“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. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying – it seemed to me – was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become – to put it bluntly – anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.”
The 2016 anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids which includes essays by Lionel Shriver, Geoff Dyer and Sigrid Nunez shows a cross section of the great diversity of reasons people choose not to become parents. Thanks to books like this, one of the last horrendous bastions of misogyny – that of the vile attack on women (usually by other women) who choose to live child free gets to be chipped away just a little bit, and about bloody time too. It really has got tedious, whether to those who are physically incapable of holding a pregnancy or, say, those who already spent their childhoods being Mother when it was necessary for the protection and sanity of their younger siblings. And of course the list of excellent reasons goes on and on…as does the misogynistic judgment.
The fearlessly controversial Lionel Shriver had already put herself on the line when she published We Need To Talk About Kevin, her 2003 novel about a Columbine-style murder spree committed by the increasingly disturbed teenage son of Eva, a character whose inability to feel any archetypal maternal feelings for him from birth are one of the core issues chilling the narrative. Nailed by the sensitive and nuanced performance of Tilda Swinton in Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 film of the same name, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a polarising story, with several critics presumptuously mauling Shriver for taking on the subject of motherhood when she herself is not a biological mother.
But that was nothing compared to the still reverberating shit storm of abuse Rachel Cusk got for her 2001 memoir about the pain of new motherhood, A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother. “Career suicide” trilled the New York Times, and Cusk admits that the response to the book so knocked the stuffing out of her it was like being obliterated as a writer, despite the fact she had already published several substantially well received books at that point. When Shriver took on the darkness of the maternal experience she was pitched as a projecting sort of un-mother taking out, perhaps, some unfulfilled reproductive urge on her hapless reader. An easy target? Fish in a barrel! But there was no getting away from the chatter that Cusk, a respected and award-winning literary novelist was writing a dangerous bean-spiller. The book was loudly greeted with critical hostility and she is still being constantly asked about it at just about every event she does, or in just about every interview, today, in 2017, sixteen years later.
And then came her 2012 divorce memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation which saw Cusk critically decried as “infuriating and narcissistic” and so on and on. One definitely had the feeling that with this book and the motherhood memoir she was giving the family secrets away in a manner that was just not done. Of course plenty of readers felt, conversely, a huge sense of ‘oh, at fucking last!’ as they sighed with recognition at some of the more honest passages in both books. It has always helped, to be sure, that her prose is stunning. She is one of the greatest living writers, and with each consecutive book this becomes ever more apparent.
So with the next novel, Outline (2014), it seemed as if having been observed and analysed and picked apart so intensely herself she was now choosing to retreat into the shadows, to become merely the observer and critical analyst of others. She gave up expressing her own feelings because, perhaps, it’s just too dangerous. Her narrator, Faye, is only named once in the book. She is the first person cipher through whose life all the other characters in Outline pass. Faye is the outline. As such she comes across as safe but wise, as cautious but close, as translucent but trusted. And the book is set in Athens – as if to provide a backdrop of civilisation’s suggested archetypes and origins, – where Faye has been invited for a few days to teach creative writing at a summer school.
One of Cusk’s many talents as a writer is the way she reads body language – “a swarthy boy with lolling knees, whose fat thumbs sped around the screen of a gaming console”; “he opened his hands in a gesture of receipt”; “there was a certain self-consciousness in the set of his shoulders.” Most of the characters are way more filled out than Faye herself, starting with the Greek ‘neighbour’ as he remains called throughout the book, who is seated next to her on the plane over to Athens, and whose own life story he imparts to her in the kind of detail that is often typical of those Before Sunrise-type conversational intimacies shared on foreign journeys between strangers. This one though is basically one-sided for the most part. They end up staying in touch, and she goes out with him a couple of times on his yacht during which trips he unfurls more and more of his sadness as he continues to recount his life story in snapshot anecdotes of his previous relationships, before making a miscalculated pass at Faye. Later, when they stop for coffee at a beauty spot during which he talks even more about himself, he picks up the bill, “waving away my offers of money after a brief but observable hesitation.” It’s the little observations like this, the subtle but loaded observable that you find affecting you more than anything.
