On Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline Trilogy’

We must suspend disbelief as we would in a marriage, for a story to work, and rather than aspire to perfection, deny certain realities which aren’t in accordance with the preferred view. Reading the ‘Outline Trilogy’, one must suspend disbelief that every person holds within them such profound insight concerning their lot in life, looking on at the world from their unique vantage, offering to the ready ear of the narrator the lessons they’ve gleaned from their mistakes as they come to appreciate their relationship to themselves and the role they play in other people’s lives given their profession, say, or given the expectations others have of them—and this to an almost philosophical depth of understanding. They still end up being wrong, of course—or at least most of these characters do—as they develop a picture of themselves which, time and again, tends to leave out the one part which would forestall the tidy, objective view they cling to: their own involvement in how their life turned out.

This question is left open throughout the trilogy, and it is the driving force behind most conversations between the characters. These novels are nothing but conversations, in fact—or, not so much conversations as so many monologue-driven scenes in which the narrator does little more than listen patiently to whoever is in front of her, as she tries to understand her interlocutor’s life story in the terms with which they choose to frame it, even if the favour is hardly ever returned. Alongside these characters, the reader never really gets to know the narrator-protagonist; they pick up her name—Faye—and her profession—writer—and then infer—from the fact that she seems particularly interested in these strangers’ accounts of how their life turned out—that maybe she thinks, or once thought, that her life was determined by forces outside of her control. They learn too that she is divorced, that she has two kids who depend on her in that often thankless way that kids tend to, and that, because she is a writer with a moderately successful collection of published work, she finds herself frequently flown around the world with still other strangers as her seatmates, landing in strange cities to meet publishers or critics or interviewers who seem even more desperate than others to prove what order they’ve mustered in their lives because, when it is their turn to talk to Faye, their concern is for matters related to their business, which to them loom with a more immediate, material consequence than the concerns Faye has expressed in her work, which are more personal, and which loom with a consequence perhaps more existential. However, no matter what the main concern is of whoever is in front of her, their account of how the weight of the world is distributed seems to depend on some keystone which Faye doubts anyone can point to with absolute certainty, though she seems willing to be proven wrong. Thus she listens to the businesspeople in her life with as much regard as anyone else, holding back judgment even after they’ve had their say. If these executives are not telling Faye why or how her own work is of any value, then they are explaining to her the present-day fragility of the industry she’s involved herself in, or else outlining why they themselves are still essential to operations in the highly competitive field of art and culture. One by one, publishers, editors, interviewers, fellow writers—and then hair stylists, contract workers, old friends, old flames, ex-husbands, divorcees, mothers, fathers, children, and everyone else—are given their time—all the time they need, really—to relay their own perspective on that question which is ever-present in these pages, inevitably referencing their own life experience to do so. After three books, not one of these explanations leaves the reader entirely convinced that they’ve found the crucial, load-bearing stone which supports the whole structure, so a definite answer is never reached by the trilogy’s end as to how or why a person’s life is the way it is, or why they are where or what they are.

Faye never offers any opinion of her own, either—at least, not without a caveat or qualifier tacked on to the end. In general she keeps silent throughout the three books, almost self-conscious about getting herself involved in anything that would have her lose her objectivity: she says it’s because she’s out to learn something, about others, and about herself, so she prefers to listen rather than talk. She says it has surprised her over the years, how much she has been able to learn simply by remaining silent on the sidelines. She is a writer, after all: perhaps she considers it a matter of professional discipline.

Rachel Cusk has Faye do little more than set up each scene with her presence—she is where she is, in a certain city, at a certain restaurant, because there is a week-long course on writing she has been asked to teach, for example, and she’s relaxing at a day’s end; in another scene she maybe needs a haircut. She might be at a hotel bar, there to give a series of interviews for her latest book, there in the same hotel which all the other writers whom are flown in to town come to, to speak with the local reporter or television personality. However, just as soon as Faye, her publisher, and another writer are seated in a booth around one of the hotel lounge’s white-clothed tables, Faye—as she tends to do—fades into the background, while the writer, then her publisher, then the interviewer and then the event-planner, romps and clambers through the foreground and, with all of their knowledge and wisdom and observations about life, they are only too ready to account for why they are where they are presently, in the hotel conducting interviews as opposed to being anywhere else. Taken together, scene after scene, monologue after monologue, the characters which populate these novels come to demonstrate perhaps the central idea Rachel Cusk wants the reader to consider: that an individual seems able to understand everything and everyone but themselves, even as they pontificate about their own life, because they cannot help but always be standing just outside the frame of the picture they’re painting. One cannot look at one’s own eyes, to put it another way, yet there is so much one learns, gazing into the eyes of another.

