroyed by their parents’ search for an Eden.

The student’s name was Tom. He dropped himself into the green armchair, apparently not noticing that its armrests – and everything else in the room – were covered with perilous towers of books and papers.

He was a tall young man with bloodshot eyes and shoulder-length hair that had the colour and consistency of straw. The impression might have been that of a surfer but his skin, pale and pimply in equal measure, substantiated no contact with sun or saltwater. His clothes were several sizes too big for him, and the comical mismatch of shiny red football jersey and grey pin-striped suit trousers made him look like something a small child might fashion in a dress-up flipbook.

He was grateful I had agreed to meet with him as he was getting pretty desperate. Cold emailing potential supervisors seldom led to talking face-to-face, and even when it did the professor usually turned out to be on a different wavelength entirely. For this reason, he had asked another member of the English Department along to our meeting today; he hoped I didn’t mind. The whole process of applying for a PhD program was rather gruelling. He supposed it presaged the byzantine ordeals that lay ahead, should he be accepted.

‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘I know what I want to write about. I want to write about conversation in contemporary literature.’

While browsing the new releases in his local bookstore he had noticed how many recent books, largely nonfiction, were premised on the act of people, but especially women, talking. He had been keeping a list tracking authors and titles on his phone that he could show me later, but on that day in the bookstore he remembered seeing Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, Mira Jacob’s Good Talk and Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War.

It got him wondering whether there was a similar emphasis on conversation in contemporary fiction. One of the reasons he was curious was because he remembered a favourite lecturer saying that it was consciousness, and not talk, that the novel did best. Technologies such as the camera and the tape recorder had put the novel to shame as far as the ability to render external reality, which included conversation, was concerned. But the novel still reigned supreme when it came to capturing the subterranean workings of the mind.

Yet new novels bent on tracking the twists and turns of the inner life felt old-fashioned to him. Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, Anna Burns’ Milkman, Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport: though they were as difficult to read as Joyce, Woolf or Faulkner, seemed to him exhausted facsimiles of modernist novels, only with their gender politics updated for the times.

It was interesting, he said, that it had been the epistolary novel that had paved the way for the stream of consciousness technique; letters – the eighteenth century’s main means of intimate exchange – provided the pretext for individual self-expression in fiction. He had read Walter J. Ong: he understood that the slowness of writing by hand combined with the envelope’s special powers of concealment had made a certain kind of deep thinking and feeling self possible. He wondered whether the conversation novels he was hoping to discuss in his thesis were somehow symptoms too, this time of the widespread use of electronic communications today. Ong had argued that the telephone and the tape recorder ushered in ‘an age of “secondary orality”: surely social media only exacerbated the sense that the self was now who you said you were to others and not who you found yourself to be when you were quiet and alone.

I asked him which novels of conversation interested him and he said that he had started with Miriam Toew’s Women Talking but more recently he’d been reading the novels of Sally Rooney and Rachel Cusk.

He had been struck by how much actual talk there was in their books, certainly more than was absolutely necessary to make for vivid characters and lend a sense of immediacy to the action.

In Rooney’s case, he said, it appeared she was intent upon upending the conventional wisdom that real-life talk was good and online chat was bad, that there was something incontrovertibly authentic and therefore optimal about speaking face-to-face. Most of the truly meaningful exchanges in her novels – declarations of love, apologies for wrongdoing, confessions about the self – happen on phone and laptop screens. Connell and Marianne’s relationship would have ended midway through Normal People if it hadn’t been for email. And Frances and Nick’s relationship would have never even started were it not for instant messaging.

‘They say that 85 per cent of conversation is non-verbal, don’t they?’ he asked without expecting any response. ‘Rooney’s characters may be witty but are really rubbish at reading body language.’

He unfolded his arms and met my eyes as if the mention of extra-linguistic signs had made him self-conscious for the first time since we’d met.

