Rachel Cusk’s Art of Conversation

After my second vaccination in 2021, dreams of life after COVID-19 began to find a foothold. First on my list: in-person conversation. Of course, in this I am not alone. Presumably most if not all of the planet’s extroverts, and many of its introverts, are sick of talking at screens small and large; we long to engage, face-to-face, with friends and strangers. My craving takes, however, a very particular form: it wants to re-create conversations as they are represented in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy: Outline (2014), Transit (2017), and Kudos (2018). That is, I dream of hearing stories and then writing them down. More: I want, somehow, to let go of the need to advise or direct—in general and in relation to the stories that I hear. In Outline, the novel’s narrator Faye remarks, “What I knew personally to be true had come to seem unrelated to the process of persuading others. I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.”

Two reviews that appeared at the time of the trilogy’s publication suggest that I am not alone. In the Sydney Review of Books, Melinda Harvey narrates three Cuskian short stories, including a portrait of a graduate student who announces, to his mostly silent interlocutor, “I know what I want to write about. I want to write about conversation in contemporary literature.” Patricia Lockwood’s LRB review of Outline underscores the magnetism of Cusk’s narrative exchanges: “you enter the speed and the artifice and the belief with her.” Throughout the review, Lockwood’s prose sounds a lot like her subject’s. Reviewers move away from their own positions, assuming the de-personalized voice of the narratives under investigation. Cusk casts a spell on her readers, one that transforms some of us into acolytes.

In a 2018 Guardian interview, Cusk talks about the circumstances that led to her writing Outline. In the wake of her divorce, Cusk felt abandoned by the social order of things:

“You are chucked out of the house, on the street, not defended any more, not a member of anything, you have no history, no network. What you have is people, strangers in the street, and the only way you can know them is by what they say. I became attuned to these encounters because I had no frame or context any more. I could hear a purity of narrative in the way people described their lives. The intense experience of hearing this became the framework of the novel.”

“What you have is people”: this statement suggests a generalized category whose particular features can only be deciphered by acts of narrative. Cusk is able to discern a “purity” in the stories she hears because she, too, is a stranger, both to the speaker and to herself, as a result of her lost membership in the tribe of marriage and family. The dissociation created by this loss renders her ear more acute, able to listen without the static of context.

We also know that the barrage of hostility with which critics greeted Cusk’s memoirs of motherhood and divorce—A Life’s Work (2003) and Aftermath (2012), respectively—prompted her to abandon the “I” of autobiography. “Without wishing to sound melodramatic, it was creative death after Aftermath. That was the end. I was heading into total silence,” she notes in the Guardian interview. Eventually, she landed on what she describes, in the same interview, as the “annihilated perspective” of Faye. Faye is mostly silent, but the questions she asks prompt an outpouring of story. The dream of the objective listener is, of course, just that—a dream. “As [Cusk] knows,” Katy Waldman observes in her New Yorker review, “there is no such thing as a fully negative novel: one that is entirely passive, impartial, and devoid of authorial imagination.”

But Cusk’s achievement is the attempt to imagine conversations as if they could transform the dyad of self and other into a broader abstraction. In attempting to imagine this abstraction, Cusk takes the realist novel beyond the limits of the immersion/skepticism binary that Marcie Frank describes in her cogent account of current debates in her 2019 essay, “The Novel in Two Parts.” Cusk’s novels remind us of what Frank suggests realism has always known: that realist novels can sustain “faith in the adequacy of novelistic description” and “skepticism in this adequacy” simultaneously.

In her Slate review of Cusk’s Kudos, Sally Rooney misses the obvious when she claims that the novel “requires a curiously effortful suspension of disbelief. To make sense of the action, the reader must agree to believe in a world where pretty much every human being shares a tendency to deliver, with little or no prompting, philosophical monologues on themes of literature, family life, and particularly marriage and divorce.” Readers, in fact, do not need to agree, because they are always aware of the “twofoldedness” of character, of its mimetic and its formal dimensions. “At the level of psychological response,” Murray Smith points out in a 2011 essay, “we hold these two dimensions of character in mind simultaneously as we engage with a character in fiction.” What I think Rooney is identifying is not the failure of Cusk’s realism, but rather the strange sense created by the juxtaposition of an abstraction that clearly belongs to the narrative and a particularity that seems to set the stories apart from Faye.

