Violating the Form

Rachel Cusk and Alexandra Schwartz

In Conversation

Barnes and Noble

In Kudos, a woman writer visits a Europe in flux, where questions of personal and political identity are rising to the surface. Rachel Cusk’s unique approach to storytelling builds action through vivid, precise encounters and monologues that explore the nature of family and art, love and suffering. Dwight Garner of The New York Times wrote: “[Cusk] has that ability, unique to the great performers in every art form, to hold one rapt from the moment she appears . . . a stark, modern, adamantine new skyscraper on the literary horizon.” Here, Cusk joins New Yorker critic Alexandra Schwartz to discuss how Cusk developed this unconventional writing style, why character doesn’t exist, and the role of gender in her novels.

Alexandra Schwartz: I want to start by talking about a passage from Kudos in which Faye, the narrator of the book, is at a literary conference in an unnamed European country. She has just been taken to a restaurant where the attendees of the conference eat regularly and she sits down at the communal table and is approached by a journalist. I love this passage, as I love many passages in Kudos and your other books. What I love about it is that the journalist makes an idiotic mistake, but also a very understandable mistake—given the nature of the books he’s describing—which is to think that, just by asking a question, he will elicit a beautifully written, extremely eloquent, fascinating monologue on a number of topics of personal and global importance. If I’m to understand correctly, the kinds of books that you write are also the kind of books that Faye your narrator writes. Have you gotten that kind of question? Has someone mistaken the hard effort of a novelist in constructing a reality with a kind of existing reality that the novelist is just transcribing?

Rachel Cusk: I think I probably have. I had gotten to a point in writing Kudos where I was so far into the project that the temptation would arise to make a little joke about it or test its boundary with reality. That’s a little bit what I’m doing in that passage. It’s a little sort of joke with myself. But, in fact, the thing that the journalist talks about in that section is a sort of germane point about the morality of language and the structure of language. The idea that he, or that anyone, could find a different way of living, by a different way of inquiring and listening—that’s an idea that I have, of not necessarily what my book could do, but what any book could do.

Schwartz: That’s interesting because I now think I’ve interpreted that passage in the least generous possible way and you just gave me the most generous possible reading. Because what I see is someone who really is not taking the novelist’s work into account rather than someone who’s asking the question that you propose about language. One thing I’m very curious about is how do you go about constructing these monologues? I’m assuming that everybody in this room is aware of the structure of these three books, but for those who aren’t: the books are essentially a string of monologues by the people who Faye encounters. And one thing that is so striking about them is that they often begin with the most trivial kind of observation. There’s one in this current book where a woman at the writer’s conference notices that the coupon at the coupon system, or whatever it is for handing out food, is really dysfunctional. Then this leads her to an enormous observation about humankind. Do you begin with an idea that you want to explore and find a vessel to explore it? Do you begin with a person and think about what the person would be saying? Or something totally different from those two possibilities?

Cusk: I think what you said just now about someone reading and having the idea that they could do it is a great compliment to me. I think anyone trying to create something, in the spirit that I’m trying to create something, wants it to not pass for life exactly but be as close as possible to what might be felt as true to anybody. So, the idea that it could be a structure that someone could take possession of and use is very appealing to me.

Schwartz: I found what the woman says after complaining about the festival, it’s “We invent these systems with the aim of ensuring fairness and yet the human situation is so complex that it always evades our attempts to encompass it.” Which is not exactly how I would put the problem, so I’m very impressed that she does put it that way. The style of Kudos and of Transit and of Outline was a new style for you when you began writing Outline. You had written a number of novels in a more conventional vein with plot and characters to whom quite clear things happened. I’m wondering why and how you struck upon this new style of writing.

I think all the problems of writing are problems of living.