He knew that everybody said this was the problem with online communication: ‘That’s why emojis were invented.’ But it seemed to him that Rooney considered the loss no loss at all and more a tapering or purifying of language. It was as if the internet opened the doors to some ethereal plain where twentysomethings, usually encumbered by social anxieties, could commune paradisaically without them. Here on earth it could be crippling, knowing how to arrange one’s face, when to make a move or whether to laugh or not. Electronic devices gave Rooney’s characters literal pause: Frances in Conversations with Friends is forever taking an emotional time out to make cups of instant coffee or watch YouTube clips after receiving messages from Nick or Bobbi and before replying to them. Freedom from the non-verbal aspects of communication converts to composure, which was the pathway to being more fully oneself in one’s responses.

I said that this didn’t seem to be the case in the Outline trilogy, in which calls and texts from Faye’s sons serve as a reminder of the maternal responsibilities that curtail her freedom, or at the very least remind her that there is a cost to seeking it.

While I spoke the student took the opportunity to check his phone, perhaps for a message from the other professor or just the time, and then rearranged himself in the armchair, but before that moving one of the piles of books and papers onto the pointillist pinks of the carpet at his feet.

What had caught his attention, he said, was how these communications between Faye and her sons were rather terse, verging on the business-like while the face-to-face conversations with strangers, which dominate the books, were so sprawling and intimate.

There was indeed a thing called the ‘stranger on a train phenomenon’: he’d heard about it from his girlfriend, or rather his lover – he said they preferred to use this gender-neutral and less proprietary label when they talked about their relationship. It had been discussed on one of her favourite podcasts: how in everyday life we tend to reveal ourselves to others slowly and strategically yet in public spaces, and especially in transit, we are given to spontaneous and excessive self-disclosure to total strangers. People seated next to each other on flights, for example, voluntarily share their personal history, attitudes and secrets in a manner that would be inappropriate or alarming in most normal situations.       

He himself had done it – spoken intimately to strangers in this way. He wondered if I had too. It has something to do with the fact that people love to unload but hate being judged, he explained. With a stranger you get to confess to someone you never have to see again. Perhaps it was also because, up in the clouds or in second class, social hierarchies didn’t count for much.

‘But here’s the thing,’ he leaned forward out of the armchair as if he were about to share a confidence of his own, narrowing his shoulders so as not to disturb the remaining piles, ‘the “stranger on a train phenomenon” is predicated on reciprocity of exchange, but there’s nothing reciprocal about the conversations Faye has with strangers in these books.’

He went on to say that while Faye is the audience for an assortment of medium-to-high risk revelations from other people – from a woman who wished the worst for her sister to a man who has killed and buried the family dog – she seldom tenders any personal information of an equal intimacy level in return. These are very one-way conversations; what appears to be civility is actually withholding.

When he had talked about all of this with his girlfriend, he meant his lover, she’d told him that he was missing the point entirely, and that point was that women were forever on the receiving end of other people’s interminable monologues whether they liked it or not. She said men talk at women this way all the time – go on endlessly about themselves or express unsolicited opinions, like that young interviewer in Kudos who tells Faye she should move to a sunnier country – and women are expected to ‘suck it up’. When the roles are reversed a woman runs the risk of being told she talks too much – just like that young Englishwoman telling an intense and strange story to the tanned, tattooed American man at the start of Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living.

He asked me if I had read that book and I replied that I hadn’t, but did I remember reading a piece by Mary Beard in the London Review of Books a few years back in which she argues that it has been an integral part of growing up as a man to know how to get a woman to shut up. The first recorded example is in The Odyssey when Telemachus tells his mother to go back into her quarters and take up her weaving because speech is the business of men only.

He said his girlfriend had observed numerous times that we’ve become so inured to men’s speech and women’s silence in public that a female Prime Minister or an all-woman panel on Q&A incites backlash of hysterical proportions. She says that women pay a high penalty, and are not used to, speaking out, speaking in public – which is why #MeToo is such a big deal. She believed that the Outline trilogy as a whole throws down a challenge to readers, which is this: would we even notice if a first person narrator who is a woman is almost wholly silent, and silenced, over the length of a novel – three novels even – and if we did happen to notice would we like her all the better for it?