By this I mean that the conversations Faye narrates appear to reference the world where Cusk talks to strangers. All authors, of course, carry around notebooks where they document the incidents of everyday life that will later appear in their novels. But Cusk is able to reproduce those notes in a way that retains their distance from her—they seem too weird for fiction. Everyone I know who has read the trilogy remembers a moment that disorients them: the man burying his dog in the middle of the night or the woman skiing off a precipice. These incidents are integrated into Faye’s aesthetic and philosophical world, but they also maintain a concreteness that seems to belong to the storyteller—not to Faye.

This is the quality I want to replicate in my post-Covid conversations: the feeling that a story could retain its independence from me despite the interpretive moves I will necessarily make to understand it. How can I allow a story to retain its shape so that it can be viewed by others, not through my lens, but their own? Cusk’s narratives constantly direct our attention outward, toward objects—often animals—that allow us to externalize or triangulate our perspective. In Kudos, a student describes Arabian hunting dogs that work in pairs, taking turns watching the hawk that will lead them to their prey:

This idea, of the two dogs sharing the work of reading the hawk, was one he found very appealing. It suggested that the ultimate fulfillment of a conscious being lay not in solitude but in a shared state so intricate and cooperative it might almost be said to represent the entwining of two selves. This notion, of the unitary self being broken down, of consciousness not as an imprisonment in one’s own perceptions but rather as something more intimate and less divided, a universality that could come from a shared experience at the highest level—well, like the German trainer before him, he was both seduced by the idea and willing to do the hard work involved in executing it.

Cusk’s storytelling works as the hawk does—it is the object we must follow as readers to arrive at some point of understanding. But we do so as a pair: the reader listens with Faye, creating, as Karen Valihora has noted in a recent ESC essay, “a sense of connected thought.” Its opposite is summed up by the moment that Silvia, an English teacher in one of Faye’s writing classes, describes in Outline: “I had set my students an essay assignment, and the deadline had now passed, but when I checked my email I saw that not a single one of them had sent the essay. It was an essay on Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence, the book that has inspired me more than anything else in my life, and none of them had a single word to say about it.” Here, the novel is the rejected object, neglected by the students who refuse to read alongside their teacher.

The failure to engage results in social isolation. In Cusk’s world, the breakdown of communication most often occurs between men and women. The “neighbour” who doesn’t listen to Faye because he is preoccupied with seducing her finds himself alone at the end of Outline:

In that case, he said, I will spend the day in solicitude.

You mean solitude, I said.

I do beg your pardon, he said. Of course, I mean solitude.

Repeatedly, we encounter men who impose themselves verbally or physically on Faye. Her freedom appears as the patience of the listener who can see a story unfolding beyond the contest of the moment. In the closing lines of the Kudos, Faye watches a man urinate into the ocean where she is swimming: “The water bore me up, heaving, as if I lay on the breast of some sighing creature while the man emptied himself into its depths. I looked into his cruel, merry eyes, and I waited for him to stop.” Faye, like the water that supports her, will endure beyond the moment of this exchange. She will live to tell the tale.