Cusk: Essentially, I think all the problems of writing are problems of living. And all the problems of creativity are problems of living. They are all problems which we all share. I had been brought by my particular path to an experience of certain structures breaking down that I realized were old. For example, today I drove over the Brooklyn Bridge and remembered all the things I’d read about the infrastructure of American roads and bridges being in bad repair. I thought, “Am I entirely safe here?” It’s been here a long time, but it doesn’t mean it always will be. It’s that feeling of realizing that your consciousness, what appears to be your individuality, is actually resting on old, possibly decrepit structures.

As I say that, all of my thoughts about writing come through living—through observing how I live. Mainly, that’s because I am the person that I know myself to be, but also because I know how other people are living. In the end, my determination is to really get to the bottom of that in writing. In my own personal experience, language structure, sentence structure, the sentence itself, has this underpinning that goes so unexamined. Everyone uses sentences the way they’d drive down Fifth Avenue—because it’s there, because someone decided it should be Fifth Avenue and you should go down it. The sentence, the literary sentence, came to seem a lot like that to me. Just as my own life is composed of fairly conventional structures—in terms of relationship and family. So, it was the two things. One caused the next and that was the beginning of it. But I had to think about it for a long time.

Schwartz: So did you have to almost hear a new style of sentence in order to write a new kind of sentence?

Cusk: No, I had to work out what the underpinnings were. And once I understood that then I could write it very easily.

Schwartz: What were the underpinnings?

Cusk: It’s not a bad thing to try. It’s a false suspension of personal identity, and a protecting of personal identity that is false. And if you remove that, if the self is less, other things change their proportions and relationships to each other and to you.

I’ve never thought of myself as a terribly subjective writer. I’ve always stayed very close to the line of my own life and I’ve never sort of made things up or been particularly interested in narrative arcs or fantasy of any kind. This was much more a problem of living, of thinking, “Why do these things inevitably happen?” You enter these structures, you exist in these structures, they collapse or you leave them. Why? So that was how I really broke my own style. Which I never think of as conventional as everybody said, so whenever people talk about these books, they always say, “Oh, the other ones she wrote were very conventional.” I think that’s not quite true.

Schwartz: I appreciate your saying that because it is an irritating shorthand that I as a critic sometimes find myself falling back on and it does not convey the actual experience of reading the books or even what the break in style is and so I appreciate your pointing that out.

Cusk: I think it’s pretty much a continuum.

Schwartz: It’s interesting what you say about subjectivity and objectivity because of course one thing that happens in each of these books is it’s almost a barrage of subjectivity. Your narrator, Faye, is being—I don’t want to use the word assaulted—but almost assaulted with these people’s stories about themselves. Everyone is talking about themselves and they are using a very objective sounding language to do it. I think readers of these books notice almost immediately that these are not “voice-y” books. Everyone uses a similar diction, whether they are native English speakers or not native English speakers. There is a clarity to the diction that is not usually found in speech. And yet at the same time, with that kind of objective veneer, people are just talking about themselves.

Cusk: Writing in inverted commas is what they’re doing.

Schwartz: And do you see Faye as the page on which they’re writing?

Cusk: Well, she’s the only writer and she doesn’t say anything. I was reading something today which was an analysis of the thing that you always think you’re going to get told when you get arrested which is, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” That’s the only sort of culturally available place in which when you say something you render it public and everyone owns it. It is no longer yours. It’s rare that that’s recognized. In our personal lives, when we tell someone something, we’re really annoyed if they tell someone else. And as a writer, that’s a constant pitfall because people talk and that’s the life that’s in front of you and it may well end up in your work. That is apparently a form of, not theft exactly, but of using real life. When I write a book, I don’t feel I should decide who’s allowed to read it. It’s put out into space and speaking is like that. That’s partly what I’m trying to do in these monologues. I’m not interested in character because I don’t think character exists anymore.

Schwartz: What do you mean by that?

Cusk: Well, if it exists, it doesn’t exist for any good reason that I can make out.

Schwartz: But what do you mean when you say that “character doesn’t exist?”

