Chapter 6 of Rachel Cusk’s new novel takes place round a large square table at a creative writing course in Athens. The narrator asks each student in turn to tell a story. The fourth is told by a girl called Clio, who believes that every person has a ‘story of life’ with its own ‘themes and events’. Clio uses her contribution to the exercise to prove her point. On her way to the class that morning, she passed a music college with an open window from which she could hear a pianist practising the D minor fugue from Bach’s French Suites. Remembering how, a couple of years earlier, she had ‘for a number of reasons’ given up her own hopes of becoming a professional musician, she was overcome by a sense of loss. ‘It was as though the music had once belonged to her and now no longer did; as though she had been excluded from its beauty, was being forced to see it in the possession of someone else, and to revisit in its entirety her own sadness at her inability … to remain in that world.’
Clio is followed by a boy called Georgeou, who sees Clio’s story only as a series of random events, gated by the plainest logic.
Thankfully, Georgeou continued, there was an infinite thing called possibility, and an equally useful thing called probability. We had an excellent piece of evidence in terms of the music college … Most people would have some concept of what a professional musician was, and would understand that the possibility of failure in such a profession was as great as the possibility of success. Hearing the music coming out of the building, therefore, they could envisage the person playing it as one who was running this risk, and whose fate could therefore take one of two basic forms.
Cusk’s last novel was called The Bradshaw Variations (2009). It featured a piano-playing husband, a fugally comic structure and an epigraph from Sartre: Bach ‘taught us how to find originality within an established discipline; actually – how to live’. Art, music, sex, money, parents, children, pet dogs: all the plates were up on their poles and spinning. All the themes worked out and made sense. But anything worth doing in art needs to be risky, and risk isn’t properly risky unless the chance of failure is at least as great as the chance of success. What happens when you get the plates spinning in interesting, original, dangerous ways and then they all fall off?
Between The Bradshaw Variations and Outline, Cusk published a book called Aftermath (2012), about her divorce: ‘A plate falls to the floor: the new reality is that it is broken.’ Her disagreements with her husband remind her of Oedipus and Agamemnon: ‘In Greek drama, to traduce biological human roles is to court the change that is death.’ The muddle of family life post-breakup makes her think about Britain after the retreat of the Roman Empire. ‘Civilisation, order, meaning, belief: these were not sunlit peaks to be reached by a steady climb.’ She doesn’t give much detail, but the problems seem to have started with an attempt to overturn gender expectations, with Cusk as the breadwinner and the husband looking after the children at home. ‘Call yourself a feminist,’ the husband says ‘disgustedly’ as the arrangement collapses. Then he demands ‘half of everything, including the children’, and Cusk refuses: ‘They’re my children, I said. They belong to me.’
Many readers really liked Aftermath, but a few reviewers were appalled. In the LRB Joanna Biggs called it out on its ‘tiresome metaphors’, including the plate one, and for comparing Clytemnestra to a modern working mother. In the Sunday Times Camilla Long complained about ‘acres of poetic whimsy’, and described Cusk as ‘a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish’. But the killer blow was probably the extract run by the Guardian, which was, Cusk complained, insensitively edited, reducing what she saw as the integrity of her experiment to ‘degrading gossip’. ‘Creative death,’ Cusk called the aftermath of Aftermath in a recent interview in the Observer. ‘I was heading into total silence.’ Creative death and total silence, having destroyed her home and exposed her marriage, and with two daughters to support.
Two things seem to have helped her pull herself back. She had a job teaching creative writing at Kingston University: ‘a more humane alternative to being a (failed) hack’, as she wrote in a piece about creative writing courses last year. And she was reading Knausgaard, and coming to think that the whole idea and practice of fiction, as conventionally understood, is ‘fake and embarrassing … utterly ridiculous’. The real point of writing, her piece quotes Knausgaard as saying, is not to do with making things up, but with ‘drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows … Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself’ – and this is where, in Cusk’s view, creative writing courses come in. People come along as a first step in the effort to start uncovering and developing their own self-relations and their relations to the world. ‘Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language … The notion of “finding your voice”, simplistic as it may sound, is … a social goal.’
