Rachel Cusk: Outline, Transit, Kudos
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A literary novelist is a writer whose work is popular with readers who don’t buy books. These readers admire books, they praise books, they hand out books as gifts (and compliments) to friends, but they never pay for them. They receive them for free in return for saying nice things about them in print. I used to belong to this happy circle of yes-men and cheerleaders. For a decade or more, before the internet changed the shape of publishing, I wrote newspaper reviews at the rate of about one per fortnight. And I was an enthusiastic participant in the conspiracy of approbation that bound us all together. My fellow conspirators came from every branch of the book trade (except the shop-keeping bit). We were authors, publishers, book editors, literary agents, festival directors, marketing specialists, book-sellers, blurb-writers and literary editors of newspapers. A single unspoken law governed our literary efforts. The virtues of every book were to be exaggerated and its failings downplayed. With the odd exception, we were loyal to this rule. Social compunction enforced obedience. As a reviewer I was likely to bump into the author of a book at a party at any time, and I had no desire to risk a tricky social encounter so I banished any hint of disparagement from my output. Praise was so much easier. The newspapers printed it readily. The authors lapped it up. And so I praised. Professional self-interest was at work as well. A reviewer might share an agent or a publisher with the book’s author, and it would be grossly discourteous to abuse the work of a colleague. It might also expose the abuser to retaliation. This network of favours and debts was never revealed to the hapless victim of the conspiracy, the reader. And this didn’t matter much. I never felt I was committing a cardinal sin by exaggerating the qualities of a new novel. A book falsely praised is only a minor inconvenience to the swindled buyer who can just discard it or sell it. A play, on the other hand, that has been dishonestly reviewed is a big nuisance to the deceived theatre-goer whose expenditure of money and time cannot be retrieved.

I enjoyed being a member of the conspiracy. The task was easy, the money was good. To attract work, I invented a specialism and proclaimed myself a male expert in chicklit. But I was glad to cover any book that trundled along the conveyor-belt. History, biography, political memoirs, novels, children’s fiction, poetry. Whenever I was telephoned by a literary editor about a forthcoming book I instantly declared myself an expert in the relevant field. All reviewers do this. For about 15 happy years, I never bought a birthday gift or a Christmas present. I just selected an appropriate tome from my archive of freebies and sellotaped it up in crinkly paper.

As a result I view blurbs, book reviews, and press releases from publishers as inherently suspect. I’m aware of the conditions that create these paeans of bombastic adulation. I understand the mentality of the writers who pump them out. I know their moods. I’ve used their tricks. When I saw that a New York Times reviewer had hailed a new novel as ‘lethally intelligent’ I immediately detected an artful platitude-fabricator at work. ‘Lethally intelligent’. You take two contradictory abstract nouns, lethality and intelligence, and you turn the first into an adverb and the second into an adjective, and by bashing them together you create your sparky phrase. The novel in question was Outline by Rachel Cusk and it earned this exquisite tribute from Jeffrey Eugenides: ‘I’m so much better for having read it.’ But I know in his mind he was thinking ‘…. for having finished it’. I read a journalist from the Independent who claimed that ‘some of her observations have the profundity of those of the great philosophers’, and I recognised a tiring scribbler creating a tumult of passion to bring the review to a satisfactory close. Outline was published in 2016 and was followed by Transit which prompted Monica Ali to pant, ‘A harbinger of great hope for the third and final instalment – soon may it arrive.’ In her volcanic explosion – ‘soon’ – I could hear the fake orgasm of the coerced loyalist.

So I read the book. In fact I read all three in the series. And here, without fear or favour – and more importantly without payment – are my candid thoughts.

Outline follows a mysterious narrator who travels to Greece to teach a creative writing class. The narrator is a novelist and her journey brings her into contact with other writers who discuss their problems, many of which concern writing.

From this, I know immediately that Outline won’t interest mainstream buyers. People who pay for books don’t want novels about writers talking to other writers about writing novels. But Outline is hugely appealing to the conspiracy of cheerleaders and yes-men who swap books, and their inflated opinions of them, like a private currency. Hence the joyous response from Jeffrey Eugenides and Monica Ali and the rest of the choir who gathered to sing Outline’s praises.