He said the issue of public speech and women’s silence reminded him of that scene in Transit when Faye is at a writers’ festival and her two fellow panellists, men of course, take up the entirety of the session’s timeslot with their talk. When his girlfriend got around to reading the Outline trilogy she was even more outraged by the behaviour of the panel’s chair: first, she said, he failed to do his job as moderator, and then he had the audacity to try to kiss her. To which he replied that Faye mustn’t have minded that much because she messages the chair in the hope of hooking up with him later, which he declines.

Had he mentioned his girlfriend was a Linguistics major? It is an established fact in that field of study, she had told him, that men deny equal status to women as conversational partners. In addition, conversation for men is adversarial: the whole idea behind it is to assert status, even dominance, and not give anybody else the chance to bring you down. In his girlfriend’s opinion, the problem is not that Faye is unwilling to self-disclose but that she struggles to find a listening ear.

‘Take that Irish writer, Ryan,’ he said to me. ‘No cooperation. All competition. Or as my girlfriend would put it, all shift-response and no support-response – in other words, a conversational narcissist.’

He then defined these terms to me in case I wasn’t familiar with them. The only time Ryan employs a shift-response is when Faye threatens to get up and leave; he throws out a question as a last-ditch effort to stop her denying him an audience.

‘It’s like the neighbour on the plane in Outline too. When he finally asks her a question Faye thinks to herself that he is only asking because he had learned to remind himself to do so and she wonders who had taught him that lesson.’

He said that Faye’s future husband, by contrast, was easily identifiable because he makes the space for her to talk by using support-responses and keeping quiet.

But the fact is, said Tom, that even though Faye seldom takes the lead in conversations she also seldom cedes control. It seemed strange to him initially that she could seem so passive in the novels and yet her interlocutors sounded so samey. He couldn’t shake the feeling that if the Outline trilogy were truly a record of a series of conversations with other people it would, in subject and tenor, be less homogeneous.

Then it hit him: the Outline trilogy, largely, employs indirect speech; there are rare instances of the narratives passing from third person to first person but on the whole Faye is reporting other people’s stories to us in her words.  Faye might be passive in the narrative but she is active outside of it, and the fact that she more or less resembles the author means Cusk gets the final word.

He had been doing a bit of research already looking into types of narration. He thought what Wayne Booth had said about undramatised narrators was helpful to understand what was going on in the Outline trilogy. At this point Tom opened his notebook and read from it the following passage which he had transcribed from The Rhetoric of Fiction, ‘In fiction, as soon as we encounter an “I”, we are conscious of an experiencing mind whose views of the experience will come between us and “the event”. When there is no such “I”, as in “The Killers”, the inexperienced reader may make the mistake of thinking that the story comes to him unmediated. But no such mistake can be made from the moment that the author explicitly places a narrator into the tale, even if he is given no personal characteristics whatever.’  

I suggested that the student might be interested in exploring the differences between indirect speech and free indirect style. It might be the case that there’s rather more of it occurring in the Outline trilogy than is immediately apparent. The occasional slippage from third to first person that he had noticed would seem to indicate this was the case. It would be significant, I said, if in reporting of the conversations she has with the people Faye took on their words as her own. Perhaps it means that she is not as inured to change and the influence of others as he supposed.

The student might also like to look at Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk or Nathalie Sarraute’s The Golden Fruits or even Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels to think some more about the differences between what Cusk was doing and what others had attempted when it comes to dialogue novels. Rosencrantz, for instance, had called her book a taped novel because it was, in fact, the edited version of the conversations between three friends during a summer vacation in East Hampton. She said it took her two years to cut it back from 1500 to 250 pages. He would see that the texture of the conversations is completely different to what he has found in Outline: the sentences are choppier, there’s more turn-taking, and the reader sometimes finds it hard to follow because there is little self-conscious storytelling. It is, in a word, much more mimetic: the speakers are immersed in the confusions of their current life situations, not standing at the ship’s stern looking back on the life they have, thus far, lived like they often are in Cusk’s novels.