Then there’s Ryan, the slightly recalcitrant friend and fellow teacher who has also been invited to teach in Athens, and with whom she meets up shortly after arrival. Without ever saying so we know Faye cringes at his somewhat priapic journey through life: a barely contained slavering over the waitress which finally climaxes in a show-offy “Oh, run away with me”, for example. Then there’s the “beautiful girl” he saw on his first visit to a gym and who “to his not inconsiderable disappointment he never saw again”. Or his tale of having some years earlier acquired a “ballet-dancer girlfriend” but finally marrying and having kids with someone else. He gloats as he tells Faye that he is now in touch with the dancer again thanks to the joys of social media, although he sees no irony in his pitying her for living in a flat with her mother in NYC, being forty and more or less exactly as she was at 23, and now working as a psychotherapist. While he calls this rather cool-sounding life situation “stunted”, he on the other hand has settled down (read: acquired trappings) with a wife and kids and his house in Dublin, a different man in every way! He tells Faye all of this while his eyes are still focused on the waitress. When he sees Faye has observed this he goes into a grand boast about how he and his wife like to “take a good look…See what’s out there.” Predictably when Faye’s editor friend Elena turns up to join them in the cafe he is off again. “She’s in a different league…She’s another proposition entirely.” By the end of the scene I was picturing a giant penis on his forehead like a warning flag.
It’s through Cusk’s subtle but trenchant descriptions that we feel Ryan’s wrong-headedness. “I remembered then an evening I’d spent in a bar a few years ago, with a group of people that included a married a couple I didn’t know. The woman kept identifying attractive girls and drawing her husband’s attention to them; they sat there and discussed the attributes of the various girls, and were it not for the grimace of utter desperation I glimpsed on the woman’s face when she thought no one was looking, I would have believed this was an activity both of them enjoyed.” When Ryan’s phone rings, a photo of his child pops up on his phone, like a guilty secret in reverse, and when it’s time for Faye to leave it is only as she is gathering her things that Ryan decides to finally ask her what she’s been working on.
Another of her old friends is Paniotis, whose eyes “within this rictus-like expression, are very mobile and changeable and often bulge dramatically forward, as though one day they might fly out of his face altogether with astonishment at what they have witnessed.” It’s through meeting characters like this that we get to feel Faye’s version of an Athenian summer, in which there seems to be an ever-present crowd which nonetheless never impinges on comfort, and a sultry heat that slows things down in a way that renders them more observable.
Paniotis, like a few of the characters in the story is involved in the world of the written word, in his case as the melancholy publisher who had set up his dream company – a house devoted to publishing English writers in translation. Throwing himself into this fabulous labour of love, we learn, he had undertaken many of the translations himself, and had explained to the authors back in the UK that there wouldn’t be any actual advances paid. The way he saw it, why, the books hadn’t even earned their advances yet! So, in other words, a royalty only deal was offered, fair play for books already written, paid for (by the domestic publishers) and published, after all, and what a great, great thing it would be for these wonderful authors to reach a whole new audience right here in Greece. Only it don’t quite pan out that way. Poor Paniotis ended up heartbroken having been threatened with legal action and “worst of all came away with the impression that these writers he had worshipped as the artists of our time were in fact cold and unempathetic people devoted to self-promotion and above all else, to money.”
Paniotis has brought along his friend Angeliki to the restaurant in which he is sharing his sad tale with Faye. Angeliki, considered a bit of a literary celebrity in the community, has insisted on meeting Faye, and before she arrives Paniotis gives Faye a rundown of the whole plot of Angeliki’s novel. When she finally arrives, Faye notes, she “would have been the picture of elegance had she not…disclosed a face so extraordinarily anxious that anyone looking at it could only feel anxious too on her behalf”. She then starts to fret endlessly over every item on menu, the picture of an unsettled and unsure of herself writer. Then she does that shameless cuckoo thing (someone actually did this to me too once in the middle of an extremely informal meeting in a cafe in Ibiza and totally freaked me out): she stops Faye in mid-conversation, as Faye is openly sharing some childhood memory and grabs her pen claiming she needs to write down what Faye has just said, “could you just repeat the second part.” Shudder.
