Nothing we read is in isolation. Everything we read is shaded by our mood, temperament, and by the other books we read before and afterwards. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond made me think of Rachel Cusk’s work. Both writers have an austere luminosity, every inch poetic and eloquent, both writers capable of crafting the most unerring sentences.
What is apparent even in Cusk’s early work is a voice formed from confusion, mortality and defeat, a voice that without ever hardening acquires over time a deepening force and clarity. Though I read Pond for the most part with pleasure, there is a precocious, knowing tone that becomes mildly vexing. The way of observing the world, uncanny in its quickness is a little naive and disembodied. Read in juxtaposition to a different writer, the shade cast will have been different.
The ingenious, circuitous sentences and tumbling ensembles of metaphors in Rachel Cusk’s Saving Agnes don’t always succeed. The ostentatiously constructed texture of the narrative occasionally rattles, but it is clear from her debut novel that Cusk’s depiction of modern life is dark, uncanny and penetrating.
I’m sufficiently far from my twenties to recall only a pervasive heaviness from the sense that decisions made at this time may prove consequential. Close enough to childhood to be haunted by lost security and protection, but inhabiting a strange transitional, not quite fully adult phase when one’s identity is diffuse and exploratory. Reading Saving Agnes is to peer through Cusk’s filter–we are a similar age–at this elusive and inchoate period of life.
In her review of Transit, Tessa Hadley refers to the sheer force of personality in Cusk’s writing; flowerville writes, “why can’t you stop following what she’s doing. and you thought that it’s because she does follow her own tangent. most of the time in directions you don’t find interesting but – who ever follows her own tangent is worth being followed in some way, if possible”. Perhaps its this inimitable quality that draws me to Cusk’s work as well. This originality is clear even in this debut novel.
Twenty years later, the fluidity and looseness of Saving Agnes is replaced with the intensity and straightness of Outline and Transit; the circumlocutory sentences of Saving Agnes are austerely pruned, but common to all three books is the melancholic atmosphere and attentiveness to the nuances of human interaction.
What amused most of Thomas Bernhard’s I’m Not Going to Badmouth Anybody At All (Douglas Robertson’s translation) is his assertion, “I’m basically just not a clubbable person”. I’d thought the social status of being clubbable a uniquely British concept, embracing that very English commingling of raced, gendered, and class-specific assumptions that grant visibility in this country.
Raised overseas, a solitary child, unsympathetic to the sophistries of the English cultural establishment, it nevertheless surprised me to be told in my twenties that I wasn’t clubbable. Despite a desire to be inconspicuous, I was hopelessly different from my peers, and bounced back and forth, at one moment defiantly assertive, and at the next hiding in the pages of a book. Little wonder I was considered a dark horse.
For a long while I was fascinated by Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which offers a series of elegant theories that explain the tenuous identities we construct to help us confront the world. This seems to me the province of Rachel Cusk’s writing.
It is more persuasive in Outline than in Transit because Cusk relies less on the creation of plausible characters. In neither book are you left with the sense that Cusk’s characters existed before her novel began, a quality I suggest of many truly great novels, but what makes these novels, and her debut Saving Agnes so compelling, is Cusk’s acuity in reading how people interact and construct their identities. Her writing embodies Wittgenstein’s claim: “If one sees the behaviour of a living thing, one sees its soul”.
In Outline and Transit, Cusk finds a form that places the reader in the mind of another. By externalising normally unspoken soliloquies, there is a sense that the inner/outer conception of self is friable. It is easier to get lost in the mirror. But Cusk’s perspective is more that of baffled observer caught in the act of looking, than participant in the fabric of everyday life. While we watch, through Cusk’s penetrating eyes, we are relentlessly reminded of the voyeuristic nature of our watching.
I am the ideal audience for this book, frequently bored with the tyranny of representation, with a deep-seated impulse towards the possibilities in fiction for silence and emptiness. Any serious reader of Beckett knows of the demands made when a writer is seducing readers to follow on a path towards silence. Rachel Cusk’s Outline propels away from representation and towards silence, towards something beyond plot and narration.
Something different is happening with the idea of ‘the narrator’ in Outline. By scarcely defining her narrator–it is jarring three-quarters of the way into the story when we learn the narrator’s name–Cusk leaves a reader with only the scantiest idea of whose eyes we are observing from. Without a typical character-narrator– a propelling force–without an identity to assume, Cusk makes the form take on the steering of its own discourse. Occasionally it teeters under the weight of its own structure, but Outline is nevertheless one of the most fascinating novels I’ve read in years.
Cusk opens up all sorts of ideas about how we define ourselves in telling another of our experience, of the trauma of our lives. She writes, “Yet there was something worse than forgetting, which was misrepresentation, bias, the selective presentation of events . . .” That may be true, yet how do we step outside ourselves sufficiently to rise above our partisan and polemical perspectives? This seems at the heart of what Cusk is addressing, especially as she has said elsewhere, “Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts.”
The quest to gain enough distance to tell all sides of a story, to hear all sides of a story and not only what we can relate to is perhaps a logical path to follow Cusk’s Aftermath, which felt like an inevitably evasive and one-sided account of her divorce. Though Cusk’s writing suggests movement from character to author-surrogate, Outline adopts a new form to the purely autobiographical Aftermath, which explored similar subjects, though from the obverse side of the mirror. Outline is a more radical innovation using an indefinite voice, deprived of time and purpose. It questions its own being and its way of relating to the world. It will be intriguing to see where Cusk takes this self-exploration in the sequel Transit and the reported last part of the trilogy.
Rachel Cusk’s writing offers that unusual convergence of microscopic observation and breathtaking sentences. It is rare for a writer to be capable of both sensitivity and beauty. It was discernible in the problematic but absorbing Aftermath but especially manifest in Outline. This sentence seems almost a summation of Cusk’s grand theme, or at least what I can detect from reading just two of her books. It is one of those sentences that force me to lay the book aside, transcribe it with fountain pen and grey ink into my notebook, type it into this box, and then sit back and think of its force.
“Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one’s own destiny by what one doesnt notice or feel compassion for; that what you don’t know and don’t make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.”
Rachel Cusk, Outline
Rachel Cusk knows how to look at things. In Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, her forensic sense of empathy is clear whether describing a local florist or her profound alienation after her marriage of ten years came to an end.
What happens when the texture of our world shatters into pieces? If we are no longer able to see the form that provides a sense of structure to our world? Cusk seeks to give form to her world through language, giving shape to chaos through writing Aftermath. As David Winters writes of Lydia Davis’s novel, “she tries to imprint an order upon her experience.”
Cusk’s Aftermath is a work of originality.. An striking opening leads to a startling, clever ending, but along the way she looks at the fragility of most unions whose pieces rarely fit tidily together, and like a jigsaw only looks complete from far away.
I intend to explore Cusk’s backlist further but the call back to Dostoyevsky is stronger.