Cusk: I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. It’s not a sort of doomsday view. It’s one of the things that I realized had changed since the old templates, the Victorian template of novel-writing, where character is a big thing. How much does character actually operate in a person’s life? I think it probably operates to create what we might fairly see as a dysfunction—not sticking to what you’re meant to be doing. So I think character is sort of a little low, and there’s a homogeneity afoot that I think everyone would accept in terms of our environment and how we live and how we communicate and those things seem to be eroding the old idea of character.

Schwartz: Well, maybe it’s old for a reason. What about the subtleties of character or the subtleties of self-expression, or different personal experience?

Cusk: I think those are shared. I’m not saying they don’t exist. I’m seeing them as more oceanic and as things that you can enter and leave in certain phases of your life that aren’t completely determined by the fact that you’re Jane and this is your life. I’m trying to see experience in a more lateral sense rather than as in this form of character. Which, as I said, I don’t actually think is how living is being done anymore. And it’s one of those ideas that hangs around in novel writing that I don’t really believe anymore.

Schwartz: Have you stopped reading novels that deal with character? (Which are most novels, still.)

Cusk: I haven’t wanted to. I find even my oldest and most trustworthy friends are being flung across the room. There’s lots and lots of things I can’t read anymore. But I think that’s true—I think this is a moment in culture, generally, where people are suddenly looking again at everything that was accepted, voices that have been ringing in our ears forever, and suddenly thinking, “I’m really sick of this, and I don’t want to read it anymore.” A little of that has happened to me.

This is a moment in culture, generally, where people are suddenly looking again at everything that was accepted, voices that have been ringing in our ears forever.

Schwartz: What were some of the themes that you felt were important to address when you began the trilogy and did those change over the course of your writing? There are themes that come back repeatedly, and one is the relationship between men and women, between men and women and their art, and how it’s taken. There are many characters in Kudos, many women who seem to echo the same experience, which is of feeling trapped at home while the husband—or, in this book, the ex-husband—is off racing yachts (which is not even something I knew that one could do, but this man is doing it). And the women are feeling stuck, and also trying to accept something of the beauty of their own life situations. That seemed like a very striking theme. But I’m wondering about any others you might have had in mind.

Cusk: Partly, there’s the idea of this sort of communal storytelling, which is the whole basis of Outline. I was thinking about the Odyssey and about foundational narrative ideas, and their relationship to therapy—people telling things after the thing has happened to them—and how that became a sort of basic therapeutic position that also evokes some commonality in experience. It seemed to me that these definitions of character and place in the Victorian novel—the village, the vicar, the woman—or in America—the small town, the woman, the man—those things that root to universality were done with. And saying “there’s this man here and you’re all going to identify with him” didn’t seem right to me anymore. It didn’t seem real. In terms of the theme that I began with: it was cruelty. It took me three books and only in the very last pages of the last one did I manage to really strike the blow that I’d wanted to strike on that subject. Cruelty was probably the biggest theme.

Schwartz: I’m fascinated to hear you say that because I think I’m going to do something that is usually not allowed but I do want to talk about the very end of the book and—because of the nature of the book, it’s not really a spoiler!

Cusk: I don’t believe in suspense, so that’s fine!

Schwartz: The end of this book is extraordinary, and it is deeply troubling. It’s almost like being thrust into a storm that has been building and finally you’re under the storm, but it works in a very different way than how endings usually work, which is to resolve something. Instead, it seems to me to open a wound and to propose new problems. What happens is that Faye has finally broken away from all of her interlocutors and is alone on a beach and it seems to be a gay beach—there are only men there. And they are all naked, and she takes off her clothes and goes into the water, and a man approaches the water and stands over her, grinning, and pees at her. And just pees into the water as she’s swimming there. What do I make of this? Why?