This counterintuitive realization—that Faye’s passivity transforms itself into a source of authority—has been noted by Lynn Steger Strong and others. But I want to draw attention to the way the de-personalization of the narrative creates a sense of freedom identical to the acts of listening Faye undertakes. It is this freedom—in listening and in telling—that makes me want to imitate Cusk. According to Merve Emre, I and others like me are simply responding to the novels’ cues to follow its Miss Brodie: “By the time we reach Kudos, Faye is no longer a teacher gently guiding her students’ craft; she has become Cusk’s propagandist, loudly extolling the author’s own art as the universal standard of novelistic beauty.” But I don’t want to write a novel. Beauty is not the object I’m after. Rather, I want to locate a point of view that respects the strangeness of the stories I’m told even as I try to make sense of them. “For me,” Cusk observes in the Guardian interview, “writing and living are the same thing, or they ought to be. It is only by paying great attention to ordinary living that I actually learn anything about writing.” I want to learn about writing, too, if only so I can try to hold onto the stories I hear, to remember them clearly. For me, the holding of stories is one key to a collective imagining, including an imagining of how things might shift, if we are patient and listen.

Recently, I have been urging everyone I know to read Cusk’s novels if they haven’t already. One friend found the trilogy in her mailbox, a not very subtle bid for conversation. I imagine us all learning from Cusk how to ask the right questions as we assemble again, in person. The question I haven’t answered for myself is how to create the third term that Cusk’s narratives produce by nesting one narrative within another. As a conversational rather than a literary principle, I’m wondering how to imagine conversation that creates new modes of engagement and listening, some kind of opportunity for what social scientists call “socially distributed cognition.”

While I ponder how the literary might shape the everyday, I listen. Soon after I had finished re-reading Cusk this summer, I met friends who had come from Vancouver to vacation in a village near me. At dinner, I asked my friend’s friend, whom I did not know well, how she had met her daughter’s father (they had divorced before I met her). This is what I heard.

She told me that they got together in Thailand, where she landed after being attacked in Japan. An intruder had broken into her apartment in Tokyo and throttled her with a length of electrical cord. Perhaps he had identified her as a foreigner, she said, when she had a dinner party the evening before. Her guests, mostly ex-pats, had been standing about on the front stairs of her building, smoking. The fact of this dinner party probably saved her life. Dishes ready to be returned to the caterer had been stacked near the doorway and had toppled when the intruder broke in, waking her up. E told me that she fought her attacker and that the noise of the struggle alerted the neighbours. Seeing their lights shining onto a shared patio, the intruder fled. The police who arrived showed little interest in searching for the man. They assured E they would have cruisers circle the neighborhood a few times, to warn him away.

E called her partner, who lived in west Tokyo. He said he couldn’t come over that night; he had an early interview on his side of town in the morning. The next day E arrived late to work with purple welts on her neck. Her failure to punch her card on time that morning led to the loss of her bonus—an airline ticket home. Instead of flying to Canada, she flew to a small island off the coast of Thailand. One of the first people E ran into, she told me, was a man she had known growing up. They had had a flirtation as teenagers, and the coincidence of meeting in Thailand gave the man a sense that they should date again. He was persistent in asking E out and following her around the compound where they were renting cottages. To avoid his advances, E struck up a relationship with the man who would become her husband. J, she noted, was not her type, but he was charming and older. E and J were warned that burglars had recently broken into the compound’s cottages. A Burmese man had been caught and killed, perhaps to reassure tourists that their belongings were safe. One night, returning from dinner, E and J saw that the front door to E’s cottage was ajar. J caught sight of a man at the side of the house and chased him down. E went into the cottage, where she was attacked by a man wielding a crowbar. He pinned her against the wall, pressing the crowbar against her throat. Hearing the struggle inside, J let go of the man he was holding and rushed to help her. E thought the beating of the intruder that followed would kill him. The police who arrived on the scene offered J a last kick at the head of the man on the ground.

When they returned to Canada, E and J were married. Four years later, after the birth of their daughter, they separated. In the months that followed the separation, E travelled to England, where she discovered that J had three children from a previous marriage. He had forgotten to mention them, apparently, caught up in the romance of Thailand.

Alison Conway lives and works on the unceded territory of the Syilx (Okanagan) People. She teaches English and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan). Her most recent book, Sacred Engagements: Interfaith Marriage, Religious Toleration, and the British Novel, 1750-1820, is forthcoming with Johns Hopkins University Press.





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