Thus, presumably, the genesis of Outline. The narrator, a writer, travels to Athens to teach at a creative writing workshop. She meets people, they talk to her, sometimes she offers an observation, and that’s it. A frame is provided by the garrulous old Greek she sits next to on the plane, his narratives of his many marriages, the afternoons the narrator spends listening to more of his stories on his yacht. The centre is the writing workshop, narrators and stories fanning out round the table like a flower. The evenings the narrator spends with other writers, who have more stories and stories-about-stories and stories-within-stories. And at the end she passes on the flat she’s been staying in to another writer just flown in from Britain, a woman playwright who has been unable to work, she says, since she was randomly beaten up by an unknown assailant: ‘In a sense, her work had jumped out of a bush and attacked her.’ Lots of people feel like that, the narrator observes, ‘not about work but about life itself’.
The playwright’s story, like all the stories, is told in a plain, clear English that could as easily be ancient as completely new. The man from the plane – known only as ‘my neighbour’ – tells stories about madness, sponge-diving, wives and children, and getting trapped, somehow, in his family tomb. A woman novelist remembers the glossy diplomatic wives of Berlin: ‘I almost wonder whether the exhaustion I felt when we returned … was in fact the collective exhaustion of these women, which they refused to feel themselves and so had passed on to me.’ A 43-year-old mother feels herself so full not just of ‘her own memories, obligations, dreams, knowledge … but also of other people’s’ that she can’t be sure which stories are her own and which she has absorbed. Her assignment is to tell a story about an animal. She tells one with a dog and a cake in it, and ‘the most extraordinary sense of existence as a secret pain’.
The narrator, meanwhile, lets us know fairly early that she has been divorced for three years now, and has recently moved, with her two sons, to London from ‘the countryside’. At one point, one of her sons rings up from London, having got lost on his way to school: ‘I don’t know where I am,’ he says. At another, a call comes in from a mortgage broker, who lets slip – the one time it’s mentioned – the narrator’s name. Apart from that, she likes to present herself as an empty space, a grammatical construct, floating across the page.
But her observations suggest something different. Like her interlocutors, she is preoccupied by families, their rifts and failures, and her new place as an outcast. On the Greek man’s yacht, watching a family party on the next boat along, she ‘was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself, was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own’. The passive, observational attitude is not remotely neutral, but expressive of the agony of exclusion, which Clio felt when she heard the Bach. The austerity of the book’s language is an effect of loss and exclusion too: all those ‘tiresome metaphors’ and ‘acres of poetic whimsy’ bleached out.
Did Outline start, maybe, as a journal of a summer-school teaching job, an exercise undertaken by a wounded writer? Either way, it develops into a piece of work of great beauty and ambition. Narratives are smoothed, as if by translation and retranslation, into their simplest, barest elements: parents, children, divorces, cakes, dresses, dogs. These elements then build, layer on layer, to form the most complex and exquisitely detailed patterns, swirling and whirling, wheels within wheels.
And there’s no need to go on about the Oresteia when you already have Athens all around you, in the middle of a scorching summer, buildings still burned out and abandoned after the riots of 2012. ‘I felt that I could swim for miles, out into the ocean,’ the narrator thinks as she jumps into the sea from the old Greek’s yacht. ‘I could swim out into the sea as far as I liked, if what I wanted was to drown.’
At the end of the workshop in Athens, one student remains who has yet to speak. Her name – difficult to resist, I guess – is Cassandra, and she has been scowling and sighing throughout. ‘I don’t know who you are, she said to me, getting to her feet and collecting her things, but I’ll tell you one thing, you’re a lousy teacher.’ The moment whooshes straight to a similar bit in A Life’s Work, Cusk’s memoir of early motherhood, when a rejected would-be nanny tells Cusk that she’s ‘disgusting’ and ‘a horrible woman’. This was one of several attempts scattered across her work to confront the age-old posh feminist blind spot of who you get to clean your house (in Aftermath, the memoir was appended by a short story written from the point of view of a Lithuanian au pair). But it’s also a reminder that Cusk doesn’t write to win friends or negotiate agreement. An argument, she wrote in Aftermath, ‘is only an emergency of self-definition’, and there’s a sense in which this is true of all her writing. She may not enjoy attracting aggression and hostility, but she seems to need it. Consciously or unconsciously, she’s always up for a fight.
