Rachel Cusk at the 2019 Spring Literary Festival

Rachel Cusk, slight with a soft brown fringe and grey trainers, looks calmly out on the audience when greeted with applause. She speaks with deliberation in a low voice, as though confident that whatever she puts forward will be interesting to her listeners. She is right. Philip Langeskov opens by talking about the vicious reception Cusk’s memoir Aftermath got when it was published back in 2012, and quotes her as having called the book ‘creative death,’ and that she was ‘heading into total silence.’ She has since produced the acclaimed Outline-trilogy, consisting of Outline, Transit, and Kudos – the latter was published only last summer. So how did she move on from that creative death? ‘The book had malfunctioned in some way,’ Cusk claims. ‘Not on a sentence level, but something about the memoir form.’

She came to feel that the novel had limitations that she attempted to patch over with the memoir, ‘like a crappy extension on your house.’ ‘I understood that I had to find a third form for myself, which wouldn’t allow people to become upset,’ she goes on to explain. Cusk found that there was a connection between telling the truth and people becoming upset, and she solved this through the unusual form of the Outline-trilogy: the books are strung together almost by a series of monologues, delivered to the all but invisible narrator Faye. However, Cusk finds it interesting that the trilogy moves around in much the same areas as her memoirs, and yet they make people ‘happy rather than angry. It’s a behavioural science-thing.’

Although marketed as novels, it is clear that the Outline-trilogy is autobiographical – at one point in Kudos, a journalist quotes passages from Outline at Faye, Cusk’s way of slyly suggesting that the narrator and her could be one and the same person. How then does she view these books in relation to the blossoming new genre of autofiction? ‘I feel like a dinosaur in relation to autofiction,’ Cusk explains. ‘I think I’m the bit just before that. I definitely have come out of a very, very classical view of the canon, and it’s taken me a long time to work through those rules in order to say what I want to say.’ She goes on to quote the French writer Édouard Louis, who in an interview explained why one would use the example of oneself in literature: ‘It is what you can use to prove something. It’s the example that can’t be denied.’

Before the first book of the trilogy was published, she didn’t think people would able to read Outline. ‘I cut a particular component out of narrative and narrative sentences, and taking that part out put the reader in a different position. I was accused of “killing” the novel the other day, so that’s what that is! I was very happy while I was doing it, and afterwards looking at it, I thought it moves the reading experience from the passive to the active. It requires the participation from the reader.’ However, she wasn’t sure if readers would be willing to make that effort, but it turned out they would – Outline was published to overwhelming critical acclaim in 2014.

Cusk has previously stated that she now finds the sort of fiction she used to write before the Outline-trilogy ‘fake and embarrassing.’ At the festival she talks of how some contemporary writers seem to strive to separate their works from their own lived experience: ‘There seemed to be a drift towards inauthenticity and mutual fantasising, that I began to see as a kind of pornography,’ she explains calmly. ‘That writers supposedly says “I am making this up, and I deny that there is any basis of this in experience in my own life’, which is an extraordinary position for us to be in. I can’t think of any literary era in which that was a point of pride.’

‘That was part of what made any attempt to follow a path of self-examination and personal truth,’ she goes on to say. ‘This was why I made the subject and setting of these books close to what one would imagine my life would be like. I don’t want one cent of people’s energy spent on me convincing them that I know all about brains surgery and therefore my narrator is a brain surgeon and we’re all going to learn about brain surgery,’ she laughs.

Philip brings up the way the narrative ‘keeps telling itself’; it is ‘expanding, rolling and generating new developments.’ Cusk explains how she did not want create a suspense that would compel the reader to read on: ‘The other thing I came to feel about narrative was that it worked on the principle of dread, that suspense was dread, and that the dread was so connected with deep expectations of punishment and deep defences of cruelty. They almost become enjoyable: being tortured by a writer.’

‘I went through a phase where, I suppose still believing in novel to a certain extent, if I ever was made to feel that, the desire to know what happened next, it would make me so angry that I would just immediately turn to the last page! So I wanted to write something that didn’t have that dread.’ Philip argues that readers often see that ‘dread’ as creating anticipation and therefore a reading experience, but that while Cusk’s novels strive to not create this feeling, they are still highly readable. He describes them has having ‘their own kind of momentum’ – how does she think is this created? Cusk answers promptly: ‘It’s that you know that the book doesn’t know anything. The book is not creating an illusion.’

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August 2022
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