On a date with a man who has been pursuing her for a year—because his only means of contact was their mutual friend, who for so long refused to give him Faye’s number—she puts it thus: ‘For a long time I believed that it was only through absolute passivity that you could learn to see what was really there.’ In other words, she’s had an intuition that to sustain objectivity she must utterly refuse to take part in the scene, so as not to blind herself to the consequences of her own actions. In an effort to elaborate, she goes on to outline, to the man she’s with, a certain position she’s recently been put in, relative to the elderly, cantankerous couple who live below her: what little she knew about them was that they were always ready to thrust a broom against their ceiling—her floor—at her lightest step; nonetheless, she decides to renovate what is her property, going so far as to rip up the floor she shares with them, but only to lay down sound-proofing materials—obviously, for her neighbours’ benefit, too, which they would see if only they had eyes out for the long-term, and perceived the sense in it which she did. They didn’t. She goes on to say that her ‘decision to create a disturbance by renovating my house had awoken a different reality, as though I had disturbed a beast sleeping in its lair. I had started to become, in effect, angry. I had started to desire power, because what I now realized was that other people had had it all along, that what I called fate was merely the reverberation of their will, a tale scripted not by some universal storyteller but by people who would elude justice for as long as their actions were met with resignation rather than outrage.’ In other words, her and her neighbours had reached an impasse, and both thought the other was being entirely unreasonable. As the reader, after this unusually definitive statement on Faye’s part, I was sure that Faye might begin to interject herself a little more into other peoples’ lives, so long as she was convinced of the right sense of her doing so, but no: she remained, to the very end, reticent to involve herself—in order to allow others to tell their truth? But what’s her neighbours’ truth then, other than to deny her something which to her seems necessary for everyone involved? At one point she goes so far as to say that she believes that giving in to her desire—for power, over her neighbours, say, or else for any other more commonplace lust—is the definition of evil.

The question of fate, as mentioned in the quote above, is a theme which comes up increasingly as the trilogy comes to a close. Some characters consider it a cop-out. It certainly isn’t left as the final word. Faye is still out to understand why people end up where they are, and Rachel Cusk, finally, in book three, describes a method which might have the robustness to achieve this, and to a high precision. It could easily be destined for failure at the outset, however, for the fact that it requires that each individual acknowledge their own involvement in the way things are currently going for them. As she describes it, the method is analogous to the mathematical idea of triangulation: to put it simply, one can locate themselves with a higher and higher degree of accuracy by correctly identifying and defining three elements in their life which they would point out as having been the forces which shaped them. In the trilogy we’ve seen characters who are more than willing to define one or two of these elements—they have been, for example, the relationship a character has to their ex plus their children, or else the politics of their country plus the way they are treated as a result of their gender. They have been professional failure, though of course only as a result of a lack of initiative from their employees. They have also been one’s sexual orientation, while still others have simply thrown up their hands and decried a cosmic force akin to fate. For the reader, all of these sound valid and admissible, but what is curious is how there was never any room—in these equations which each character uses to tally up their lot—for the subject who experienced such doubt as Faye does—at least, not if one wanted the world to make sense, and to instill a kind of order into the seething chaos which whirled around them. It became, by the end of the trilogy, a question of whether there exists such an individual who really can have such certainty in themselves that they could include themselves in the picture yet still maintain that order for which each and every one of them strives.

At the very end, there is an order after all, which the reader is left with, but it is of an all-too-human kind: not strictly logical, yet aimed at some ideal, or perfection where everything and every one fits snugly—and happily—into place. It is an order made possible only so long as the subject looking on continues to stand just outside the frame, as Faye has been kind enough to do all this time.