At that point there was a knock at the door, which was pulled to but not entirely closed, and then a head almost entirely encased in coarse hair from chin to crown appeared.

‘Have I missed anything?’ asked the professor with a smirk indicating that he knew quite well that that could only be the case.

The student did his best to fill him in as quickly as he could. The professor said he had not read Sally Rooney’s novels or the Outline trilogy but it sounded like the student should do some further reading: had he read the dialogue novels of William Gaddis, Philip Roth or Norman Mailer, for instance?

He wondered whether the student had ever recorded a conversation in real life and listened to it afterwards? The main takeaway from such an exercise in his experience was that there is no such thing as realistic dialogue in literature – even in the novels of Gaddis, Roth and Mailer. The fact is there’s an unbridgeable chasm between the utterance as a speech form and the sentence as a grammatical unit. When we read a work of literature we must constantly suspend our disbelief about the nature of the conversation contained within it – we must assent to its realness for the sake of the story even when it is, in every possible way, fake.

He said that Flaubert found it excruciating writing conversations full of the trivialities required for his Madame Bovary. And Trollope said that conversation in literature often has the air of pedantry, even fantasy, because ordinary talk is marked by slovenly errors that would appear on the page as either unreadable or unintentional humour. Long floods of speech are also always artificial, and when you put your story in the mouth of a character, which has certain advantages, it is even more so. To pretend that any character can remember whole speeches is absurd, said Ford Madox Ford of Conrad’s ‘centres of consciousness’ such as Marlow in Heart of Darkness. The most that any normal person carries away from a conversation after even a couple of hours is just a salient or characteristic phrase or two. The fact is that dialogue can’t help but be in the service of the main story, and in that sense inevitably rings false. When it does deviate, it tends to bore the reader.

Did the student say the Outline trilogy was rendered mostly in indirect speech? Perhaps that is why – to quiver between the untruth of getting it all down and the truth of not getting it down in the right words.

The plane shuddered through cinereous cloud at an acute angle. We had exercised our freedom by choosing a travel date, a destination and an airline but we were now strapped into our seats, a field of strangers, in a silence befitting our subjection to a nameless pilot and the plane’s flight management software. Intermittent dings relayed secret messages to the cabin crew who were buckled up tighter than we were; the contrast between their four-point harnesses and our lift-lever lap belts revealed exactly who the precious human cargo on this plane was. Whether the plane had climbed to 10,000 feet or was about to crash-land it was impossible to tell from their faces, which maintained their expressions of corporate unflappability. A tiny plane inched its way across multiple screens on the chair-backs with a red line indicating the trajectory travelled and a white one projecting the journey to come. It was feasible that there was no relationship between these coloured lines and the flight we were on but we stared or half-stared at the screen in blind faith or something closer to wishful thinking.

To the right of me was a small woman in a black tent-like garment whose frizzy grey hair was piled on top of her head with the help of a gold butterfly clip. She sat motionless for a few minutes with her hands folded in her lap as if she were at the hair salon waiting for her stylist. A particularly sudden jolt, however, had her grab for the armrest between us.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘I’m a nervous flyer. They say air turbulence is like a bumpy road or a choppy sea but I just can’t seem to believe it.’

She said she flew often, despite appearances to the contrary. But frequency had not yet translated into reassurance; in fact, the more flights she took the closer she imagined she was to disaster.

The seatbelt sign was turned off and the sounds of activity began. A bright blue world had materialised outside the window; the ominous cloud that had shrouded the plane on takeoff was now laid flat far below, as white and plush as a woollen mattress topper.

‘I find it helps to talk,’ she said pragmatically, as though her fear of flying was a problem we were obliged to solve together.

