In introductory studio art classes students are often assigned a negative-space drawing—that is, they are asked to draw everything surrounding a figure, filling up the page, until the blank shape of the figure emerges. This has been Rachel Cusk’s technique in her last trio of novels—a trio referred to appropriately as the Outline trilogy—and it is a little puzzling that more people haven’t thought to write novels in this manner before. Perhaps we go to fiction for the solitary inner life of one character and her actions against the confining tenets and structures of her society (though Cusk’s trilogy manages this as well) rather than for everything surrounding her—in this case, linked and paraphrased soliloquies of secondary, even tertiary, characters upstaging and downstaging the ostensible protagonist. This is not a cinematic way of writing a novel but it is theatrical, with sudden arias and contiguous monologues reminiscent of the plays of Brian Friel.
As in a negative-space drawing, the trilogy’s narrator—a writer named Faye (otherworldly as in fey; defiant as in fie)—is a silhouette, rapt and wrapped, her form determined by the purposeful chat of others, which hovers, adheres, and sculpts. She is the prompt and master of ceremonies for other narrators, who in turn sometimes tell stories with additional narrators nested within them like Russian dolls (or Russian short stories, which are prone to framed and embedded narrations). That Cusk has constructed her novels in this radical manner seems both perverse and inventive and has caught the attention of many other writers. Despite comparisons, her work is not the autofiction of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti, whose own voices and personalities cram their pages; nor is it the meditative flâneurie of W.G. Sebald or Teju Cole; it is something more peculiar and thrilling and Cusk’s own.
The concentrated, flinty nature of Cusk’s mind (a fellow admirer and I often refer to her, in pseudo-jazz-intimacy, simply as “Rachel,” though we have never met her and haven’t the flimsiest intention of trying to do so) ensures that authorial intelligence is burned into the syntax of every line, despite the cloaked narrator in the foreground. Even if they technically belong to fictional others, the voices, with their stories of familial upheaval, traps, escapes to dubious safety, or dull drift, are chosen and arranged by Cusk as both reflections and arguments concerning life’s dissolutions and reconstructions. What runs through her trilogy is a coolly abstracted consciousness organizing all the stories—one that is alert to the mendacity and (as the trilogy suggests, if they are any good) the cruelty in stories (in a culture that glibly claims to value them). It is like reading the best kind of philosophy—steely, searching, brisk.
Outline, the trilogy’s first volume, begins at a meeting between the recently divorced Faye and a London billionaire interested in starting a literary magazine, then moves quickly to the passenger beside her on a flight…
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