Books: Essay


Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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Rachel Cusk with her trilogy completes an extraordinary journey in fiction

If a friend told you a story about the way her marriage unravelled, how would you and she go about finding a just way of apportioning blame? And in a story that involves the ‘I’, can one get close to the truth?

Anthropologists, historians, artists, filmmakers and writers have struggled to develop a method that would minimise the ‘I’ in the narrative. One method illuminates the parochial perspectives on a marriage, murder or love story. Examples include Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon’s four contradictory accounts of a murder by four witnesses, Picasso’s multi-perspective paintings, Laurence Durrell’s examination of romantic love viewed through different characters in The Alexandria Quartet, and social scientists’ use of triangulated (mixed) methods strategy to validate a hypo- thesis. Rachel Cusk joins this brigade of truth seekers by experimenting with a half form of memoir and novel. Kudos (Deckle Edge; 240 pages; Rs 1,300), the final book in her trilogy— with Outline (2014) and Transit (2016) being the first and the second—was published in June 2018.

A cursory glance at the blurbs of the three books may simply tell us that Cusk’s method is to portray the essence of the conversations a narrator (Faye), a Cusk-like divorced woman, has with friends, acquaintances and strangers. In Kudos, Faye is on her way to Europe on a book tour. She listens to the stranger in the seat next to hers telling her the story of his life, and of the harrowing night he has just spent burying the family dog. At her unnamed destination, she has conversations with the publisher, fellow writers, journalists, the tour guide, and her own son on family, love, justice, injustice, femininity, art and sorrow.

The previous books follow a similar narrative strategy. In Outline, Faye, who lives in London, a mother of two young boys (Cusk has two girls) who are with their father, is travelling to Athens to teach a writing course in the summer. It is not clear to us if it is the same Faye (since Cusk never says so), but let’s assume it is. Faye converses with an unnamed Greek man she meets on the plane (who later takes her in his boat for swims while recounting his complicated family history), with her colleague (an Irish writer who re-enters the pages in Kudos) in the writing school, with a Greek friend-publisher, and his acquaintance (a woman-writer) in Athens.

In Transit, Faye buys a run-down apartment in a fashionable London neighbourhood. We never meet her two children, who live with the former first husband while she gets the flooring replaced, and deals with unpleasant neighbours who constitute the main problem for Faye in the book. She also has a haircut, goes to a literary festival, tutors an annoying woman, teaches a class, and attends a dinner party. Through all this, Faye and the characters explore the themes of loneliness, abandonment, hope, coping with change and starting afresh.

Disjointed right? Not worth picking up, you may think. You couldn’t be more wrong. The trilogy is a startling experiment with the autobiographical mode of storytelling where the auto ‘I’ part of it is effaced. Leaving the characters she meets to reflect on the choices they made and why they did so, Faye becomes more and more silent in Outline, and by the time of Transit, has successfully effaced herself from the page, and then returns in Kudos.

Faye is the interlocutor par excellence. Sponge-like, she absorbs the memories woven in these stories, while excelling in the ability to sort and name the emotions propelling the choices these characters recount making—all this with a clarity shorn of artifice. Like a therapist, she probes and reveals the vulnerabilities of those she encounters, without imposing her own judgment. Or so you think, but on closer reading, you find that judgment does enter, more in the form of a prodding by Faye, one that coaxes the character to reflect and go beyond the ‘I’. Many of her characters are women living out the bittersweet fruits of their choices, and we see their detached analysis of the vagaries of human relationships, particularly within a marriage.

A major theme that runs through the trilogy is about uncovering the nature of the self within a marriage and in its aftermath. Are we truly autonomous selves or do we exist through our relationships?

This half form experiment emerged after Cusk was pilloried for writing Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012), a book about the bitter end of her ten-year- old first marriage. ‘Men would feel embarrassed divesting themselves of such mimsy, self-important, self-justifying emetic drivel,’ said The Spectator. Another magazine pointed out that ‘Rachel Cusk examines the power of motherhood by ignoring it.’ They were referring to her alleged inadequacies as a mother (the first husband, the father of her two daughters, had played that role while Cusk donned the ‘male’ one of earning the money), and her subsequent refusal to share custody of her daughters with their father.