She noticed that I had a book in the seat pocket in front of me. She herself couldn’t read on planes, which was pretty ironic because she was a writer and this was what had her flinging from one country to another aboard tin machines like this one in the first place. Someone had suggested she try audiobooks for distraction, but the idea of letting somebody else determine the inflection of the words and the speed at which the story unfolded seemed to defeat the point, which she took to be that at the root of her fear of flying was a deep dislike for the feeling of losing control.

It was becoming more and more unusual to sit next to someone on a plane with a book, she continued. Passengers these days put on their headphones and plugged themselves into the entertainment system as soon as they came onboard. She wondered how long it would take for the reading light to stop being called that, or indeed cease to exist at all. She had to ask what I was reading.

I told her it was a new book by Rachel Cusk called Coventry.

She nodded and said she had read the Outline trilogy – on land, of course. It was a fabulous conceit: the novel as a series of conversations. All her writer friends wish they’d come up with it, though it was true that the form was as old as the hills. Readers remember The Odyssey as an action-packed adventure, a succession of strange entrapments and daring escapes, but mostly it’s just a bunch of people sitting around telling and listening to stories – stories as partial and embellished as the ones contained in these novels.

In my neighbour’s opinion, the form had enabled Cusk to pull off a daring escape of her own. She has relinquished the novels to its minor characters to make us forget that the protagonist, who closely resembles the author, is even there.

‘It is the secret truth of every relationship,’ my neighbour said conspiratorially. ‘The sub has all the power.’

I said that reminded me of something Susan Sontag wrote about Liv Ullmann’s actress character in the film Persona who has suddenly stopped speaking: ‘Considered as a decision relating to herself, it is apparently the way she has chosen to give form to the wish for ethical purity; but it is also, as behaviour, a means of power, a species of sadism, a virtually inviolable position of strength from which to manipulate and confound her nurse-companion, who is charged with the burden of talking.’

You would think, she said picking up where she left off, that the fact that Faye and Cusk share certain similarities would undermine the disappearing act but, in fact, it does quite the opposite. Autofiction doesn’t elevate lies to the level of truth; instead, it throws the things we think are real into question.

There’s a moment in Transit, she said, in which Pavel, one of the labourers working on Faye’s apartment, tells her about the house he is building back in Poland. It is a beautiful house, in a forest beside a river, with enormous windows that go from floor to ceiling, even in the bathroom. But Pavel’s father, who is himself a builder, thinks the house ridiculous. He says, “Pavel, you idiot, you forgot to build the walls – everyone can see you in there!” and he tells everybody in town that if they go out to the forest they can “watch Pavel shitting”.

‘When Cusk was writing memoir she was shitting behind glass,’ said my neighbour. ‘In the Outline trilogy she has built some walls.’

She said that, as a writer herself, she admired how many different types of conversation had been attempted in the Outline trilogy: between friends and strangers, at work and leisure, in public and private places, onstage and behind the scenes, between native and non-native English speakers, on phones and in person, in transit and over meals. It was almost as if Cusk was a student in her own creative writing workshop, responding to a series of prompts throwing down various technical challenges: write a conversation inside a conversation, write a conversation that you eavesdrop on, write two separate conversations that occur simultaneously. As any writer knows, she said, constraints can be liberating.

But it was a measure of the books’ success that they didn’t read this way at all. She imagined for the majority of readers the novels worked not as a formal exercise but as a meditation upon the very theme of freedom.

She had noticed fairly quickly that the word ‘freedom’ – not to mention its verbal forms or any of the other words like ‘destiny’ or ‘will’ or ‘fate’ or ‘agency’ with which it has strong links – recurred throughout the novels. She hadn’t taken the time to count the instances – no doubt, it could be done quite quickly on an e-reader – but she estimated that the word ‘freedom’ appeared over forty times, or once every couple of pages, in Kudos alone. At the start of that novel, Faye’s publisher declares that ‘the defining motivation of the modern era, whether consciously or not, is the pursuit of freedom from strictures or hardships of any kind’. The books explore this urge for going and what happens to those who leave but also those who remain.

The problem with freedom, my neighbour continued, is that it’s subject to time and other people; who or what once sprang open the cage door might later turn the key in the lock on a prison door.