Cusk: It has its own reason. I see it as an acceptance of an element of, not violence exactly, but separateness, distinction, and this question of men and women—which as I say I’ve fenced all around it and in the end I sort of had to conclude that whatever women are, they are institutionally disadvantaged. I needed to find not just an image for it, but a sort of feeling about it, a feeling about that victimhood which I could understand, which is so much to do with the production of children, the nurture of children, and the defense of them, which is increasingly a shared world and no one owns any of it—it’s changing all the time. But this, as I say, elemental difference that is sex itself, it’s not violent but it looks like it. So, the ending is really that—it’s crude I suppose, and primitive, and it’s about genitals, bodies, none of which are mentioned very much in any of the other three books, but then suddenly there they are.

Schwartz: It also makes me wonder something else I’ve been thinking about. It goes back a little bit to the question of character, because I think there are characters in this book and people who I don’t know we’re not meant to identify with, as if they were stand-ins for us, but recognizable types. And one that interests me particularly is Ryan, the Irish writer. I may be wrong but I think he’s the only character who recurs and people who’ve read Outline will know that Faye originally met Ryan in Greece where she was teaching a summer class and he was an arrogant writer who blustered on and on. He always refers to his wife as “the wife,” and he’s coded in a way as to make us immediately dislike him. And he reappears here. He has become obsessed with his Fitbit and other fitness things and so he’s quite thin, in a sort of shocking way, and has had an enormous amount of personal success. He’s written a best-selling book with a woman—who he seems not to take particularly seriously—under a pseudonym. Why bring Ryan back?

Cusk: Well, again, that was book three in the series and I was making little jokes with myself. I don’t know if anyone else received this sort of idea of good writing, or of literary skill lying in bringing a character back and showing change in the character. So essentially this is what we’ve been talking about: does character exist? Well, okay, let’s say it does exist. The best, the highest skill you can have in relation to character is to show, in one novel, a character changing after being brought back, which is the sort of thing that I’ve always thought about and thought, “No! It’s not doable.” So I suppose bringing this person back in a completely different way was realizing that I’d reached a point in the journey of writing these books where I actually could do that, even though I’d written this in a completely different way and used a completely different set of rules. I could actually bring back a character and he would have completely changed.

Schwartz: One particular experience of reading these books, or being a reader of these books, is not always being sure how we’re supposed to be positioned towards the speakers of them. In some cases it’s very clear what Faye thinks about the people she’s meeting. Ryan is a good case. There maybe is a kind of contempt that comes through to the reader and we immediately know that we’re not supposed to take this person particularly seriously, although often the person will say something that will challenge that belief. In a lot of other cases there is a much more neutral presentation and I wonder how you want the reader to respond, or if you even do want to clue the reader in about a certain kind of emotional response that we’re supposed to be having.

Cusk: No, I mean the whole book is set up that you can walk away from it if you’re not interested. Go and do something else. There shouldn’t be the feeling of, you’ve paid for an experience and if you don’t get it, you’ll be disappointed. I wanted to make that incredibly clear. And when I wrote Outline I truly did not believe anyone would be able to read it.

Schwartz: I do think that it’s actually remarkable to see the number of people in this room, which is only a very small sample size of the people who adore and are extremely moved and influenced by these books. And these are books without plot and without a clear kind of character coding or emotional coding. There are so many ideas that are put forward in these monologues—ideas about cruelty, about love, about responsibility, men and women, and some of the bearers are buffoons, and some of them are not—it can be hard to know who we should take seriously. Should we take all the ideas that are being presented seriously, or are these just vessels delivering them to us?

Cusk: No. What I’m trying to show in each—if I’m trying to show anything—in each example of what you’re talking about, is the thing that I think is much more than speech itself, the thing that I think is given by nature, that is a component of existence, and that everyone has an entitlement to, and an ownership of, is form, a sense of literary form. Or artistic form. And I’m not interested in where that becomes lying, or exaggeration, or for all of these questions to be red herrings. And I don’t care whether someone changes the details a bit because it makes a better story. I mean, a child coming home from nursery at age three and the mother or father says, “How was your day?” Two instances of that and the child learns that if they say this, everyone will laugh, and if they say that, people will look really worried. So, we learn very early this thing of form, and it’s not just speaking, it’s when you get into an elevator, everyone behaves—it’s a form. Everyone knows how to behave. If someone violates the form, everyone’s really embarrassed. And that doesn’t really seem to change, no matter how much violation of boundaries and limits go on everywhere else in the culture, these things do not seem to change. I think that’s the thing, if I’m celebrating or determinedly saying something exists and I’m going to describe it in these books, it’s that. And the idea that people don’t talk like that—it may not be how it sounds, necessarily, but it is how it is to me.