But the average reader would respond to Outline with bafflement. And perhaps a little irritation. There’s no plot, no suspense, no uncertainty, no narrative momentum, and hardly any real-time action. Nearly all the incidents are located in the past and we hear of them in reported speech. The unnamed narrator is in search of nothing and has no reason to feature in her own story. Which, if you think about it, is rather a serious failing. It’s impossible to care about her either. She offers the reader very little data about herself, not even her name. She’s divorced with kids and she teaches writing. That’s all we get. In the opening scene she boards a plane and sits beside a rich Greek who unburdens himself about his ex-wives, his boats, his homes, his kids, his horses and his ski-ing holidays. As soon as the plane lands, the narrator moves on and the Greek guy’s back-story is forgotten. His tracts of reportage count for nothing because the characters he took such care to describe don’t make a second appearance.

If the plan is to destroy the reader’s patience then this is a highly effective technique. And it’s the Cusk technique throughout. The book evolves as a sequence of miniature holiday snaps. A character pops up and indulges in fifteen pages of garrulous reminiscence, usually concerning faithless lovers and bothersome children, and then falls silent. A few conclusions are drawn and the narrator moves on to a different character who unleashes a fresh barrage of chit-chat and introduces us to a new cast of personalities who, as always, the narrator doesn’t meet.

The centrepiece of Outline is the writing course in Athens. There are ten students, all Greek, of either sex, and of widely different ages. But they all speak English with the same level of fluency. Here’s the programme.

Day One: each student must describe something that happened on their way to the class. (This takes up the entire session.)

Overnight Homework: each student must write a story.

Day Two: each student must discuss the story they’ve written.

End of course.

A lot of witter and a little scribbling. ‘You’re a lousy teacher,’ complains a huffy student at the end of Day Two. The purpose of this laboriously verbose passage is, one assumes, to satirise creative writing courses. Cusk is perfectly correct to point out that they have nothing to do with writing or with learning about writing. Writing courses are a form of counselling for people who are too posh to have a social worker and too skint to afford an analyst.

At the end of the book, we learn the narrator’s name. Fey. Which about sums her up although she spells it ‘Faye’.

Every novelist has their favourite motifs and preoccupations. Outline suggests that Cusk is homely, bourgeois and insular. Her fascinations are drawn from a modest emotional palette: motherhood, ex-lovers, clothes, cooking, dogs and art, especially the art of writing. Children are interfering cry-babies whose ‘ceaseless demands’ threaten to absorb and to destroy the intellectual powers of their mothers. The only reason children exist is to fulfil a woman’s biological destiny. Dogs are agents of joy and communion. They exemplify noble innocence. They bring lovers together. They foster links across the barriers of age and gender. They die heroic deaths. To mistreat a dog is a grave, perhaps an unforgiveable, sin.

And Cusk has a technical quirk which is noticeable in virtually every sentence she writes. All her characters have the same rhythms of speech, irrespective of their age, sex, or nationality. And they express themselves in the same register: detached, knowing, melancholy and sophisticated.

In the second book, Transit, Fey has moved to a north London suburb where she starts searching for a flat to kennel her teenage boys. She bumps into an old flame, Gerard, who has fathered an eight-year-old nuisance. They drop the brat at school and stroll towards a tube station. Fey and Gerard speak in contrived flourishes. ‘I’d forgotten how relieving the anonymity of city life could be,’ says Fey. ‘It’s hard not to be self-satisfied with so much self-satisfaction around you,’ replies Gerard. Outside a refurbished pub he summarises his latest thinking on yuppie incomes and vernacular architecture. ‘The pub is ironic … the off-whitewash of gentrification, it’s happening everywhere, even in our own lives. Wherever it puts itself it blots out what was there before. Yet it’s designed to look as though it’s been here forever.’ This is true, of course, but the statement, ‘it’s designed to look as though it’s been here forever,’ would apply just as well to a bungalow or to the Taj Mahal or to a sand-castle. Or to a set of false eye-lashes. Gerard remembers a manual disfigurement caused in childhood by over-enthusiastic violin practice. ‘Maybe it’s only in our injuries,’ he says wisely, ‘that the future can take root.’ As a parting insight he tells Fey that London ‘is one of the pre-eminent cities of the world’. Adapting to it will make her ‘strong’.

We don’t meet him again. Fey’s flat-search brings her into contact with a cheery builder who has the same weakness for lofty self-evaluation shared by all the other characters. The chief strain of building, he muses, is spiritual rather physical. What he finds especially exhausting is, ‘to be held at the fine point of his clients’ obsessions, to be the instrument of their desire while remaining the guardian of possibility.’ Poor Fey. She seems destined to attract these pretentious gasbags wherever she goes.

