There’s usually a great deal of tediousness in those conversations you have during occasions - social or otherwise - when you come up against strangers and total silence isn’t really an option, don’t you agree? Not often are we bold or disinhibited or excited enough to diverge from the generally agreed range of chit-chat topics and cut through to what really matters. Of course the chit-chat can serve purposes – allow you to bide time until something more interesting might happen, give you a chance to suss someone out before you commit yourself to the next level of engagement, let you fulfil a social nicety without expending too much emotional energy, prevent you from making an enemy of someone whose path you might cross again. Life would be too exhausting if every conversation we had were so riveting that we wouldn’t want it to stop. And what would be special about our dearest ones if we could just as delightedly, or perhaps even more so, spend hours as totally engrossed in talk with a stranger as with them?
Perhaps many of us do, actually, long to launch straight into deep and meaningfuls. Helen Garner in the first story in her collection, True Stories, writes that she once said to a boyfriend sick in bed, hoping to relieve his boredom “Hey, how about we discuss the nature of good and evil?” (he declined the invitation). And, at an Adelaide Writers’ Festival, the writers are on a bus together and an Englishman comes and sits down next to Helen. “Do you mind my talking to you?” “Course not”, she says. “What’ll we talk about? Shall we get right down to it and talk about sex?”
Reading Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, Outline (2014), Transit (2016) and Kudos (2018) immerses you in a world where small talk is virtually non-existent and strangers are sharing, within moments of meeting, their deepest secrets and getting down to the heart of what makes them who they are and how they are living their lives. Actually, ‘sharing’ isn’t quite accurate as it implies reciprocity whereas in fact the writer, protagonist (Rachel herself?) hardly speaks at all. She merely has to be in proximity to another for that person to commence their revelations. She might make the occasional comment, ask a question, tell some small thing about herself but on the whole she is there to listen.
Cusk had written seven novels and three memoirs before she wrote the trilogy. The first of the memoirs, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (2001), in which she dares to say that motherhood is not an unalloyed joy and involves pain, boredom, drudgery and exhaustion drew accusations of child hatred from readers and reviewers. The second, The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (2009), about a family holiday, also drew ire and had to be pulped when she allegedly “libelled a whole village”. The third, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012), an exploration of her anguish about her divorce as well as reflections on the gender divisions within marriage, brought charges about her such as self-absorption, condescension, ice in her heart and cruelty towards her children and drew savage personal criticisms of her such as that she was “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish”. (The piece from which this is an extract was awarded the prize for the Hatchet Job of the Year.) Cusk was particularly hated in Britain (she was born in Canada but lives in London). She lays low but was not indifferent to the attacks. “That was one of the worst things that ever happened to me” she said about the reaction to A Life’s Work and “creative death”, was how she referred to what she experienced after Aftermath, saying, “I was heading into total silence”.
Two things seemed to pull Cusk out of this: teaching creative writing where she came to believe that people wanted to write in order to start uncovering themselves, and reading Karl Ove Knausgaard whom she quotes as saying that the point of writing is not about making things up but of “drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.” She came to think that the whole idea of writing fiction, as conventionally understood, is “fake and embarrassing…. utterly ridiculous”. As a writer, her response to the frustration with the novel form (and, surely, to the savage and personal attacks on her for her non-fiction works) was to forge a new form for her work, a sort of semi-autobiographical novel in which the narrator is almost absent, serving mostly to present to the reader the stories of the lives of others.
Each book of the trilogy is composed of a series of conversations between the writer, Faye, as we only gradually come to know is her name, and strangers, old friends, ex-lovers, students, her sons, fellow writers. Faye, as one reviewer says, “practises a torrential listening”. She sits through monologues for hours, occasionally intervening with comments such as “I’m not sure” and “I wonder if that’s true”. We do find out a little bit about Faye – she is a writer, divorced, has two sons. Mostly, however, she is just an empty space. She meets people, they talk to her at length about very personal aspects of their lives, she occasionally makes observations. Sometimes we are told what she is thinking. External realities aren’t ignored but they are mostly backdrop to the deep drilling down by each person into the big and small details of their lives. The monologues are like trances. You wonder what life would be like if you were exposed to this extraordinary intimate unburdening whenever you went out into the world. There’s no narrative reason why it happens to Faye, what makes her different from those who drown her with words. It’s more than that she’s just a good listener; it’s the point of the books. From total revelation of herself in the memoirs she is, in the trilogy, almost an empty space. Perhaps she is punishing us, her readers, for having so cruelly demolished her for her previous naked self-exposure?
