A novel teaches you how to read it. In the novels that make up Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy, the education could go like this: the confounding of motive of the first novel (Outline) gives way to the vertigo inducing ease of the second (Transit). By the last volume, Kudos, you the reader are fully acclimated to the narrator, Faye’s, encounters with a series of characters who reflect her concerns and highlight the trilogy’s themes.
Curiously, and this is the feature the reader learns from the consistency of method, Faye is the rare first-person narrator who remains in the background, mostly, mediating what is told to her, taking the reader into her confidence. This approach seems so novel, and surprising—and a clever way out of the I centric first-person point of view—that you might wonder why someone hadn’t thought of it sooner. There is an intimacy to this secondarily told story, as the circumstances of its being related feel as if it is told in private, like gossip. It has the effect of making information essential, vital.
Of the overarching themes of the trilogy, Cusk is working out notions about the difficulty of single parenthood while maintaining a creative life, accompanied by the overt subtext of the narrative: the successful writer’s life, the object lessons of other people’s problems—all of which instills an empathetic connection as it forces a reader to be a sounding board. The novels become about the idealized writing life that Cusk herself must lead. (Maybe we can be forgiven for thinking this autofiction.) Quite simply, and maybe obliquely, Cusk’s novels are about life’s unrelenting demands on the psyche and, more particularly, the writer’s psyche.
The gossip angle becomes a sly twist of the first-person point of view, a tradition whose imperative tends to favor the ego writ large. In the trilogy, Faye’s resource in her interlocutors allows her, cannily, to fade into the background. The reader, by necessity, may want more from Faye. On the other hand, we listen to a gossip for what they have heard.
Cusk’s novels embody metaphor, often utilized to an absurd and humorous degree. Metaphor provides skeins of connection between stories. In one anecdote, a character (names are never given for these ancillary foils) makes a metaphor of her own life as akin to the family dog, something dealt with by habit, if not neglected altogether. The reader will recall that the first of Faye’s encounters is of a man on the plane she sits next to—she is on her way to a writing conference—who delivers a long story about his own dog’s recent tragic end.
In one of these encounters, a character relates a story about her family and likens spending time with her own child as being stuck with a swarm of bees. A few pages later, a completely unrelated anecdote about culpability reveals that a swarm of bees caused another woman to crash her car. The two events are connected by a metaphor becoming manifest in reality. So thoughtfully is the reader enwrapped in the manner of the novel and its subliminal echoes, these references tug at the reader’s subconscious, and may go unnoticed. This draws the reader in; we are prone to these echoes and synchronicities because they become familiar, or they appeal to our need to have such a familiarity. When such coincidences happen in our own lives, it is an occurrence to remark on. In fiction we register that the narrative is generated from the mind of one author, and thus the random nature of such “happened upon” references can feel forced, if not obsequiously canny. Isn’t a novel itself, a metaphor for reality?
Misdirection provides another narrative device for the storytellers who reveal themselves, and it is as if the voice—from the source—cannot lie, though appearances may. One woman tells her story and consistently subverts expectations, as her own expectations are tellingly revealed. This person becomes almost an unreliable narrator within Faye’s narrative. In seeing an old acquaintance, she says, “I felt my old fondness for him spring up.” When she gets closer to him, she realizes her affection is misplaced, and sees “the expression of utter hatred on his face,” such that “I thought he might spit at me.”
All gossip tends to lead downward. The novel deals with talk of relationships, second hand, as in a therapy setting. Thus, only one side of the story is possible. The protagonist’s children are an ever-present concern, and treated forgivingly, portrayed in the idealistic twilight of their innocence. Faye never quashes her boys’ well-being, though she will rarely let their needs derail hers. Where the children are forgiven their flaws, the husbands and lovers are portrayed with little love lost, as if the aggrieved have walked away from the wreckage.
One hallmark of Cusk’s slant first-person style is that the protagonist never directly quotes herself, making her an unusual instance of the point of view not relying on “I”. She is always in paraphrase, which can (possibly) be a shorthand. The temptation to do this in a first-person point of view narrative could lead to the narrator’s having one over on the reader, as the author can of course be selective in the dialogue. This is apparent when Faye is directly asked questions, and lets the queries die on the page.
In the amusing results of an interview Faye is the subject of (an event which occurs with frequency in the trilogy which begs the question: who is the interviewer, who is the interviewee?). Her interviewee goes on to tell her, “’I think I have everything I need . . . I won’t be focusing on the personal elements.’” She congratulates Faye on her remarriage, though we are given no further insight into the relationship. Dialogue also then reflects the novel’s means and ends. The tantalizing aspect of what is unstated leaves the reader as ultimate voyeur into the protagonist’s life, in outline, if you will.
Those human moments that make novels ultimately satisfying and rich experiences would seem to come from a place of deep self-knowledge. With the vibrant and engaging kaleidoscope of voices elaborated in Kudos, and the Outline Trilogy, Rachel Cusk seems to be saying, listen.
Robert Detman is the author of the novel, Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas (Figureground Press, 2014). He has published writing in over fifty publications, including the Antioch Review, Akashic Books, Newfound, Pleiades, and Southeast Review, with work forthcoming in The Southampton Review. His short stories have been finalists for the New Letters Literary Awards and nominated for the Best of the Net.