Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Outline, has been praised as a fresh direction, perhaps an artistic advance from her previous work. Her earlier novels are well written, conventional, and self- revealing; and Outline is well written, arty, and reticent. She has written seven novels before it, receiving a Whitbread Prize for her first, Saving Agnes, and was shortlisted for later ones. She has also written three controversial memoirs. One is a travel book about Italy that brought her the menace of lawsuits (The Last Supper); the other two recount her experiences of motherhood (A Life’s Work) and then divorce (Aftermath). In both of those books she detailed her personal views as an apostate from received opinions and brought down vicious reactions in the British press.
Cusk, who was born in Canada and now lives in London, has been described as “the most hated” novelist in Britain, and this judgment is directed not at her writing but at her character and her social attitudes. Most of the opprobrium arose from her motherhood book, which is frank and funny, and the strong reaction to it exposes the hypocrisy of official pieties. In it she dares to say that motherhood is not an unalloyed joy, and attempts to explain the cultural roots of the reasons it was difficult for her: “Motherhood, for me, was a sort of compound fenced off from the rest of the world. I was forever plotting my escape from it….” As she put it in Aftermath, she had been socialized as a man:
To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of male values. And my habitat, my environment, had evolved that way too. An adaptation would be required. But who was going to be doing the adapting?…
Finding herself unable to adapt, Cusk explains that she did two things: she “conscripted” her husband into giving up his job and staying home with the children, while she taught in a university. We can all imagine how this arrangement worked out; but she dissects the attempt with elaborate analogies to Clytemnestra and Abraham, the high tone recalling, say, Joan Didion’s memoirs. But whereas everyone can empathize with Didion’s experience of grief for the death of loved ones, Cusk’s willful self-destructiveness seems not to have evoked much pity from the harsh sisterhood of her critics. One, in a piece later awarded the prize for the Hatchet Job of the Year, wrote:
Cusk herself seems extraordinary—a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish. She tramples anyone close to her, especially Clarke [the husband], whom she has forced to give up his job in order to look after the kids. She pours scorn on his “dependence” and “unwaged domesticity,” but won’t do chores herself because they make her feel, of all things, “unsexed.” She is horrified when he demands half of everything in the divorce: “They’re my children,” she snarls. “They belong to me.”
Understandably stung by the bad press, Cusk responded with indignation in The Guardian; she seemed especially irritated by a reviewer who wrote, “If everyone were to read this book, the propagation of the human race would virtually cease, which would be a shame.” Cusk notes:
The reviewer was a woman. I had met her, in fact, at some literary festival or other years before. She had seemed harmless enough: I would not have suspected her of such drastic reach, such annihilating middle-class smugness (“which would be a shame”)….
On and on it went, back and forth: I was accused of child-hating, of postnatal depression, of shameless greed, of irresponsibility, of pretentiousness, of selfishness, of doom-mongering and, most often, of being too intellectual. One curious article questioned the length of my sentences: how had I, a mother, been able to write such long and complicated sentences? Why was I not busier, more tired? Another reviewer—a writer!—commanded her readers not to let the book fall into the hands of pregnant women. The telephone rang and rang.
Among the other personal attacks she received was this one:
Frankly, you are a self-obsessed bore: the embodiment of the Me! Me! Me! attitude which you so resent in small children. And everything those children say or do is—in your mind—really about you. Sooner or later, you end up in family therapy, because it has never occurred to you that it might be an idea to simply bring children up to be happy, or to consider happiness as an option for yourself…. Talk about navel-gazing.
Such ad feminam vitriol would be rare in the US, but sometimes a writer does become a public person whose life and character are discussed in newspapers—Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal come to mind. And we can remember controversies surrounding Erica Jong or Bret Easton Ellis—the latter got hate mail and death threats “as if ‘American Psycho’ had returned us to some bygone age when books were still a matter of life and death instead of something to distract us on a flight between JFK and LAX,” as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in 1991.
But literary celebrity is the exception with us unless it involves crime, politics, or sexual transgression. England, of course, takes letters more seriously and is a smaller pond, so Cusk’s domestic confessions even occasioned a disapproving, sanctimonious 2012 editorial in The Guardian that somewhat inconsistently defends free speech (“Nothing is unwritable. Indeed, the unwritable is precisely what needs to be written”), but includes the suggestion that perhaps she shouldn’t be writing about “the private agony of her family.” We need to expose
to the light of day the disturbing truth of the human condition. But can children really be counted as acceptable collateral damage in the self-styled vocation of the artist? Whatever the judgment one reaches here, this sort of literature is a high-wire act with very considerable consequences for success and failure. Sometimes too many others will pay the price for one’s own cherished sense of honesty.