A Life’s Work was published in 2001, towards the beginning of a second baby boom in Britain, and early in a wave of new-mummy books. Alone among them, Cusk’s did not take the having of a baby as an excuse for banal chumminess or snuggly self-infantilisation: ‘In motherhood I have experienced myself as both more virtuous and more terrible, and more implicated too in the world’s virtue and terror, than I would from the anonymity of childlessness have thought possible,’ she writes. Having babies is a very common and ordinary undertaking, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or unimportant. In Outline, it’s the 43-year-old devoted mother who’s most embroiled in existential pain and horror. Her name is Penelope, which I suppose was difficult to resist as well.
Before A Life’s Work, Cusk was known as a writer of bleak romantic comedies, in setting not unlike those involving Bridget Jones: Oxbridge graduates in arts and media, beds hopped and cads befriended, country seats and slummy house-shares etc. The aesthetic, though, was very different. Cusk’s prose was heavy and gilded, with something of the hippo-and-the-pea effect H.G. Wells observed in the later Henry James: what exactly was it all those words were struggling to capture? Was that hippo wearing a tutu for the hell of it or was it undergoing an emergency of self-definition?
Three novels in and Cusk had two babies in quick succession. A Life’s Work shows her struggling with them, struggling with the medics, struggling with other mothers and with the putative help. But these are only surface effects of a deeper struggle with something that to begin with has no words, with the way that even she, modern and clever and independent, starts sliding backwards, from conception onwards, into forms of life she would never have chosen. The journey to motherhood, she discovers, is ‘at once so random and so determined by forces greater than myself that I could hardly be said to have had any choice in the matter at all’.
What are they, these enormous forces? Well, clearly she’s talking about sexual politics, childbirth and motherhood being, as she puts it, ‘the anvil on which sexual inequality was forged’. But although Cusk has always called herself a feminist, as her disgusted and soon-to-be-ex husband will later say, she is an idiosyncratic one. She doesn’t join groups or contribute to debates or cite well-known feminist works or concepts (with the exception of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, which does get called ‘seminal’ in A Life’s Work). Evidence comes, rather, from Coleridge and Tolstoy and other dead white males, a preference that contributes to the straining, arrested quality of her prose: she’s trying to build things with the A-Level English syllabus that it simply isn’t designed for. This is one of the things unsympathetic readers find annoying about her writing, but I think it’s exciting and heroic. Even on a topic as overdetermined as motherhood, this little hippo is determined to do it on her own.
I brought up a baby myself a couple of years after A Life’s Work was published, and I read it so often that I still know bits of it by heart. I love the alienated chill of the language, the sense of having to reinvent the wheel anew for every sentence and paragraph: because Cusk is right, of course, that that’s pretty much what looking after a baby feels like, no matter that millions of other people have done it. Rereading the book now, though, I’m struck by how carefully the writing has been angled to grab at something truly difficult to explain: the way patriarchy really does take you over when you’re tired and lonely, ‘erod[ing] your selfesteem and your membership of the adult world’. And another thing that’s worse and even harder to admit to: the temptation to loll back and start colluding with these ‘forces’, exchanging the discomforts of adult public life for a cosy cocoon of cupcakes and school-gates bitching, like Betty Friedan never happened:
The state of motherhood speaks to my native fear of achievement. It is a demotion, a displacement, an opportunity to give up. I have the sense of history watching, from its club chair, my response to this demotion with some amusement. Will I give in, graciously, gratefully, handing back my life as something I had on loan? Or will I put up a fight?
After A Life’s Work, Cusk wrote three more novels, of which the magnificent Arlington Park (2006) most directly skewers those early 21st-century delusions of middle-class motherhood: the book groups, the knocked-through kitchens, the ever creeping earliness of wine o’clock. Then in 2009 she wrote a second memoir, The Last Supper, in which she takes her young family on a three-month voyage to Italy. It’s a very strange book indeed, with the look of having been written fast and to a daily word count – far too much noodling about pizza and gelati, some imprudently sharp sketches of fellow tourists, one of whom recognised the likeness and complained. But what’s really interesting about this book is the way that Cusk lets herself get spooked again by encroaching ‘forces’, even bigger and older this time than those of the feminine mystique. Visiting the basilica of St Francis in Assisi, she is ‘outraged’ to find herself being bossed around by religion, as she hasn’t been, she asserts, since her posh Catholic childhood: ‘As a child I was accustomed to the way adults seized on Christianity as a tool … But now I found the Christian story all human, like literature: it was a long time since it had been raised as a weapon over my head.’ Her children drag her round the souvenir shop, where the horrible plaques and figurines remind her of ornaments she had in her own childhood bedroom, and also, she writes, of ‘children’s graves’.