Fey rents a first-storey flat and encounters a pair of elderly Cockneys, John and Paula, who live on the ground floor. These unfortunates lack any trace of articulacy or intelligence, and Cusk describes them in the manner of Enid Blyton introducing below-stairs characters in the Famous Five series.

Paula is ‘powerfully built’ and ‘obese’ and has ‘coarse grey hair’. John is a grumpy cripple who hobbles about their ‘cave-like place’ with its ‘filthy sheets’ and ‘empty bottles’. Paula sits on ‘a brown velour sofa’ and has ‘an unmistakeable core of violence’. She beats her dog casually, in front of strangers, as if it were a daily ritual. To Cusk this is shorthand for ‘evil incarnate’. Paula tries to cook edible food but her efforts fill Fey’s upstairs flat with noxious fumes which a visitor likens to the odour of boiled squirrels. With scant provocation Paula flings barbarous insults at Fey, (‘fucking bitch’), and accuses her of working as a prostitute. Paula repeats this slander to a neighbouring family who speak three languages and enjoy alfresco suppers in their ‘tidy’ garden, amid ‘scented flowerbeds’. The racism is palpable, but inverted, so Cusk’s abhorrence is directed at the indigenous people while the foreigners are upheld as virtuous and refined. The reader is expected to assent to this taxonomy of distaste.

Next Fey visits a salon and spends 23 pages getting a new hairdo. She needs to look nice because she’s appearing at a literary festival where she plans to read something. By this stage, incidentally, we’re 350 pages into the trilogy and we still haven’t a clue what Fey is after. The answer, probably, is nothing.  A professional reviewer would find this fault perfectly forgivable. But a real reader might point out that a story whose central figure lacks any purpose isn’t really a story.

At the literary festival Fey is joined on stage by Julian, a gay writer from Sunderland, who dresses flamboyantly in a navy suit and a mauve cravat. He speaks a few words of northern dialect. Julian was raised in an impoverished village, ‘that didn’t feature in any tourist map or in the annals of history but was probably extensively documented in the files of the local services department’. Deprivation was pervasive: boredom, cheap food, obesity. ‘Men in that part of the country had a life expectancy of fifty.’ Julian had a miserable childhood living in a shed. ‘His meals were brought out to him and he was locked inside.’ His imprisonment was terminated by a chance encounter with a gay couple from Thailand. ‘Highly cultured, well-travelled men, collectors of art and antiques, versed in several languages.’ Luckily they spotted ‘a stately home with enormous gardens’ not far from Julian’s shed. And they bought it. Julian was hired to mow the lawns and soon he was invited indoors to share ‘elaborate fragrant meals taken in the formal dining room’. When the gay couple exchanged a casual kiss, Julian was transfixed. ‘It was the first time he’d seen love.’

As with Fey’s Cockney savages living next door to a family from overseas, the demarcations are Mosley-ite but the pattern is reversed. Immigrants are rich, sophisticated, romantic and liberating.  The native volk are poor, brutal, loveless and enslaved. Their only function is to work as servants to the foreign-born master-race.

After Julian’s performance, Fey reads a story about a woman. Her performance elicits a tear-stricken tribute from an audience member. ‘That woman was me, her pain was my pain,’ sobs the grateful ticket-holder. ‘Enormous, shining tears were dripping from his eyes and rolling down his cheeks.’ Julian comforts him in northern dialect. ‘There, there, duck. Dry your eyes.’

The book closes with a visit to Fey’s country cousin, Lawrence. He lives in a mansion with his new wife and a few children left over from his debut marriage. Two of his female friends are in attendance with further children. Fey, of course, has thoughtfully dumped her boys in London with their father. But if she feels this courtesy should have been observed by other parents she’s too polite to say so. The conversation turns to ethics, volition and destiny. A Swedish mother announces that a single motto – a ‘philosophy’ she calls it – guides her entire existence. ‘When you are afraid of something that is the sign that it’s something you must do.’

Fey, who is also a metaphysician, shares her latest musings on liberty and the individual.

‘Freedom is a home you leave once and can never go back to,’ she says. The axiom is received in silence. No one points out that the term ‘freedom’ could be replaced by ‘a capsized cruise-liner’ without loss of meaning.

Lawrence makes a contribution to the symposium, and his profundity gets a paragraph all to itself.

‘Lawrence rested his fingertips on the stem of his wine-glass and turned it slowly in the candlelight. Fate, he said, is only truth in its natural state.’