I said the first essay in Coventry, called ‘Driving as Metaphor’, made much the same point: a car gave one freedom to roam but when there’s traffic or nowhere to park it becomes one’s burden.

Cusk gives that thought to Paola in Kudos, my neighbour noted: she says she walks everywhere because it gives her pleasure to see people trapped in their cars while she is free.

This is middle age in a nutshell, she said picking up her train of thought again, you find yourself trapped by all the things you’ve chosen in demonstrating your liberty: cars, houses, careers, marriages, children. And worse than that, you lose faith in your ability to actualise the future you can imagine for yourself. In Kudos Faye tells her male interviewer that she ‘wasn’t sure it mattered where people lived or how, since their individual nature would create its own circumstances’.

There’s also the possibility that, even in jettisoning everything in pursuit of a new future, you end up where you started. Faye’s ex-boyfriend Gerard sums it up when they bump into each other in the same neighbourhood in which they shared a flat fifteen years prior. ‘It’s strange,’ he says, ‘that you always changed everything and I changed nothing and yet we’ve both ended up in the same place’. Or take that Welsh author at the writers’ conference in Kudos: he goes on long walks to exercise his liberty only to wind up on at gunpoint on military land. It might be the things you don’t choose, even as superfluous or random as a Christmas present, that has the power to transform your life – like Ryan’s smartwatch.

You get to our age, she said looking not into my eyes but at the creases around them, and the whole idea of freedom becomes oppressive. You realise that you are like that cunning little vixen in the Janáček opera Faye notices in Clelia’s formidable music collection: in seeking the wild you become terrified because you have forgotten how to be free. Faye’s neighbour from the plane has discovered this: ‘the life without limitations,’ he tells her, ‘has been exhausting, has been one long history of actual and emotional expense, like thirty years of living in one hotel after another’. Faye feels it too when she’s swimming in the Aegean off his boat: the desire for freedom still tugs at her, but she recognises it is not the summons from a larger world as she used to believe it to be. She thinks to herself, ‘The thread led nowhere, except into ever expanding wastes of anonymity. I could swim out into the sea as far as I liked, if what I wanted was to drown.’ As Dale the hairdresser says in Transit, ‘All I’m saying is that freedom is overrated.’

The crew relieved us of trays that, overspilling with food waste and plastic wrapping, seemed as if they had more on them now than they had to start with. Some passengers sought consolation after the disappointment of the in-flight meal by pulling up their blankets, lowering their chair-backs, and trying to sleep. Outside the window I thought I glimpsed a small plane dart horizontally across the sky below us, transforming the sheet of white cloud into a salt flat.

A commercial pilot had once told me that planes fly on airways that, while they have no physical existence, should be thought of as real as motorways. I had since seen those airways become material on flight tracking apps; innumerable planes flew in orderly processions across the globe every day, leaving whole swathes of sky completely empty. I wondered why this small plane below me had licence to break the rules, and who or what had granted it.

Upon reflection, my neighbour said, the Outline trilogy would have made for apposite listening on a plane, given two of the three books start on them. She supposed planes, apart from serving as a metaphor for the dilemmas bound up with the idea of freedom, were a kind of reality effect.

She had noticed that many of the novels’ settings – classrooms, restaurants, hotels – are places everybody is familiar with no matter who they are or where they live. Scrubbed of any peculiarities that might impede recognition, they help us to believe in the novels’ conversations. For they were improbable conversations; she said she agreed with the male interviewer in Kudos who observed that the feats of self-revelation provoked by means of a simple question beggared belief.

‘I don’t know about you,’ she said, ‘but when I talk to strangers – and even friends, frankly – their thoughts only rarely dovetail with my own so neatly. There is usually some effort required – some straining to, if not to find common ground, then to settle on a common language to articulate and confirm it was the case.’