Reflecting on this experience in a 2012 interview to The Guardian, Cusk said: “My husband believed I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth. For me, life’s difficulty has generally lain in the attempt to reconcile these two, like the child of divorce tries to reconcile its parents.”

But how do we distinguish between truth and the story? How do we capture the essence of justice and injustice in an event viewed through the lens of different protagonists? Can it be done through teasing out the person’s reasons for a particular behaviour and getting them to judge themselves honestly (personal honesty is the only way you can ever understand anything, Cusk said in an interview), not allowing your own judgment of their actions to intrude in their telling of the tale? Cusk thinks so. She has an optimistic view of a person’s ability to reflect in a detached way on their actions. While some of her characters rise to that challenge, others, like the aeroplane co-passenger who buried his dog, skirt the truth.

Let’s examine the process by which the truth is uncovered in the trilogy. After the vitriol heaped on her for Aftermath , Cusk could not write a memoir, she said. She turned to the novel form and found it embarrassing. “The novel seems to be the book of self: the problem is that, once you start to write it, you see that it has taken on certain familiar characteristics. It begins to seem not true but false, either a re-creation of the false self or a failure to externalise the true one. It is a product, your product: in other words, more of the same. How, then, to produce the ‘true’ writing?” In a New York magazine interview, Cusk said that she aspired to a state of being advocated by DH Lawrence. She couldn’t recall his words specifically, but generally the Lawrencian approach: ‘not [my] mantra, exactly, but I believe it with all my heart,’ that ‘if you know something with sufficient thoroughness, just one thing, you know everything.’ Later, discussing the limits of empathy and imagination in fiction, Cusk echoed Lawrence: “The only way you would ever, you can ever understand anything is through personal honesty. And if you are sufficiently honest with yourself, you will find every quality, every quality that is manifested outside yourself.”

If so, how do you stop yourself from narcissistically projecting all you know about yourself onto the autobiographical story? Simple, you lose interest in yourself. “I’m not remotely interested in me as a subject,” Cusk said in the same interview. “I’m interested in me as an object, and my honesty isn’t brave, because it’s not for me, it’s not about me. It’s just that I’m all I’ve got.” By doing on the page what spiritual gurus advocate to their disciples—to know thyself is to disappear into nothingness—Cusk enters the skin of her characters.

If Outline is the start of the race and Transit is the mid-way struggle and triumphant finish, Kudos is the post-finish analysis

It is not just accountability that Cusk seeks. It is much more specific—an accountability to one’s self. A major theme that runs through the trilogy is about uncovering the nature of the self within a marriage and in its aftermath. Are we truly autonomous selves, or do we exist through our relationships with a husband and with our children? In such situations, is it possible to know what you actually are, and who you are in your marriage or relationship? What is your self?

Faye, during her conversation with the Greek woman-writer, Angeliki, in Outline, says it is not possible, ‘or indeed to separate what you were from what you had become through the other person… I thought the whole idea of a ‘real’ self might be illusory, you might feel, in other words, as thought there was some separate autonomous self within you, but perhaps that self didn’t actually exist.’

Angeliki, explores these questions in more direct ways. Her absence as a wife and mother, caused by an illness, made her husband and son change their habits and need her less, and when she recovered, she found ‘that her role in the household had diminished.’ She ‘recognised, at that moment, that she was being given a choice, and that if she wanted to escape her old identity, then this was her opportunity’ to forge her own path.

Faye, on the other hand, is still feeling her way through absolute ambivalence. ‘I had become so unused to thinking about things in terms of whether I liked them or whether I didn’t,’ she says in response to the query whether she liked the Greek man who had taken her for swims.

