When I first learned that Rachel Cusk’s novel 2014 Outline was about a failed marriage, I didn’t think I would be interested. But then I read the first few paragraphs:
Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials. He talked in his open-necked shirt about the new software he was developing, that could help organisations identify the employees most likely to rob and betray them in the future. We were meant to be discussing a literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately I had to leave before we arrived at that subject. He insisted on paying for a taxi to the airport, which was useful since I was late and had a heavy suitcase.
The billionaire had been keen to give me the outline of his life story, which had begun unprepossessingly and ended—obviously—with him being the relaxed, well-heeled man who sat across the table from me today. (3)
I was hooked from the get-go, beguiled by her spare, extraordinarily elegant writing style that never falters. The opening paragraph also introduces us to exactly how the entire novel is built: that although this is a first-person narration, much of the book revolves around other people telling her their stories. It’s an absolutely brilliant technique in which to tell a story, completely un-narcissistic in approach, and cleverly dodges the question every writer worries about when presenting a story to the world: why should the reader care? What we know about the narrator, as the title suggests, is only an outline, a sketch; we know that her marriage has fallen apart, that she has two boys, that she is a writer from Britain, and, for the duration of the novel, she is in Athens, Greece, to teach a creative writing course. Even her name—Faye—appears only once in the book and not until near the end. While in Greece, she meets a number of people who, one after the other, tell her their own stories about their failed marriages, their children, their private lives, insecurities and secrets, and it slowly becomes apparent that their stories are a reflection of hers, that what has happened to them has also, more or less, happened to her.
Her follow-up novel, Transit (2016), also told by the same narrator (the name Faye similarly appears only once and only well into the novel), uses the same technique, only this time the book is set in London. Again, we know very little: that after her marriage falls apart she moves south to London where she buys a decrepit flat in a house. The house is so poorly built and in such a state of decay that practically every sound she makes can be heard by her downstairs neighbours, an elderly couple who have lived in the building for forty years, and have a tendency to respond to unwanted sounds by thumping the ceiling with a broomstick. She hires a contractor to lay down a new floor (the sound of construction only adds to the fury of her neighbours) and meanwhile her two boys—again absent from the novel—are living with their father until the renovation is complete.
As the title implies, this is a time of change, a time of transition, a new life she has to build. Again, she meets a number of people—an old lover, her contractor, writers at a literary festival, her hairdresser—who tell her their stories, and a predominant theme, something that many of her storytellers mention, is the sense of seeing their lives from the outside. Gerard, for instance, her old lover, tells her about the six months he lived in Toronto where he used to live in a converted storefront and how, when he’d come home at night, he’d see the apartment lit up, his roommates living their lives as if they were actors on stage. Similarly, her Polish contractor tells her of building a house for his family in the Polish countryside in which the walls were mostly of glass and his father ridiculing him for having senselessly built a house in which even the private aspects of life can be seen from the outside. It’s a nice metaphor for what’s going on in this novel too: that the reader is also looking in from outside at the lives of these characters and, in particular, at the life of this narrator whose own life is undergoing reconstruction. Moreover, several of the male storytellers relate accounts of mentally abusive, absent, or otherwise negligent fathers, something that resonates with meaning when her two boys intermittently call—where their father is, they’re not sure—crying and upset because they’ve been locked out of the house or have been fighting with each other.
Although both novels are gorgeously written and seductive in style, I’m not sure a third novel (I can only assume a third is in the works) using the same kind of technique would effectively sustain the reader’s interest without starting to become a little threadbare. After being initially reluctant to hear Faye tell what I was afraid would be a run-of-the-mill story of a failed marriage, I’m now all-ears to hear her tell it for herself.