The synod of oracles is broken up by misbehaving children. They clamber everywhere, tumbling over the furniture and damaging the dresses of divorced women. When their pasta is served they burst into tears in unison. Fey receives an upsetting call from her sons in London. Their father has failed to show up. Unsupervised, the boys are attacking each other. Blood is flowing, Fey discovers, and she has to listen over the phone to an exchange of violent blows which continues unabated. A dutiful mother would jump into her car and speed to their rescue but Fey’s route to London has been blocked by a miraculous weather front. ‘The fog pressed at the windows, now utterly opaque. I realised then that none of us could have left Lawrence’s house, no matter how much we might have needed or wanted to.’ This may be the first instance in western letters of a character being ‘fogged in’.

The final book, Kudos, is more pessimistic than its predecessors and the disjointed structure makes it even harder to engage with. The location is a badly organised conference in Spain (or perhaps Portugal, it’s unclear) where Fey and her fellow participants have to endure long queues, inept waiters and hot treks to literary events across crowded, dusty suburbs. Fey gives three unsatisfactory interviews to journalists and the novel closes with a discussion about the shortcomings of feminism conducted by Fey and several other women. All the women agree with everything said by all the other women. This may be typical of all-female debates. I can’t say, of course, but I’m told that disagreements are not unknown.

Fey meets Eduardo who complains that the conference should not have been scheduled to coincide with the Easter weekend and a soccer final. ‘They act,’ he says of the organisers, ‘as though they are victims of fate but in fact these are events that could have been seen from a long way off and avoided.’ This leads him to make a comment that would not have disgraced Lawrence’s symposium. ‘Yet perhaps, he added, it is the very intentness of our own will that blinds us to other realities.’

The events in Kudos take place in the aftermath of the Brexit vote – ‘an act of self-harm’ – which may account for its surly and downbeat tone. Fey meets a male novelist who ascribes Brexit to ‘those who lived in the most hopeless poverty and ugliness’. Though he’s identified as Welsh, this chap talks like Samantha Cameron. He tells Fey, with a shudder, about remote areas of Wales where ‘the men still rode ponies and shot at one another with guns and the women brewed up cauldrons of magic mushrooms in their kitchens; he didn’t imagine they spent a lot of time discussing their membership of the EU, if they even knew what it was’.

Another character blames Brexit on the ‘boorish stupidity’ of the English who behave like ‘great big babies’. They do this because ‘no one thought to bring them up properly’. The notion that Brexit was caused by bad parenting forms part of wider analysis of the English psyche which is delivered by a portentous character named Sophia. ‘I have known many men, from many parts of the world,’ she says ominously, ‘And the English man is in my experience the worst because he is neither a skilled lover nor a sweet child and because his idea of a woman is something made of plastic not flesh. The English man is sent away from his mother and so he wants to marry his mother and perhaps even to be his mother …’

Sophia is referring to the near-extinct practice among the English upper-classes of exiling their children to boarding school at the age of seven. She assumes that even today this is a universal feature of our education system. And this error leads her to make her slightly loopy claims about English husbands. It seems odd that Fey makes no effort to correct Sophia or to suggest that her comments need to be updated. Instead she lets Sophia’s quaint and outmoded version of Britain stand. It’s almost as if Fey prefers a society full of nostalgic distortions. And the world she inhabits has, without question, a powerful flavour of the past. A lot of things have barely changed since the age of Tintin. We hear of hikers who set off with ‘a simple knapsack’. Gay men still dress like Quentin Crisp and are chiefly interested in cookery and furnishings.  ‘Schizophrenia’ is spoken as if it were a novel and esoteric diagnosis. Tourists wear chunky cameras secured by a leather strap. There are TV crews, exclusively male, who have ‘piles of camera equipment’ and their arms are ‘full of cables’.

These anachronisms are at their most glaringly weird in relation to feminism. The struggle for sexual equality seems have got stuck in the early 1950s. A morose character in Kudos analyses the role of women in the arts today. ‘It is of course true, she said, that few notable women were ever really recognised, or at least not until they had been judged to be no longer a public danger having become old or ugly or dead.’ The same antiquated fatalism applies to the divorce courts. Fey meets a woman who feels her ex-husband is exploiting her. ‘He understands that the law can be used as his weapon whereas I only think of it in connection with justice, by which time it is far too late.’

There may be a hint of deliberate submissiveness here, a relish for the glorious status of the martyr and the victim. Nothing compels this divorcee to pose like a Victorian chamber-maid wrongly accused of stealing a pepper-pot. It’s her choice.