‘I blame Christianity,’ she explodes six years later in Aftermath, made furious by the sight of a family on bikes wearing ‘safety helmets and luminescent strips’ for an afternoon’s chunter round the park. ‘The holy family, that pious unit that … sentenced civilisation to two millennia of institutionalised dishonesty … From a bench I ruminate on it darkly.’ The church, the family, anti-feminism, grown adults swaddling themselves like babies: haven’t these links already been broken for generations? Or are we just kidding ourselves about that, as about so much else?
At the beginning of A Life’s Work, Cusk explained how she and her husband planned to counter the dark forces moving in on them after the birth of their children. They would, Cusk wrote, ‘demolish traditional family culture altogether’ by downshifting out of London; the man would leave his desk job and look after the children ‘while Rachel writes her book about looking after the children’. And for several years, the plate seems to have stayed in one place.
But then, a decade later, the sequel told of the failure of that utopian arrangement, destroyed by ‘the tension of the old orthodoxies’. For some reason, when the husband does the housework, it’s not the same as when the wife does – it loses the grim necessity of routine responsibility and becomes ‘helping’. Somehow, when the wife leaves the husband to mind the children, she can’t feel as confident as the husband can when it happens the other way about:
The working mother … is traducing her role in the founding myths of civilisation on a daily basis – no wonder she’s a little harassed … I read somewhere that a space station is always slowly falling back to earth, and that every few months or so a rocket has to be sent to push it back out again. In rather the same way, a woman is forever dragged at by an imperceptible force of biological conformism; her life is relentlessly iterative; it requires energy to keep her in orbit. Year after year she’ll do it, but if one year the rocket doesn’t come then down she’ll go.
So the rocket fails and the arrangement collapses, taking with it the marriage and the family and, it seems, what respect there was between wife and husband. The wife even claims a right she never thought she’d even care about to feminine-mystique-style maternal ‘prestige’. The book suggests, however, that she quickly accepts something like a 50/50 arrangement: ‘Every few days they go to their father’s and then the house is empty … It is as though these solitary hours, in which for the first time in many years nothing is expected or required of me, are my spoils of war.’
But her main point is something deeper and more subtle. People, Cusk included, do not choose their courses of action freely, after a perusal of all the options, laid out nicely like the magazines at the hairdresser. Their choices are murky and untidy, spasmodic and invested, and run from engines hidden in the darkness. How can a person call herself a feminist while demanding sole possession of her children? How can a person call herself a feminist while still raging blackly about the religion she inherited from her mother, which she’d assumed for decades she’d left far behind?
I took terribly against Rachel Cusk myself when I read her first novel, Saving Agnes in 1993. I hated the frilly, flouncy language. I hated what I saw as the ghastly jeunesse dorée aestheticism: ‘Once or twice, when Agnes had left the irresistible bait of her undisclosed place of education hanging tantalisingly in the air, her companion had merely smiled slyly and inquired, “Oxford or Cambridge?”’ I completely missed the humour, the irony, and above all, the integrity: the unstinting seriousness of Cusk’s long struggle to get at difficult meanings, her willingness to take the risk that sometimes, she would not.
Up to this point, Cusk’s biggest problem has, in a funny way, been her very success. Because her early work looked a bit like chick lit and because she then moved on to write about being a mother, she attracts lots of readers in search of something comfy who then feel cheated when they don’t get it, and maybe a bit judged and threatened too: ‘Have ended up reading most of her things over the years as they tend to get given to me as slightly misguided presents,’ one contributor wrote on Mumsnet. ‘She needs to drink some wine, eat some chocolate, cheer up and get over herself,’ a cyberchum replied.
But are there enough readers for Cusk’s sort of writing without them? Probably not, if her plan is to support two children from her book sales; but add the teaching to the portfolio and it’s transformed. Among other things, Outline enacts a possible future for interesting writing, as far outside the traditional structures of publishing as it is from those of family and church and conventional fiction. For a writer as established as Cusk, taking such risks demands courage. History chortles again from his club chair, then starts looking a bit on edge. Labouring out there, in the shadows, seems to suit her. Now she’s found a way to get there, I don’t see why she’d ever want to come back.