TO FINISH Rachel Cusk’s latest novel Outline, I needed the hum of human bodies and conversations. The book’s protagonist is a novelist teaching a summer writing course in Greece — a woman who believes in the “virtues of passivity,” which might be why many people are comfortable confiding their stories to her, whether it’s a complete stranger on an airplane or a friend of a friend at a restaurant in Athens. The book is structured around these conversations, so reading, in this case, almost felt akin to studying a portfolio of gorgeous still life paintings — the phrase nature morte might be more apt here — looking at Goya’s trio of salmon steaks or Picasso’s mandolin and cake. You can understand why I needed people around me, some sense of life. I staged my two final reading sessions in bustling cafés.
Outline uses language with an intelligence and precision that is wonderfully unnerving. It begins, for example, with a description of a flight taking off from London’s Heathrow Airport:
The plane began to move, trundling forward so that the vista appeared to unfreeze into motion, flowing past the windows first slowly and then faster, until there was the feeling of effortful, half-hesitant lifting as it detached itself from the earth. There was a moment in which it seemed impossible that this could happen. But then it did.
Once the plane takes off, the narrator’s Greek seatmate initiates a broad-ranging conversation; they talk about why she is traveling to Athens, about the weather, his childhood, how and why his two marriages ended. And yet, while his character is fleshed out, Cusk’s narrator seems to be hiding from herself and anyone she encounters, though her astute readings of the stories people tell certainly come through. I found her impenetrability frustrating, which prompted, for me, a series of questions set off by what were perhaps insurmountable expectations. How could I not appreciate the newest work by the brilliant author of three memoirs? Her work deals with subjects close to my heart — the creative life, thinking about thinking, books, sexuality, gender, motherhood, domesticity, marriage and its dissolution. How could I not devour the latest offering by the feminist writer responsible for a new version of Euripides’s Medea?
Much as the narrator “remained dissatisfied by the story” told on the airplane, I remained dissatisfied by the lack of story told by the narrator about herself. I was tempted to conclude that the title, Outline, refers to the fact that Cusk withholds all but the faintest traces of Faye, the narrator (whose name we learn in the penultimate chapter when her mortgage broker calls her). The reader’s sense of Faye must be gleaned from how she describes what she sees and hears as she moves through each day. We get a portrait of a fascinating brain instead of a portrait of a woman made of flesh, blood, and feeling. I would have liked both.
Many critics have praised Cusk’s Outline as less conventional than her previous work; it pushes the boundaries of fiction. In an interview with Kate Kellaway in The Guardian last summer, Cusk says: “I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character — these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.” In regards to Cusk’s frustration with the artifice of fiction and her stab at doing something about it, Britt Peterson writes in The New Republic that Outline:
[L]acks Knausgaard’s deliberate sloppiness, his “Supermarket Sweep” approach to writing about his own life: everything in, for better or worse. That said, it’s also much less boring than Knausgaard’s books, and much better written. Cusk almost can’t help what a good storyteller she is.
Cusk’s exploration of the novel raises a question about what fiction does or is meant to do in the first place. I myself turn to the novel as a narrative experience that is born out of a particular moment (historical, political, cultural, human) and, in response to it, seeks to provoke emotion, catharsis, and communion with the both the everyday and the sublime in their many guises. Reason and objective observation certainly can be part of this transformative experience, but not to the exclusion of the activation of feeling in all its messy splendor. Hannah Tennant-Moore, writing for Bookforum, puts her finger on what Cusk’s latest novel is missing, at least for readers like me, with the following diagnosis: “Although Faye extols the ‘virtues of passivity’ and wanting ‘nothing at all,’ the most compelling part of Outline is its undercurrent of rage.” I wanted the undercurrent of rage to spring into action, dialogue, breakdown, or any other human display. Cusk’s restraint, while elegant, never allows that rage to live.
Fierce emotions, though, do make an appearance. In one chapter, Faye is drawn out somewhat by her two girlfriends: Melete, “a slender woman with a fox-like face” and “one of the pre-eminent lesbian poets of Greece,” and Elena, whose “appearance, this evening, was particularly Lorelei-like” such that she “seemed to be composed entirely of curves and waves.” The three women have a frank conversation about honesty, disgust, shame, friendship, men and women. Melete tells her friends about a dream she had the night before:
I and several other women, some of whom were friends of mine and some of whom were strangers, were trying to get into the opera. But all of us were bleeding, pouring out menstrual blood: it was a kind of pandemonium, there at the entrance to the opera house. There was blood on our dresses, dripping down into our shoes; every time one woman stopped bleeding another started …
Melete’s recounted dream is by far the most dramatic scene in the novel. How would it be staged for a live audience? Three women meet in a tiny, dark bar in Athens one hot summer evening; the trio crowds around a circular table where they take turns telling each other stories and drinking wine from “a small unlabelled bottle the colour of ink.” What color do Elena’s and Faye’s faces turn when Melete delves into the retelling of her bloody dream.
I bring up the possibility of staging this scene because of Dwight Garner’s review of the novel in The New York Times. He says: “the small conversations and monologues in Outline are, at their best, as condensed and vivid as theater. Sometimes the chapters in Outline brought Harold Pinter or Wallace Shawn or Annie Baker to mind.”