Another of Fey’s mopey chatterboxes makes the following estimate of women’s position within the legal system. ‘Those laws are for men,’ she says. ‘In law the woman is temporary, between the permanence of the land and the violence of the sea.’ Someone might point out to her that in Britain today the chief law officer of the land, (ie the monarch), is a woman. So is the prime minister, the first minister of Scotland, the home secretary, the director of pubic prosecutions, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and the president of the supreme court.

Sex too is affected by this spirit of mute and bovine subjugation. There are three erotic encounters in the trilogy. First, Fey gets groped by an ageing Greek millionaire of pterodactylian aspect. She freezes and waits for his groping to cease and then politely withdraws. Next, she’s snogged in a hotel lobby by some English twerp. Finally she’s seduced by a man we hear little of but we assume he’s reasonably attractive, or attractive enough for Fey to not to resist him. The grammar here, the passive voice, is significant. During sex, Fey is entirely inert. Like a gorgeous butterfly resting on a lotus-petal, she’s targeted, approached, netted and nailed.

Not that she dislikes men. She simply awaits their attentions, and endures the consequences of the scrummage. She has a lively appreciation of the contributions that men can offer as fathers, husbands and chore-doers. And it’s noticeable that Fey and her lady-companions are lusty souls who have no trouble attracting boyfriends well into middle-age. One of the most arresting passages in the trilogy features a woman emerging from a long and messy marriage. She finds autumn joy with a man she calls ‘my lover’. He’s a philosopher who likes to stand on roofs staring into ‘cerebral blue’ skies. He’s also a chef and a musician.

‘Sometimes, she said, I retreat to my women friends, all of us weeping and weaving together, but then my lover will open the piano and play a tarantella or bake a kid all afternoon in wine and cloves, and seduced by those sounds and smells I am back…’

At first sight this reads like a Craig Brown pastiche. ‘Weeping and weaving’ suggests the hand of a master satirist. But a second glance reveals this to be glossary of the essential attributes Fey finds desirable in a man. He must be intelligent. He must have refined sensibilities. He must work in the creative field, of course. He must be both dreamy and decisive. He requires a telepathic ability to detect the onset of a woman’s depressive moods and to neutralise them by unleashing his supplementary talents. In this case, cookery skills and piano melodies prevent the woman from slithering into the hell of self-contemplation.

But few men live up this ideal. Fey is constantly disappointed by lazy, deceitful or incompetent males: the husband who failed to supervise her sons; the waiters in Kudos who couldn’t serve a queue of hungry diners; the cameramen whose broken gear led to the cancellation of an interview.

I myself may have contributed to Cusk’s low estimate of men’s functionality. Yes me. I interviewed her for a newspaper about 15 years ago in the days when I advertised myself as a chick-lit expert. Pain, as I recall, was the abiding motif of her life. The pain of writing a book, the pain of loss when a book was finished, the pain of emptiness before the next book germinated in her mind, the pain of realisation that the new book had to be pitch-forked out onto the page. But there was a further source of pain. I was a pain to her. A pain of an ineffable kind.

Half an hour before our interview I’d received a call from the editor to check that all was well. Had I found the location? Yes. Was my tape machine working? Of course. Had I read her new novel? Hang on. A new novel? I had no idea there was a novel to discuss. I’d assumed the interview was just a general Cusk-over, a sort of biennial tour of the works to check that one of the UK’s larger flannel producers was functioning in accordance with expectations. But a new novel? I raced to Waterstones with minutes to spare and found the hardback on the rear shelves, (not on the buy-me-now display in the hot-breathed reception area), and I sprinted back to our rendezvous, tome in hand. I told her straight off that I’d only just bought the book and had not read it. Her beautiful face fell a centimetre or two as she realised, with what accesses of dismay I can only imagine, how this reflected on her status as a writer. Having got her latest novel into the shops, she was confronted with the news that the average book reviewer, such as me, was unaware of its release. Worse still, the very man sent by a national newspaper to discuss the book had no knowledge of its existence. Our interview was polite but chilly. After a while, and because the book was out of bounds, I ran short of things to ask her so I brought up the topic of her husband. She declined to give me any information about him. Not even his name. She was anxious, she said, to shield him from publicity.

I found her immensely attractive and yet I got the impression she was deeply and resentfully miserable to the core of her being. I’m not sure anything could brighten that darkness. Not even the best news any writer can receive. And I have a hunch it may not be long in coming.

Given her undoubted ability to win praise from the praisers of so-so books, her chances of winning the Nobel prize must be excellent.

 


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