A Natural History of Vulnerability: Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy and the craft of dialogic projection
by Campbell Copland
Written between the years 2015-18, Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy inverts the contemporary trend of autofiction (à la Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti) by subsuming the subjectivity of the narrator/main protagonist in objectivity and otherness.
Structured as a series of conversations, both scheduled and encountered, between the narrator and a spectrum of other people – from former and prospective lovers (as in Outline, the first book of the trilogy), to the workers who’re handling her home renovations (as in Transit, the second book) – the narrator is given shape and outline by the stories of the people she speaks with, amounting to an oral history of sorts, detailing the ambiguity of modern human relationships in their infinite situational variation and complexity.
The device of the narrator in these works serves as an anchor of engaged listening, riffing off Emerson’s transparent eyeball, though instead of the aim of becoming one with nature, the narrator in the Outline Trilogy wants to diversify her perspective, dilute the absolutism of the ego. In this process, the personal characteristics of the narrator/protagonist are largely deemphasized and only symbiotically revealed through the details of other people’s lives, in the conversations she conducts with them. Here is a rare passage of overt self-reflection on the part of the narrator, as she’s trying to make sense of her shifting perspective:
I 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. When I looked at the family on the boat, I saw a vision of what I no longer had: I saw something, in other words, that wasn’t there. Those people were living in their moment, and though I could see it I could no more return to that moment than I could walk across the water that separated us. And of those two ways of living – living in the moment and living outside it – which was the more real?
This line of questioning has meta-equational significance with regards to the structure of the trilogy. The active passivity of the protagonist is redoubled in the neutrality and transparency of the narrative, and the trilogy acts as a sort of experiment in this sense, trying to answer to the balance of living both in the moment and outside it, questioning how to twist these sentiments into a sustainable reality and creative template.
From an opaque linearity of scene, and because many of the protagonist/narrator’s biographical specifics are left unrevealed, the accumulation of resonance is contained by a sturdy and compelling notion of misdirection. In Transit, in its middle section, the sequence of scenes goes from a conversation the narrator has with the building contractor who’s handling her home renovations, then to a hairstylist, and then to a literary festival. Each scene elicits its respective moments of enlightenment based on the experiences of the people the narrator speaks with. The profundity or vulnerability of the information these people share is, in one way or another, metaphorically relevant to the life of the narrator/protagonist, whether its topics of marriage and divorce, of childrearing, the contradictory minutiae of human conduct, there are hints, such as the above quoted passage, that the narrator needs to be hearing what’s being said to her, but she never tries to appropriate the various strands of enlightenment into a cohesion of ideology, in their diversity they stay unresolved, uncodified and thus closer to their original aliveness.
In the instance of the scenes described above, the takeaway from the building contractor is his perspective of objectification: “In a way, he went on after a while, he felt his clients sometimes forgot that he was a person: instead he became, in a sense, an extension of their own will … Once you put people in a position of power over other people, he said, there’s no telling what they’ll do”; then, with the hair stylist, this scene builds towards a commentary the hair stylist provides on the childish antics he perceives in almost every adult he interacts with:
He saw it in their gestures and mannerisms, in their competitiveness, their anxiety, their anger and joy, most of all in their needs, both physical and emotional: even the people he knew who were in stable partnerships – relationships he had once envied for their companionship and intimacy – now looked to him like no more than best friends in a playground.”
And lastly, at the literary festival, we are presented with two divergent approaches to writing from two male writers, one of justice: “For him language was a weapon, a first line of defence – he might not be brave, but he’d certainly answer to bitchy,” another having to do with shame: “One source of that shame was other people’s knowledge of him: yet what they knew was not the truth,” and although these two male writers debate their different sides as the more righteous, the narrator herself gives no prejudice – justice and shame are dialectically given equal space in the course of the scene, the synthesis of the dialectics being this equal space.
So, from ideas of power, to ideas of emotional stasis, to ideas of justice and shame and which of these is the more authentic approach for a writer to embody – there is no overt connection between these themes or tropes, nor do any of the characters overlap from scene to scene besides the narrator. Each scene is self-contained and could stand alone, its only through the monochromatic texture of the narrator that this diversity of perspective can be catalogued side-by-side, as signposts towards an understanding of the world, where the desystemization of the narrative’s structure is metaphorically a part of this understanding.
Cusk, Rachel. Kudos: A Novel (Outline Trilogy). New York City: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux , 2018.
—. Outline: A Novel (Outline Trilogy). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux , 2015.
—. Transit: A Novel (Outline Trilogy). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017.
Campbell Copland was born in 1983, received an MFA from Goddard College, and currently adjuncts for Cazenovia College.