Criticism such as this chooses to ignore her manner and concentrate on deploring the content of her work. Possibly such irritation is brought on by Cusk’s consistently perceptible distaste for most people and things, a kind of vivid misanthropy born, one supposes, of an initial and entirely well-meaning credulity about life, motherhood, and marriage. Her sour pronouncements may come too close to what people don’t like to admit they feel too, and, frankly, earlier criticism may also have been brought on by the occasional notes of self-satisfaction, as in her depiction, in The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy, of her perfect children forgoing swimming, though they are on a beach, in their eagerness to hear Cusk read Shakespeare aloud and do the voices of all three witches.
She may earn forgiveness with the chastened tone, in a recent New York Times article, “Raising Teenagers: The Mother of All Problems,” in which she is now the thoroughly daunted mother of adolescents. She’s learned that “it is perhaps unwise to treasure [the perfect family] story too closely or believe in it too much, for at some point the growing child will pick it up and turn it over in his hands like some dispassionate reviewer composing a coldhearted analysis of an overhyped novel.”
For Americans, the English criticism of Cusk’s funny and perspicacious books can seem somehow dated. When it comes to attitudes toward marriage and motherhood, each society seems to move at its own pace, now revering, now revising, what is to be the woman’s lot, recycling the options in a kind of time warp that makes the British at the moment seem behind or possibly ahead of us in their humorless reverence for stay-at-home motherhood (as the French do in their scorn for breastfeeding). Where we have Sheryl Sandberg cheering us on to get parking places at work, they are stuck with Penelope Leach telling them that to spend one minute away from baby is to squander a priceless life experience. A Life’s Work may have found many more sympathetic readers in our country than in England—at least it found this one.
To the surprise of no one whose husband has been set to doing the housework, Cusk’s next memoir, Aftermath, explored their divorce. Critics complained both that she wrote too much about herself and that she didn’t go into enough detail about the problems that led her and her husband to separate. Now too, things continued going wrong for Cusk:
[A lawyer] told me I was obliged to support my husband financially, possibly for ever. But he’s a qualified lawyer, I said. And I’m just a writer. What I meant was, he’s a man. And I’m just a woman. The old voodoo still banging its drum. The solicitor raised her eyebrows, gave me a bitter little smile. Well, then he knew exactly what he was doing, she said.
Another Guardian critic, reviewing Aftermath, invokes a comparison with Pol Pot as an operative force in “Cuskland.” Cusk meekly responds that she can see that “like all intolerance, [this overreaction by her critics] arose from dependence on an ideal. I see that cruelty and rudeness and viciousness are its harbingers, as they have always been.”
In the light of all the nastiness, Cusk’s new novel, Outline, is written with an almost reactionary flatness of affective response, forestalling any inferences about the author, though we are told that Faye, the narrator, is a writer going to Athens to teach a creative writing class, something Cusk may well have done. On the plane, her seatmate tells her his story, and when she gets to her class, she instructs its members to tell their stories, or the outlines thereof, explaining the title, which is further clarified by the final speaker.
Faye tells us some of the things she does during her stay in Athens, but much of the narrative is taken up by stories the writing students or her friends take turns telling, while her own story is resolutely withheld; no epiphanies, no resolution. The students, asked to describe something they noticed on the way to class, describe dogs and handbags. She assigns them the task of writing a story involving an animal, so there are animal stories. Evenings, she goes out with friends who tell stories, and one day during her stay in Athens, the Greek guy Faye met on the plane invites her for a ride on his boat. She accepts, but jumps into the water to avoid his attempt to kiss her.
Some critics have wanted more of Faye’s interaction with this man. If in a novel there is a hint of sexual possibility between two characters, readers will focus on it, never mind the real subject of the work. This problem of readerly predilections is likely to have been in Cusk’s mind at some point, and given that most of her books have been memoirs or seemingly autobiograpical novels, she may well now find discouraging the widespread approval she’s getting for writing herself out of this book. Compared to her other work and its reception, Outline’s sparse lack of narrative direction seems self-protective or the result of a wish to punish. Either way, having been taken to task for being autobiographical, she has chosen another path here into stylish modernism, whether permanently remains to be seen. Will she return to a more voluble self?
At the end of Faye’s stay in Athens, another writer, Anne, takes over the narrative and her story strangely merges with Faye’s own (and maybe with Cusk’s). Like Faye, on the way to Athens, the newcomer Anne had found herself sitting next to a man on the plane with whom she has a long conversation. He has left his family back in Canada to move to Athens and a new post, but though good at languages, he has failed to learn Greek. Anne proposes that it’s because of the absence of his family, but he doesn’t accept her explanation. Because, in her view, he refuses to take responsibility for his own failure to learn Greek, the conversation lapses; she has nothing more to say to him, rather like Cusk and the reader of Outline.