The trilogy may be an experiment in autobiography in which the self is missing.
In OUTLINE, Faye travels to Athens to teach at a creative writing workshop. On the plane she sits next to a Greek man who tells her stories of his complicated family history and marriages. On another day during her stay she spends more time with him on his yacht where he talks more. When she comes to run her class, she gets the students to tell stories about, for example something they noticed on their way to class or about animals…… and some of these are recounted to us at length. In the evenings Faye goes out with friends who tell stories about themselves and others. Paniotis, an Athenian publisher tells of a woman writer, Angeliki “whose artistic life is gradually being stifled by her domestic arrangements”; the new writing teacher, Anne, recounts her story of also sitting next to a man on a plane who tells of leaving his family behind in Canada to take up a job in Greece and then recounts her own story of a traumatic experience. There is a glamorous feminist novelist just back from a book tour in Poland…
In TRANSIT Faye is back in London renovating the former council flat she has bought to make a new home for herself and her two sons. She once again brings other people’s stories to the reader – those of Pavel, the Polish architect/builder working on her flat whose family is back in Poland; her hair-stylist, Dale who, through confronting an amorphous fear is coming to feel at ease with himself; her long ago ex-lover Gerard, his new wife Diane and their daughter Clara; her old friend Amanda and her builder boyfriend who keeps promising to move in but never does; her student Jane who tells of her flirtation with an older married man and what about it excites her; her cousin Lawrence and his wife Eloise and the guests at their rural dinner party also attended by Faye who reveal their personal stories. Faye is a little more in evidence as a character in Transit, although still in the background. Her sons are absent, staying at their father’s home during the renovations, present only in phone calls or texts. Faye goes on a date with a new man and is it within the book or just in us, the readers, that there is hope? At the end Faye attends a writers festival and is on a panel with two male writers who talk a lot about themselves…..
In KUDOS, Faye, now remarried, goes to a writers’ festival in Germany and then on to a conference somewhere which is not identified but appears to be Portugal. The book again begins on plane with Faye sitting next to yet another confiding male. He has just come from burying the family dog and tells her that whole sad story and others about his work and his marriage. The land-based storytellers she meets also have tales to tell of injury and death and everything else. There is a Portuguese publicist called Paola, a divorced translator, a painful publisher, a number of other male and female writers, an interviewer who spends the whole interview time talking about herself, a guide called Hermann, journalists… all of
them have stories to tell. Faye listens as she always does, sometimes revealing small bits about herself and sometimes commenting on what she hears. Again these others talk and talk, dominate time and space and are full of their own importance.
These are short books, easy to read and full of entertaining – yes, stories. Life is revealed in its myriad permutations and each character is unique and intriguing. The stories feature lies and cruelty, the wreckage of relationships and families, escapes or not from trapped lives, hatred and being disliked, love, hope and optimism, the differences between men and women, the complexities of feminism and much more. “Steely, searching, brisk”, is how one reviewer describes the trilogy. Faye is the character least revealed but she is a strong presence nevertheless, Cusk perhaps not being as repressible a narrator as she was aiming
to be? Or perhaps Faye’s strength in silence is the point? There are funny bits, pointedly acerbic bits, lovely descriptive bits in each of the books. They are creative experiments in autobiography/fiction but there is narrative progression – Faye’s boys grow older, she remarries, characters from one book emerge in another. I enjoyed them immensely, more than I had her previous more conventional novels and the controversial memoirs.
Cusk said in a recent interview “One of the things said about these books is, People don’t talk like that. But I think they probably do. Maybe not all the time, but I think they do. The people that I tend to have speaking in my books have a momentary emergence……. a possibility of iconic utterance….” In my experience, People don’t talk like that, not strangers and little known acquaintances anyway, but I wish they did. Parties, social events and air travel would be so much more interesting.