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An Interview with Rachel Cusk
“I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible,”—The narrator of Rachel Cusk’s eighth novel Outline.
Rachel Cusk is the author of eight works of fiction, and best known for her memoirs, which include A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother (2001), and Aftermath (2010), a portrait of her divorce from photographer Adrian Clarke and the breakdown of their family life. Her unsparing honesty has provoked equally unsparing hostility from many British critics and media—an article in The Spectator called Aftermath “mimsy, self-important, self-justifying emetic drivel” and Cusk herself “a self-obsessed, self-pitying idiot.” Speaking of her reaction to such critical—largely male—rage in an interview with the Guardian, Cusk said “Without wishing to sound melodramatic, it was creative death after Aftermath. That was the end. I was heading into total silence.”
Outline is a departure from the intensely revealing mode of Cusk’s previous work, a shift to what she calls an “annihilated perspective.” The narrator Faye is present but little is known about her. Beyond allusions to basic facts about her life—she is a novelist, a mother, recently divorced, and on her way to teach a creative writing course in Athens—she is without context or personal detail. The novel is almost entirely made up of encounters Faye has with other people—writers, editors, a Greek merchant who tells her about her previous marriages. We expect a confession from Faye which never comes.
Listening to other people describe their lives, Faye does not at any point disclose her own. She paraphrases her responses for the reader; we never directly hear her voice. The narrator’s sustained silence takes Outline into radically new terrain—dramatizing the never-ending flow of narrative that comprises the everyday experience, giving form to the constant process of self-invention that is quotidian conversation.
Over email, Cusk and I discussed fiction, memoir, and finding Outline’s form. Taking a while to respond to questions, she explained “I’ve been up to my neck with a writing project and have just emerged.”
I. A GROUP OF STRANGERS IN A BARREN ROOM
THE BELIEVER: How did you construct the conversations in Outline? What gets included, and what gets left out in a seemingly naturalistic work of fiction like this?
RACHEL CUSK: I made a formal decision about the novel at the beginning, which was that more or less everything should be contained in the observable surface of the text, because that is how existence might feel to someone who has lost their own interior life as well as their context. Perhaps consequently, the lives of others seem actually to be in some sense “about” them. So the conversations had quite a clear design and purpose: to contain that subjective element of seeming as well as being.
BLVR: In his preface to Portrait of a Lady, Henry James discusses how the novel came to be by referring to “the germ of my idea.” What was Outline’s germ?
RC: I was actively searching for a form through which to convey a particular phase of life, one that entailed catastrophic loss of context and of the sense of constructed reality. Reality, in other words, is suddenly understood to be a construction and therefore ceases to be useful. It seemed to me that language as a system of representation becomes central in such a situation; I had this idea of an empty or vacated world in which what people say, how they describe themselves, is all there is. And by this route the fundamental human grasp of narrative is revealed. It struck me that this, in essence, is the ethos of the creative writing class: a group of strangers in a barren room who are obliged to create or re-create themselves from scratch through language.
BLVR: Your narrator alludes to facts about your life in the book—the end of a marriage, text messages from your children—but you keep her personal details off the page and out of sight. How did you decide what to disclose about this person, an invention but one who resembles yourself?
RC: I used her as a starting point, a one-way threshold. It became apparent very quickly that the form didn’t allow that threshold to be crossed back over. The whole point about the novel is that there are no disembodied forms of knowledge, no miraculous access to an internal world in which the novel’s claims are substantiated; there is only what can palpably be observed. The narrator doesn’t speak very much about herself and so not very much can be known about her.
BLVR: Were you ever tempted to reveal more about yourself at any point in the book?
RC: I wasn’t painting a portrait of myself in Outline; there was absolutely no motivation to expose or process personal material. The novel begins from a point of self-erasure: the challenge was to see how little of the narrator’s “self” I could expose without the whole thing collapsing.
II. THE NEED TO ATTACH
BLVR: You’ve been described as writing a kind of quotidian, anti-narrative form of fiction. This seems to be having a moment in the writing of Knausgård, Ben Lerner, Sheil Heti, and in the revival of a writer like Renata Adler. Why do you think this is?
RC: I think a lot of artists no longer want to participate in or be associated with narrative because of its corruptedness in contemporary culture. There is a slovenly disrespect for truth and reality that has infected and cross-infected the arts; the values of entertainment are relentlessly in the ascendant, to the extent that it becomes virtually impossible to write a naturalistic fictional sentence without feeling that the fabric of that sentence is already compromised. The writing you allude to is a form of dissent, but it’s also expressive of the need to evolve beyond what is turgid and stale in contemporary fiction.
BLVR: What are the different compulsions that make you want to write fiction instead of memoir and vice versa?
RC: To me there’s no great difference between the two at a creative level; what you’re tinkering with is the outward appearance of a text, how it can be ‘dressed’ so that the reader will receive it in a particular way. The memoir form is useful to describe experiences that generate a feeling of solitude or isolation, no matter how universal they may be.
BLVR: The last section of your memoir, Aftermath, read to me like a short story in the way the perspective shifts from yourself, the narrator, to another person—a nanny who appears to work for your family. Why?
RC: I wanted to evoke the feeling of the home, with all its subjective reality, being broken open and exposed to the gaze of strangers. This to me is a central element in the trauma of divorce. But divorce also entails the beginning of a supposition that that familial reality might have obstructed one’s ability to perceive others. By introducing a stranger, an unconnected character, I was suggesting a possible future, one in which objective reality might reassert itself, with all sorts of consequences.
BLVR: Is identity at any given moment a form of fiction?
RC: I suppose it has to be, if one intends to honour lived experience.
BLVR: “Neighbor” struck me as a very specific word to use to refer to a stranger sitting next to you on the plane. Can you talk about why you chose it
RC: Well a neighbor is something that belongs to the stable world of home life, the thing that lives next door to you. I used it to signify the need to attach oneself to the world, even in periods of great instability and transition. To me there’s something tragic about this need, about the way we still follow patterns even when the template has been smashed up.
BLVR: You seem to have approached a boundary in fiction with Outline. Is there anything you haven’t written but would like to? What do you want to write next?
RC: Outline is the first part of a trilogy; I’m currently writing the second part. I feel I haven’t finished with the form yet. There’s more to say through that mouthpiece.
Alice Whitwham is an agent at the Zoe Pagnamenta Agency and the events manager at McNally Jackson Books.