The Silent Woman

Outline: A Novel BY Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 256 pages. $26.

The cover of Outline: A Novel

How much less violence we would do to our lives, Rachel Cusk’s eighth novel suggests, if we could bear disenchantment. Outline is composed mainly of conversations between the narrator, Faye, and the people she meets in Athens, where she’s teaching a summer writing course. Through the stories told to Faye by strangers, acquaintances, and friends, Cusk illustrates how the “principle of progress” causes people to destroy what they have in their search for the next thing. One man attributes the end of his marriage to him and his wife’s running out of mutual goals to accomplish (house, children, travel): “If only we had had the sense, he said, to make our peace with one another then, to start from the honest proposition that we were two people not in love who nonetheless meant one another no harm . . . we might have learned truly to love one another and to love ourselves.” A different man blames his divorce on false confidence: “He and his wife had built things that flourished, had together expanded the sum of what they were and what they had; life had responded willingly to them, had treated them abundantly, and this—he now saw—was what had given him the confidence to break it all, break it with what now seemed to him to be an extraordinary casualness, because he thought there would be more.”

Cusk has written that she subscribes to Freud’s view of “individual personality” as a “re-enactment in miniature of civilisation,” and it is no coincidence that Outline takes place in present-day Greece, a country that, as one character puts it, “is on its knees and dying a slow and agonizing death.” The man’s carelessness with his happy marriage (he had an affair, we learn) resembles on a small scale the risky investments that contributed to Greece’s financial crisis. It takes a massive shock to wake up from the fantasy that one’s way of life is solid and permanent.

In her memoir Aftermath, which also deals with the dissolution of family life, Cusk writes that since her divorce she has “come to hate stories.” And so Aftermath does not tell the story of her divorce in the traditional sense—he did this; I did that; he is this kind of person; I am that kind of person. Instead, at her best, Cusk approaches the distress of watching her family come apart through mundane particulars: toothache, her kids’ bath time. The book’s final section reads like a short story. It describes a troubled young woman who finds a sense of purpose and stability in becoming a nanny; details make it clear that she works for Cusk’s family. The adoption of the nanny’s perspective—someone intimately affected by the separation yet not privy to the thoughts and feelings of “the man and the woman,” as Cusk, now at a remove, calls herself and her husband—gives the story a surreal matter-of-factness. Because the nanny is at the mercy of the man and the woman, events unfold without any seeming agent; because the nanny is alienated from them, just as they are alienated from each other, she perceives the family’s suffering only through the external details of changes in behavior and appearance. This distance allows Cusk to describe the tragedy with more precision than almost anything I’ve read on divorce.

Aftermath is frank about Cusk’s complicated feelings—such as her desire for full custody of her children—and the memoir received vitriolic reviews, describing Cusk as a “peerless narcissist” and a “self-pitying idiot.” Cusk admitted in an interview that she was affected by the harsh readings: “It was creative death. . . . I was heading into total silence.” She found her way back to writing with Outline, only this time she better protected herself. All we know about Faye is that she is a writer and divorced mother of two. Mainly, she retells other people’s life stories, sometimes via direct quotation, other times via summary. Recently stripped of her blithe self-absorption, she no longer has a clear sense of self. She questions all the structures she once believed in, calling the house she lived in for seven years with her husband and children “the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.”

Grief is, in part, the inability to be absorbed by the outside world. In this sense, Outline defines grief without describing it. Withholding details of the fights and tears that accompanied the narrator’s divorce, Cusk prevents the reader from losing herself in the drama. Faye, too, is removed, and in a painful, highly attuned state of awareness: “It was as if I had lost some special capacity to filter my own perceptions, one that I had only become aware of once it was no longer there, like a missing pane of glass in a window that allows the wind and rain to come rushing through unchecked.” The loss of her usual system of interpretation puts her in a state of mind as clear-sighted as it is bleak. An impersonal observer, she sees the world with a purity that renders the mundane exhilaratingly unfamiliar. She notices the “baked, broken angles” of rooftops and a woman’s hair that falls in “two glossy black wings on either side of her narrow, shy, pointed face”; she watches parents holding a crying baby as if waiting “for the moment to release them and for the world to move forward again.”

Much of Cusk’s work seeks to describe scenes objectively, and both the benefits and limits of that objectivity are visible in Outline. While listening to people talk about their careers and families, Faye thinks of the chapter in Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff and Cathy watch a family scene through a window, Cathy with longing and Heathcliff with disgust. “What is fatal in that vision is its subjectivity,” Faye reflects, each character seeing the outside world as a reflection of his or her “own fears and desires . . . something, in other words, that wasn’t there.” Aftermath best conveyed objective, generalized sadness when it portrayed divorce from the outside, through the eyes of an intimate witness. In Outline, that witness is Faye. She’s suffered, yet it’s the suffering of others to which she attends.

Philippe Leroyer/FLICKR
Philippe Leroyer/FLICKR

In one of Faye’s writing classes, a student comments that “it sometimes did more harm than good . . . to try to force people to recognise unpleasant truths. One had to stay close to the line of things, close but separate, like a swallow swooping over the lineaments of the landscape, describing but never landing.” This is a sly moment of self-consciousness on Cusk’s part, and if Outline seeks to “describe but never land,” then the book has succeeded by its own standards.

But Cusk’s restraint, while elegant, also comes across as withholding. Although Faye extols the “virtues of passivity” and wanting “nothing at all,” the most compelling part of Outline is its undercurrent of rage. A woman describes how she used to vomit every day after school, so disgusted was she by the insincerity of her mother and stepfather’s conversations. Faye subtly condemns several of the men she encounters for lusting after women other than their wives. And an exhausted mother of three, who longs to write but never has the time, describes her “sense of existence” as a “secret pain, an inner torment that it was impossible to share with others, who asked you to attend to them while remaining oblivious to what was inside you.”

This is a bold elucidation of the loneliness and despair that can come from constantly caring for others, but it reads more as an idea of pain than an expression of it. Because the narrator is careful to stay “close [to] but separate” from the sad stories that she encounters again and again, the reader can’t help but maintain her distance as well. We jump from one story to the next, each delivered in the same polished, analytical language. Cusk’s writing is lovely, and some of these stories contain fragments of wisdom, but what is at stake? This is just stuff that happens to people.

A sense of helpless observation seems to be what Cusk wanted to create, and indeed Outline is a smart ascetic exercise. But the purpose of asceticism is to awaken one to a new sense of aliveness, accessible only once one is purged of habitual passions and sensory distractions. Cusk does a remarkable job of evoking an atmosphere that is ripe for such newness. I kept waiting for her to offer an insight or a feeling that would have earned its force from all the restraint preceding it—an effect she pulls off beautifully in her memoir.

Alas, Outline’s culminating metaphor is a tidy image of absence: Cusk implies that Faye has come to redefine herself as an “outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.” This neat narrative coherence is disappointing in a book that profitably questions our need for such coherence, even at the risk of destruction. Cusk found the perfect form with which to ask: If we stop believing our own stories, who are we? The emptiness that answers that question is interesting, but encountering such emptiness in another human being should do more than interest us: It should make us feel. Cusk, however, does not want to provoke feeling. On the contrary, Outline has a quiet tone of triumph—the triumph of objective observation over emotion. Recently, Cusk told an interviewer, “Description, character—these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.” Cusk does not seem to bemoan their loss.

Hannah Tennant-Moore’s work appears in the New York Times, n+1, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Dissent, and elsewhere. Her first novel is forthcoming from Hogarth.