Another of the stories Faye hears reprises a principal subject of the novel, and is told by her friend Paniotis. This is the story of a woman writer, Angeliki, who has written a novel about a woman painter “whose artistic life is gradually being stifled by her domestic arrangements,” and who has come to feel that her own work is “merely decorative, a pastime, while her husband’s is considered not just by him but by the world to be important.” The narratives of the woman, her creator Angeliki, Angeliki’s friend Paniotis, and Faye are nested like Russian dolls, distancing Cusk herself from the condition described—the essential problem of the female artist and a central preoccupation of Cusk’s, who has elsewhere described this feeling as hers.
The new writing teacher, Anne, recounting a traumatic experience, says she had begun
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 content remained unknown, gave her for the first time since the incident [when someone tried to strangle her] a sense of who she now was.
Seeing the self as a malleable shape is a classic description of the writer’s gift, or plight. Keats’s was the best-known definition of this state of “negative capability”—“when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Anne’s description of fluid and faceless identity leads to the neutrality Cusk seems to be striving for here, in light of the criticism of her real self. Faye refers to it with an anecdote about her two children, who passed from a state of negative capability in which they shared an imaginary world to each having his own point of view, fact-based, disputing and depending on justice to prove who was right. Despite the charms of vindication, Cusk seems to be renouncing point of view.
It may strike us that besides how accomplished Cusk’s memoirs on motherhood and divorce are, her novel Outline and some other recent novels, for instance Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog, also resemble essays, or are essays, as much as they are conventional novels. The Dog begins like an essay on diving:
Perhaps because of my growing sense of the inefficiency of life lived on land and in air, of my growing sense that the accumulation of experience amounts, when all is said and done and pondered, simply to extra weight, so that one ends up dragging oneself around as if imprisoned in one of those Winnie the Pooh suits of explorers of the deep, I took up diving.
Or is this a memoir? To note the decline of the novel is hardly original—José Ortega y Gasset was talking about it in the 1920s: “When I hear a friend, particularly if he is a young writer, calmly announce that he is working on a novel, I am appalled.” For all we know, Daniel Defoe may have been saying the same thing. Would he now call Robinson Crusoe “creative nonfiction,” the currently fashionable term that means that some of it is made up?
Cusk’s nonfiction account of her divorce starts in exactly the same relaxed, confiding tone as, say, Emerson, whose famous essay “Self-Reliance” begins: “I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional.” “Mankind, says a Chinese manuscript, which my friend M. was obliging enough to read and explain to me, for the first seventy thousand ages ate their meat raw,” writes Charles Lamb. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…,’” writes Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As novels change their form and melt into memoir, so these forms also merge with what we are still calling the personal essay, so that novel, memoir, essay, and even news reports begin to sound like each other, most often governed by the “I.” What explains this selfie-enhanced urge to testimony, and for privileging subjectivity over authority?
Cusk’s nonfiction essays in Aftermath begin with all of the momentum of a novel or a memoir: “Recently my husband and I separated, and over the course of a few weeks the life that we’d made broke apart, like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces.” Outline begins in the same tone:
Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club by a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials…. The billionaire had been keen to give me the outline of his life story…. I wondered whether in fact what he wanted now was to be a writer, with [a] literary magazine as his entree. A lot of people want to be writers: there was no reason to think you couldn’t buy your way into it.
This blend of perceptiveness and cynicism follows the characteristic pattern of her prose: a statement or description, here that the billionaire wants to tell his story. Next, what the writer makes of it: I wondered what he wanted. Then, a generalization: “A lot of people want to be writers”; and an often wise but disenchanted conclusion (there was no reason to think you couldn’t buy your way into it). The observations are acute; the generalizations are educated and unexpected; the sophistication and originality of her conclusions are the reason her writing is so interesting. One critic says, not entirely with disapproval, “This is writerly greed, swooping on everything and wringing meaning from it, transforming it into something else rather than just letting it be.”
In earlier work, Cusk is often given to flights of censoriousness or self-congratulation, but in Outline it’s the rationing of her observations one rather regrets, as if she intends a kind of punishment by flatness. This attenuation seems to be the lesson taught by motherhood, as she gracefully suggests in her New York Times essay. In the past, her account of motherhood seemed, “suddenly, to have contained too much of the sound of myself. When you declaim, you can’t listen. When you insist, you miss the opportunity to learn something new.” It remains to be seen what effect this realization will continue to have on her fiction in the future.