The final scene has left many readers scratching their heads: at first glance, it seems an unaccountable element which does not fit in to the structure of the rest of the trilogy. Superficially this is true, however it does have its place, precisely because of the fact that it seems so incongruous with everything that came before. Structurally, it is a repetition of a technique which Rachel Cusk employs, again and again, throughout the trilogy, to great effect. She primarily uses this technique to end each scene with an expert flourish, and every time it allows her to sidestep the impulse to add excessive weight to the narrative with judgments of her own. I’ll give two examples. In the third book there is a man—a fellow writer—who for several pages has been telling Faye all about how, these days, he’s been enjoying such control over his creative life by monitoring his every step and breath and heartbeat with the help of a smartwatch, and that he reckons that the disdain other writers—who enjoy living a ‘life of the mind’—seem to have for their own bodies amounts to a snobbery which becomes self-limiting as soon as it begins to be insisted upon. In other words, it becomes a handicap when they’re developing their worldview. When he realized this, he began to devote unwavering attention to the needs and demands of his own body, and he began to differentiate what his body needed versus what his body wanted. He noticed that, by focusing on the former, he began to feel an overwhelming sense that he could in fact deny himself very much while still managing to thrive in all the ways that had eluded him before. As a result he lost much weight, and the process opened his eyes to a new method for satiating the obsessive, perfectionist impulse of the writer in a way which left him feeling very satisfied indeed, in fact feeling almost invulnerable, because he had managed to rein himself in with such tight control. He says all this, and, before he walks too far off, Faye asks him why, now at this party, he’s walking with a cane. He turns back around, pivoting on his cane, laughs, and replies that although he’s run several hundred miles over the years without injury, wouldn’t you know it, he sprained his ankle getting out of a taxi. Similarly, in the second book, a stepfather explains to the dinner guests seated around his elegantly arranged table that recently he has found self-discipline in his life by becoming more discerning of the type of food he consumes, going so far as to forbid himself the sorts of comfort food which he grew up on. To him these sugary, fatty foods began to represent a time in his life when he gave in to more base desires, and he believed this held him back from appreciating the finer things. He said that this was the reason why his guests have likely never seen the dishes he prepared for them that evening. This newfound discipline of his had him pursuing cuisines which were more demanding, and flavours which were likely to be regarded by those present as—ahem—acquired tastes. During this dinner party, he becomes very angry at his wife’s children when they start to absolutely bawl at the dinner table, protesting that they could not eat the alien, esoteric dish he’d placed in front of them—it was one whole baby chicken for each. He becomes irate, almost furious, as the dinner continues and his wife serves them something more familiar, and this happens during the course of an evening which he has spent, elsewhere, denouncing the ex-husband of another guest at the table, claiming he’s nothing but a bully. Rachel Cusk does not offer the reader any indication as to how they should feel about these developments, but rather juxtaposes a character’s thoughts with other elements in the scene in order to leave the reader to themselves to reflect upon the way events turned out: concerning the writer who had found an access point, via his exercise regime, to a feeling of such power and control over himself so as to feel invulnerable, the reader is left thinking that perhaps this man had deluded himself to the extent that he failed to anticipate how each of us is always one misplaced step away from a sprained ankle, or worse; as for the stepfather, he of course does not see how he’s become a bully in his own right, by imposing upon his wife’s children an adult’s discipline, and holding them to his—only recently—decreed standard of appreciating food which they, young as they are, simply can’t be expected to meet. Given these examples—which are two among many—it perhaps makes sense that in the final scene, after three books filled with characters who are so sophisticated in their ideas that they are very nearly unbelievable, we’re left with an act of such vulgarity which, again, the author does not burden with her own judgment. Rather, she has left it to the reader to decide—no doubt by referencing their own view of how the world is—whether they’re so ready to believe that this other extreme is for real, in order to make a final judgment. Personally, I think what the man did was just as unbelievable as everything else, which is what makes the final act perfect, as only a story’s can be.

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