Re-reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy

There are pages when I like Cusk’s writing and passages when I don’t, parts that feel exciting and original, others that fall a little flat. Halfway through reading Kudos for the first time, I stopped–something about Cusk’s highly measured voice–not only stopped but added Cusk’s trilogy to the charity-shop bag that sits beside my desk at all times.

Later I came across these sentences from Outline, “She began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet, this shape, even while its contents remained unknown gave her for the first time since the incident a sense of who she was.” I also read an interview in which Cusk says she’d “lost all interest in having a self” (h/t Steve Taylor). I found myself thinking, making lists of books of similar conception, and, of course, had to return again to Cusk’s curious trilogy.

With my second edition of the trilogy I started again from Outline. I always start slowly with fiction, savouring the prose rhythms, then as I get into the thrust of a novel I speed up, carried along by the verbal music, only to slow myself down towards the end, if it is a book of intelligence and wit, unwilling to bring my reading to an end. I have a predilection for thoughtful and subtle books, and am pleased to once again be reading Cusk.

Outline is the opposite of a realist novel, the narrator, as Joshua Corey summarised, “manifests as negative space into which all the other characters pour themselves.” Continuing without a break into the second book, Transit, is for me a better way to read Cusk’s trilogy, the immersion into its calibrated prose refreshes. I don’t know whether Cusk is a great writer, whatever such a word means anyway, but her fiction, at least as expressed in her Outline trilogy, is not straightforward. It is writing that makes me stop and think, active as opposed to passive reading, fiction that questions the reader as much as we question it.

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