Rachel Cusk Gut-Renovates the Novel

In Rachel Cusk’s most recent novels, “Outline” and “Transit,” a British writer named Faye encounters a series of friends and strangers as she goes about her daily life. She is recently divorced, and while her new flat is being renovated her two sons are living with their father. There is something catlike about Faye—an elusiveness that makes people want to detain her, and a curiosity about their pungent secrets. They tell her their histories, and she listens intently. As these soliloquies unspool, a common thread emerges. The speakers suffer from feeling unseen, and in the absence of a reflection they are not real to themselves. Faye shares their dilemma. “It was as if I had lost some special capacity to filter my own perceptions,” she says. But she lends herself as a filter to her confidants, and from the murk of their griefs and sorrows, most of which have to do with love, she extracts something clear—a sense of both her own outline and theirs.

Critics have hailed these books, which are the first volumes of a trilogy, as a “reinvention” of the novel, and they are certainly a point of departure for it, one at which fiction merges with oral history. Each witness has suffered and survived a version of the same experience, but uniquely, and the events that are retold don’t build toward a revelation. The structure of the text, a mosaic of fragments, mirrors the unstable nature of memory. It is worth noting that “Outline” was published in 2014, a year before Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature. (“Transit” was published two years later.) Alexievich interviews women and men who have lived through cataclysms—the Second World War, Chernobyl, the Soviet gulags—and she distills their testimony into what the Swedish Academy cited as a “history of emotions.” Cusk has been chastised for ignoring politics and social inequities, and the central catastrophe in her fiction is family life. But her imaginary oral histories…

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