The class itself is pretty thankless all in all. Faye struggles to get the students to recount out loud, in English, the details of their day’s experiences, with specific reference to their journey to class that day. But it’s an excuse for Cusk to delve once again into other peoples’ versions of their relationships to the world and the people and animals around them, and it’s in these observations that we feel the weight of the characters’ lives, as they relate them. Cusk goes looking for the weight whenever she can, as in the case of the absent Clelia, in whose perfectly lovely apartment Faye is staying and in which “I kept looking for something else, a clue, something rotting or breeding, a layer of mystery or chaos or shame, but I didn’t find it.”
A lot of the novel then is played out in bars and cafes, with wine, olives, crisp tablecloths and helpful waiters, where “the evenings were strangely without the sense of progression: it didn’t get cooler, or quieter, or emptier of people; the roar of talk and laughter came unstaunched from the glaring terraces of restaurants, the traffic was a swarming, honking rover of lights, small children rode their bicycles along the pavements under the bile-coloured street lamps. ”
Somewhere in the background of all of this is Faye’s home life, which never really gets filled in, but for brief interjections such as her son’s “Where’s my tennis racket?” phone text, or when he rings her when she’s in class claiming he’s lost, and she has to ask him to look for a road sign and gets him to retrace his steps. And it’s because of these quite mundane little jolts to her day that you start to get the feeling Faye is a character as chrysalis…
Transit, the follow up novel to Outline (Cusk has said the two form part of a trilogy, with the third book currently in preparation) sees Faye start to emerge from the chrysalis, a vulnerable but somehow emboldened creature as she rebuilds her post-divorce life back in London, to where she has moved from the country.
When her English publisher asked me for a blurb for “Transit,” I sent back, “Rachel Cusk is too smart for her own good,” and I meant this as the ultimate compliment. She doesn’t suffer fools, and I like that in a writer. – John Waters
Following the advice of a writer friend to get “a bad house in a good street” rather than vice versa, she buys a run down council property that’s crying for help and clearly represents an enormous challenge. It’s the metaphor of the book’s journey – refurbishing this property as she refurbishes her own life, and Faye is up against the all too concrete challenges of difficult neighbours, an expensive builders’ estimate that makes others shake their heads, and the distractions of friends whose stories are once again more heavily fleshed out by Cusk than Faye herself is. Even so, we are now seeing Faye in some kind of material context, albeit one in domestic flux (the boys have moved in with their father while building work is underway on the new house, so once again they are absent).
“Whatever we might wish to believe about ourselves, we are only the result of how others have treated us.” – Transit
The first character whose story we are treated to is that of an ex-boyfriend, Gerard, who she runs into on the street close to where they once lived together (it seems to be all set around Kentish Town, though location is never mentioned). She had left Gerard for someone else and she recalls how she had felt at the time that he was an outline that needed filling in. But running into him now she perceives him as filled in, at least in the sense that he is married – to a woman who he got together with after he had lost her dog! – and had a daughter. On the street now Gerard and Faye discuss the “atmosphere of knowingness” about parts of London today where “‘even the pub is ironic,’ he said as we approached it, the once-sordid building now a refurbished allusion to its own non-existent history”, and this is a beautiful and clever reference to the incomprehensibly fetishised simulacrum-London immediately recognisable to anyone who knew it both before and since the millennium.
Faye is rebuilding slowly, her house, her life, her outline being filled in for us as much as for herself. This is beautifully done. Although we get so much more of Gerard’s story as they chat in the street than we do of hers, we do at least have a sense of her having had a past with him, and the connection gives a little colour to who we think she is.