Perhaps one interesting way of reading Outline is as a transitional work. This novel marks the threshold between Cusk’s memoir Aftermath, where she ruminates on her marriage and its dissolution, and her version of Euripides’s Medea, which opens for previews at London’s Almeida Theatre tonight, September 25, and will run through mid-November. Indeed, the central conflict of Medea comes up in the opening chapter of Aftermath. Cusk prides herself on inverting the traditional gender roles over the course of their marriage. She says, “[I had] conscripted my husband into care of the children [and giving up his] law job, and I gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children.” She wanted to devote herself to her writing and other work outside the home. And yet, when her ex-husband “said that he wanted half of everything, including the children” she responds in an unexpected way:
You can’t divide people in half, I said.
They should be with me half the time, he said.
They’re my children, I said. They belong to me.
And here we can hear the echoes of Medea. In Outline, Faye reflects on the demise of her own marriage in the conversation with her seatmate on the flight from London to Athens:
It was impossible, I said in response to his question, to give the reasons why the marriage had ended: among other things a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.
One suspects this meditation echoes an important aspect of Cusk’s disillusion with storytelling. In her March 2015 article for The New York Times Magazine, “Raising Teenagers: The Mother of All Problems,” Cusk offers this incisive paragraph:
Adolescence, it strikes me, shares some of the generic qualities of divorce. The central shock of divorce lies in its bifurcation of the agreed-upon version of life: There are now two versions, mutually hostile, each of whose narrative aim is to discredit the other […] [A]t some point the growing child will pick it up and turn it over in his hands like some dispassionate reviewer composing a coldhearted analysis of an overhyped novel. The shock of critique is the first, faint sign of the coming conflict, though I wonder how much of what we call conflict is in fact our own deserved punishment for telling the story wrong, for twisting it with our own vanity or wishful thinking, for failing to honor the truth.
Outline is a cerebral novel that weaves together many stories told in many voices, multiple truths as recounted to the narrator Faye by multiple storytellers. Faye tells us little about herself (as a mother, an ex-wife, and as a writer) perhaps because there is no way for her to convey a story that would be entirely true. All she can say, for example, about her marriage and its dissolution is that it was “impossible” to give “reasons” why things had not worked out. There is no story to tell other than the marriage was, then it wasn’t. Or maybe the only plausible story that could be told would unfold within a conversation between Faye and her ex-husband about their marriage and what it had entailed — two voices in conversation. A dialogue.
Cusk’s version of Euripides’s Medea is also a series of conversations — between herself, the original playwright, and all the translators; between the characters, Medea and Jason, regarding what went wrong and, more importantly, how and why exactly they lost their sons; between Cusk and the director of the play, Rupert Goold; and finally, between Rupert Goold and the actress who plays Medea, Kate Fleetwood, who also happens to be Goold’s wife
In the same essay cited earlier, Cusk outlines a central debate that she had with Goold regarding Medea’s actions:
The director and I have an ongoing difference of opinion. The play is notorious for its representation of a woman who kills her two young children […] I find that I do not believe in the child-killing as a literal event. But the director cannot conceive of a “Medea” in which the children are not killed. Around this impasse we have arranged ourselves. I say, Ours is a world in which psychological and actual violence have become mutually distinct. The killing no longer means what it once might have. Actual violence is rudimentary and mute; psychological violence is complex and articulate. He says, The play’s violence is both metaphor and reality. The two, in other words, meet and mingle, as in the world of Greek mythology where the gods met and mingled with humans. I say, That metaphor is lost on our literal-minded society; instead the play is regarded as a “problem play” — but the problem of women murdering their children is not a problem we actually have. Even as metaphor.
I am dying to know how this impasse will arrange itself on the stage. Will the child-killing be portrayed in all its bloodiness or as metaphor or as a scene within a dream, like Melete’s opera dream in Outline? Or will it be an enigmatic moment left for the audience to interpret? What else will change in Cusk’s version of the play, surely a provocative and feminist rendition of Medea? I suspect that one key difference in Cusk’s version may entail Jason’s fighting for his children at the outset, as Cusk’s husband does in Aftermath. Jason may want to keep his sons whole and wholly his by finding a way to send Medea out of Corinth alone.
What would a Medea stripped of her children look like? Perhaps Outline’s Faye, who is traveling without her children, can offer a clue. Faye “wandered around the apartment” where she was staying and dedicated herself to “looking at things”:
I opened a few cupboards and drawers. Everything was highly orderly. There was no confusion or secrecy: things were in their correct places and complete. […] I kept looking for something else, a clue, something rotting or breeding, a layer of mystery or chaos or shame, but I didn’t find it.
This scene, devoid of children and the inevitable back and forth of family, also lacks all “confusion or secrecy.” The word “complete” sounds the alarm: complete, perfect, finished, dead. The foundational stuff of life — the “rotting or breeding,” as Cusk calls it — is missing.
What would Faye’s or Medea’s or Cusk’s children have to say about all this? What would their truths sound like? In Aftermath, Cusk suggests something about her children’s point of view that most parents, and adults in general, may not want to hear:
The problem usually lies in the relationship between the story and the truth. The story has to obey the truth, to represent it, like clothes represent the body. The closer the cut, the more pleasing the effect. Unclothed, truth can be vulnerable, ungainly, shocking. Over-dressed it becomes a lie. For me, life’s difficulty has generally lain in the attempt to reconcile these two, like the child of divorce tries to reconcile its parents. My own children do that, forcing my husband’s hand into mine when we’re all together. They’re trying to make the story true again, or to make the truth untrue.
It seems impossible for Cusk to denounce, at least not entirely, the power stories have to wrestle with truths and bend them into an arc that makes sense and satisfies the emotional needs of the reader. Pleasing and satisfying in all the ways that a play or a novel or a short story can be. I don’t think Cusk has truly given up on fiction. I find that I do not believe in Cusk’s fiction-killing as a literal event.