Given the Outline trilogy was so preoccupied by the line between illusion and reality it made sense, she said, that Cusk would dare her readers to stop believing in the story she was telling, or at least make them conscious that what they were reading was a story, and not life itself. Faye herself sets the for this mode of self-awareness at the start of Outline. She tells her neighbour on the plane that she is dissatisfied by the story of his second marriage: that she doesn’t entirely believe in his portrayal of his ex-wife and that the truth was being sacrificed to the narrator’s desire to win. And yet she continues to engage in such exchanges over the course of three books: was she doing this, my neighbour asked, for the truths that could be salvaged from these narratives or because we humans simply can’t resist any story well-told even when it is a pack of lies.

As a writer herself, she had given some thought to the whole idea of suspension of belief in fiction, even going so far as to research the origins of the term. The phrase is Coleridge’s: he first talked about a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in 1817. The context was his own supernatural poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So long as there was ‘a human interest and a semblance of truth’, then it would be enough, even in fantastical tale, ‘to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment,’ he said.

I said that suspension of disbelief is discussed in the essay I’d been reading in the airport lounge before the flight called ‘Coventry’. I reached for the book in the pocket in front of me and turned to page 28 and tilted it to the right so my neighbour could read this passage for herself, which she did inaudibly, ‘Stories only work – or so we’re always being told – through the suspension of our disbelief. It’s never been altogether clear to me whether our disbelief is something that ought to be suspended for us, or whether we’re expected deliberately to suspend it ourselves. There’s an idea that a successful narrative is one that gives you no choice in the matter; but mostly I imagine it’s a question of both sides conspiring to keep the suspension aloft.’

Cusk had drawn the right conclusion, my neighbour said. Coleridge did contend that the suspension of disbelief should be ‘willing’; we didn’t always remember that word was there but it was important. Fiction doesn’t trick us into believing anything; rather we elect to engage with something as if it were real. She was aware that Rita Felski had likened the suspension of disbelief to a state of enchantment ‘in which we are immersed but not submerged, bewitched but not beguiled’. She agreed that when we suspend our belief there’s something to be gained and nothing to be lost.

She knew some people struggled to understand why Faye remarries – certainly her editor Paola sees it as an act of capitulation at the end of Kudos – but my neighbour thought it could be seen as a conscious decision to suspend her disbelief. We know that when we read a novel it isn’t true but that doesn’t mean the experiences it offers us aren’t real. Marriage might be a bit like that. A marriage, like a novel, is a structure for making certain vital human signs possible.

I told my neighbour about what Cusk says of marriage in ‘Coventry’: she talks of disbelief coming crashing down on her head like the roof of a cathedral at the ending of a previous marriage. Coleridge had suggested that the suspension of disbelief is a temporary state: the shadows of imagination might have procured for them a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ but only ‘for the moment’. If marriage entails a similar fragility, then I wondered why anyone would choose to, as Faye does, ‘reenter the narrative paradigm and suspend her disbelief again in a new one’.

There were certain benefits to marriage, my neighbour said, and one was having someone else there to help you see. She mentioned the problems with perception Faye is having early on in Outline: she tells us is finding appearances more bewildering and tormenting now, that she has lost some special capacity to filter her own perceptions, one that she had only become aware of once it was no longer there, ‘like a missing plane of glass that allows the wind and rain to rush through unchecked’. The implication is that divorce has smashed that pane of glass; it was marriage that had provided a protective shield and also a way of viewing outside things transparently.

What Cusk proposes, she said, is that marriage offers the relational equivalent of triangulation in mathematics: viewed from one spot, an object might seem to be in a position that is not precisely where it is – that is parallax error. Viewed from two spots, however, the location can be determined – that is triangulation. Hermann explains the principle to Faye in Kudos: ‘the function of triangulation is to fix two points by means of a third and therefore establish objectivity’.

Take those dogs that are described towards the end of Transit, my neighbour said. A student in Faye’s writing class talks about Sheba, his Saluki. He had bought his dog from a German woman who had lived in Oman who had herself fallen in love with the breed after watching a pack of them run and sit on the orders of an Arab man in traditional dress. He had said to her that they were hunting dogs who ran at speed in packs behind a falcon or hawk, with two principal dogs working in concert to watch the bird, who was leading them to their prey.