Schwartz: You dispense with another form, which is conversation. I think I need at this juncture to ask a question that everyone who’s written about these books has taken on, and now I ask you: where is Faye? Why is she so passive?

Cusk: Why is she so passive? Well, if there is a narrative opportunity in the book, that is it. And it’s the experience of loss of identity that means that in a sense she’s a beggar in the street and that’s all you really know, that her life in pretty conventional ways—divorce, et cetera—has collapsed. That idea of being out on the street, which is very much an idea from Greek tragedy and the classical world, of war and exiting your home, meaning that there’s trouble—and so that’s her. So she has no identity, so what can her participation be? Because conversation is, it’s like a peacock showing their feathers to you. It’s a showing of identity to each other, and a search for conformity, a search for agreement. A search for agreement is really all that culture actually is, and it’s an amazingly good system. It’s what enables things to be recognized if enough time can pass.

A search for agreement is really all that culture actually is, and it’s an amazingly good system. It’s what enables things to be recognized if enough time can pass.

Schwartz: It’s interesting, because Faye kind of renounces her ability to disagree by not speaking.

Cusk: Yeah, but I think she says somewhere in Transit that she’s totally sick of the idea that maybe one version of things was better than another or that you might have some opinion about anything. It’s a bearing out of that particular attitude. And I think that we’re just very used to a novel being carried by a self that we believe in, and we believe in it as a simulation, or a representative of us. We think that’s what our experiences are like, and this is the form which that experience of being in a self is like, and I don’t believe that. I don’t think that’s true. I think, as I said, that experience is much more lateral and oceanic, because there’s also ideas about fate here, and how you cause things to happen, and who decides what happens to you. And what Faye says is: everything I decided to do hasn’t worked out that well and this idea of going against the current, what would happen if you were just swept along like a leaf on the water? What would happen to you? And that’s really what she’s trying to find out. Because the ultimate fruit of civilization is to allow her or anyone to believe they’re deciding what their life will be like. And that’s what she lets go of.

Schwartz: Why a trilogy? Did you know you were going to write a trilogy when you began Outline? And have your experiences writing Transit and Kudos been different than Outline? Did you learn from the way you were writing in each case?

Cusk: I realized at a certain point in Outline that it was all very well to say these things about passivity and disappearance, but the fact was that this person had to actually live. And so unless she was going to throw herself off the boat on the way home, she had to actually turn up somewhere and exist, and parent her children. I felt I needed to finish it. So that’s what caused two more books. And yeah, the style is the style. There is actually quite a lot of change across the books, and the last one, Kudos, is very different from Outline. I’m surprised that there’s a sense of linear progress. I don’t quite know how that happened, because I didn’t intend for that to happen. But there is a sense of actually having started in one place and ending up at another place, whereas as I imagined it as just going round and round and round in circles, but I haven’t quite managed to alienate people to that extent.

Schwartz: Will there be a fourth book in this series?

Cusk: I think there can’t be. I know we live in an era of extraordinary comebacks and anyone doing it again, but no. Not going to happen. I have other plans.

Rachel Cusk is the author of Outline, Transit, and Kudos, the memoirs A Life’s Work, The Last Supper, and Aftermath, and several other novels: Saving Agnes, winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award; The Temporary; The Country Life, which won a Somerset Maugham Award; The Lucky Ones; In the Fold; Arlington Park; and The Bradshaw Variations. She was chosen as one of Granta’s 2003 Best of Young British Novelists. She lives in London.

Alexandra Schwartz is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing for 2014.