THIS NARRATIVE structure illuminates things about the self, any self. Elena (a book editor) in Kudos says that it was only when you got beyond people’s fantasies about themselves and one another that you accessed a level of reality where things assumed their true value and were what they seemed to be. If a man had a nasty side, she wanted to get to it immediately, and confront it. She didn’t want it roaming unseen in the hinterland of their relationship, she wanted to provoke it, draw it out, lest it strike when her back was turned. To draw it out, one had to be frank, not kind, and one had to be willing to face frankness about oneself too. You may have already identified the problem— relationships end too quickly. ‘I have felt my relationships have had no story, and the reason is because I have jumped ahead of myself, the way I used to turn the pages of a book to find out what happens in the last chapter.’ (Elena)

Frankness ends stories; stories are required to forge a relationship, but stories do not allow one to gauge the true value, the truth, about that relationship. What can one do? In her trilogy, Cusk explores a hybrid creation—first the characters tell their stories and reflect on them, and then the interlocutor steps in and assesses whether the characters have turned themselves into objects rather than subjects and unearthed the truth.

In Outline, Cusk’s experiment is more visceral in its approach, like a tree ravaged by a storm. The interlocutor is still trying to find her non-existence and trying to restrain her judgment during the storytelling. In Transit, the scalpel cutting through the stories is wielded by a master, and the experiment attains its apogee in an almost complete effacing of Faye from the pages. The Faye of Kudos is at her calmest, and more indulgent of foibles and humour. As someone who believes satire promotes powerlessness (‘once you laugh, it’s over’), and who thinks refusing to laugh is powerful, as is refusing to speak, Cusk practises it quite effectively in Outline and Transit. In Kudos though, a vein of humour threads through some of the stories, though the character telling the story does not herself or himself laugh, thus retaining the power and not becoming powerless. Cusk may be on to something there.

Kudos, the prize, is interesting in a different way from its older siblings. My husband always mocks my need to watch the prize-giving ceremony and the post-game analysis in a tennis match or a soccer game. But for me, doing that connects the past, present and the future of the tournament, and completes the cycle. If Outline is the start of the race and Transit is the mid-way struggle and triumphant finish, Kudos is the post-finish analysis. Here, we meet some of the characters from the earlier books, and view the outcomes of the choices made by them. Ryan, the Irish writer in Outline, is now a successful novelist who, using a pseudonym, co-authors books with an ex-student. Faye’s interviewer reflects on how she wanted to portray her life to Faye in the earlier book, and how it actually was at that time, and how it has come to be.

Justice crops up as a theme, particularly in Kudos, prompting the question: Are perceptions of justice and injustice doomed to be parochial or can one highlight a more detached perspective? In response to the publisher’s point about true literature—example: Dante’s Inferno— not needing any champions, Faye says that justice has to be honoured for its own sake. ‘Whether or not Dante could look after himself, he ought to defend Dante at every opportunity.’

Another character’s (the interviewer’s) observation about how her husband and she had stayed up to talk quietly about her sister’s divorce —‘it felt we were writing a story together’— draws this response from Faye. ‘I said that while her story suggested that human lives could be governed by the laws of narrative, and all the notions of retribution and justice that narrative lays claim to, it was in fact merely her interpretation of events that created that illusion.’

For Faye then, justice is to be honoured; for the interviewer, justice is to be feared ‘feared in every part of you, even as it fells your enemies and crowns you the winner’. Whether or not justice is a personal illusion is left unresolved by the author.

Justice and injustice are strongly linked to memory and history. The publisher says that the defining motivation of the modern era is the pursuit of freedom from strictures or hardships of any kind. ‘What is history other than memory without pain.’ Later in the book, Gerta, an old aristocrat believes that without history there is no identity, and so she couldn’t ultimately understand her children’s lack of interest in their past, nor their devotion to the cult of happiness. ‘Theirs is a world without war, she said, but it is also a world without memory.’ Is our current state then, also a world without justice, without truth, containing only stories?