The student tells the class that this idea, of the two dogs sharing the work of reading the hawk, was one he found very appealing. It suggested, he said, that the ultimate fulfilment of a conscious being lay not in solitude but in a shared state so intricate and cooperative it might almost be said to represent the entwining of two selves.

It’s no coincidence, she said, that Faye repeats this story to the man she goes to meet later that night for dinner at a restaurant – who is the man she goes on to marry.

I said that there were numerous examples in the Outline trilogy where triangulation had a destructive, instead of corrective, influence. As Hermann explains in Kudos, the introduction of any third thing to a relationship presents a potential danger – might be, as in the Adam and Eve story, a corrupting snake. For example, Faye recalls how Heathcliff and Cathy’s Edenic closeness is disrupted forever by simply staring into the Linton’s drawing-room window in Wuthering Heights: ‘the two of them see different things,’ she says, ‘Heathcliff what he fears and hates and Cathy what she desires and feels deprived of’.

The plane’s engine quietened suddenly and I sensed a decrease in speed and a drop in altitude. The seatbelt sign went on again, which seemed instead to prompt a stampede into the aisles: passengers loitered around the lavatories and placed personal items in and out of the overhead compartments. While my neighbour was busy pulling her phone and passport from her overnight bag I opened my book and tried to finish reading the essay I had started in the airport.

Cusk is walking on a salt marsh along a coastal path. She is watching the holidaying families there. They scatter and regroup: mother, father, children. It becomes, she says, a meaningful drama of self and others. The adults are often separated: one walks musingly ahead or behind while the other herds the children along the path and then they swap over. The lone parent has the self-absorption of someone seeing the world but shut off from it, both free and unfree. I closed my eyes for a moment and the family morphed into a free-floating triangle. It was in a state of constant revision, its three arms lengthening and shortening as if one of its three vertices was being bullied by an indifferent finger.

While the plane taxied to the gate I reached under the seat in front of me and pulled my phone from the recesses of my travel bag. It was cold and dark and silent in my hands but I knew that once the airplane mode was switched off it would be warm and bright and garrulous again. The roaming signal would be quickly received by two nearby towers, pinpointing my geographical location. Then a message would appear on my lock screen heralded by a buzz and ping saying, ‘When will you be home?’

Works Cited

Miriam Allott ed., Novelists on the Novel, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.

Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity’, in Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays (Vadim Liapunov trans.), University of Texas Press, Austin, 1990, 4-256.

Mary Beard, ‘The Public Voice of Women’, London Review of Books, 36:6, 20 March 2014.

Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Everyman, 1987.

Rachel Cusk, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, Faber, 2012.

— Medea, Oberon Classics, 2015.

‘Mothers and Teenagers: A Modern Tragedy?’ Sunday Times, 5 April 2015.

— The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy, Picador, 2009.

Rita Felski, The Uses of Literature, Blackwell, 2008.

Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, A Personal Reminiscence, Ecco Press, 1989.

Deborah Levy, The Cost of Living, Hamish Hamilton, 2018.

Walter J. Ong, Literacy and Orality: The Technologising of the World, Routledge, 1982.

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends, Faber, 2017.

— Normal People, Faber, 2018.

Linda Rosencrantz, Talk, NYRB Classics, 2015.

Susanna Rustin, ‘Rachel Cusk interview: “Medea is about a divorce… A couple fighting is an eternal predicament. Love turns to hate”’, The Guardian, 5 October 2015.

Susan Sontag, ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’, in Styles of Radical Will, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013, 8-64.

Sophocles, Medea and Other Plays (Philip Vellacott trans.), Penguin, 1963.

Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, William Morrow, 2007.

Published March 10, 2020
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Melinda Harvey

Melinda Harvey is a Lecturer in English at Monash University and Director of the...

Essays by Melinda Harvey →