But at one point she is almost completely swallowed whole by her obnoxious bully of a downstairs neighbour, who lives and seethes from below with her husband, like Beckett’s Nag and Nell, “crouching malevolently in the psyche of the house”. They have been there for forty years and the woman lets roar their disapproval of Faye’s comings and goings and all the noise the building work is creating. As she warms to her theme while berating Faye, “I watched her big body writhe slightly, her head twisting from side to side, as though something inside her was rising and unfolding, wanting to be born.” Oddly, the builder says the woman has been perfectly ok with him. Faye’s fresh from the chrysalis aura has presumably offered her up as a kind of bullseye for this malevolent presence then.
After getting her roots done during another scene of character exposition as vignette – in this case that of Dale, her hairdresser, Faye sets off for a literary festival where she has been invited to speak on a panel. The other panelists are Julian and Louis, memoirists who take over the event somewhat, particularly in the case of Julian who immediately assumes the lead and makes light to everyone present of the fact they have all arrived soaked from the rain (his jolly audience rat-a-tat reminiscent of Will Self), thanks to the organiser taking them the wrong way to the event space. During the discussion Louis describes his memoir which has sold in considerable quantity all over the world despite the common complaint that nothing ever really happens in it (shades of the excellent Karl-Ove Knausgaard, who Cusk has publicly praised many times) and how what he is doing is “like a dog that shits in its own bed”, while he looks directly at Faye for the first time. This feels like Cusk stepping in and remembering the reception she had to her motherhood memoir. Somewhat inevitably, she gets to present her book last and then they’re out of time, so there is no space for questions for her from the audience. Then the guys are off to some club, and she is left, uninvited and sitting with the panel host (the one who made them walk through the rain on their way in) and before you know it, the host is walking her home and making the kind of uninvited pass at her that the Greek ‘neighbour’ did in Outline.
Then there’s the character of Jane, a student: “there was a sense of drama about her that seemed to invite only two responses – either to become absorbed or to walk away.” Since Faye has agreed to work with her she gets embroiled in Jane’s own ‘story’ which involves an intriguing adventure in Paris anecdote. Or her friend Amanda who she meets up with in a local cafe, “Her short, fleshy body seemed to exist in a state of constant animation through which an oceanic weariness could occasionally be glimpsed” and whose own Paris anecdote is on the other hand a total failure.
Or Tony, the builder, who drives home to Albania every couple of months. Or Tony’s friend Kaput, who collects peoples’ rubbish as he is cheaper than hiring a skip, then sends the money home to his village. And Pavel, the other builder, described as small and melancholic, whose back story we get in some detail. The builders feel like a wall of protection in her life; there is something formidable while transitory in their being away from home but thinking about or talking about it often, their days spent constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing homes, like a metaphor for the rebuilding of Albania.
Then there’s her tightly wound cousin Lawrence, to whose Cotswold home she is invited to dinner. It’s a decidedly tricky set up, with the three other women guests (including Lawrence’s new partner, Eloise) all dressed up to the nines as if they were setting off for a glamorous city party and not in fact dinner in a cottage off a series of fogbound country lanes. The kids are running slightly amok and seem to polarise the adults because of the hugely complicated rituals that kick in when it comes to feeding time, and the atmosphere around the table becomes piecemeal and conspiratorial.
The highlight of the story, for those batting for team Faye, is when she meets up for a dinner date with a man who has got her number from a friend, after meeting her briefly a year earlier. This is the point at which you feel she’s turning a significant corner (and Cusk has introduced an astrologer into the story early on – in fact the book opens with the astrologer – who predicts something important happening to her on this day).
At dinner Faye reveals to her companion what the process of the renovation work on her new house has awoken to her: “I had started to become, in effect, angry. I had started to desire power, because what I now realised 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.” This heartbreaking but finally empowering realisation feels like the precise crux of Faye’s journey. The worm has turned. One by one the pieces of her puzzle are starting to realign. When he takes her arm outside the restaurant:
“A flooding feeling of relief passed violently through me, as if I was the passenger in a car that had finally swerved away from a sharp drop.
Faye, he said.”
Once again, it’s the first and last time her name is mentioned in the book. Poignantly so in this case, we hope.