Rachel Cusk’s Struggle to Break Free

Rachel Cusk’s Struggle to Break Free

Boxed In

Rachel Cusk’s struggle to break free from conventional life.


Kudos, the final book in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, ends with a confrontation between a man and a woman on a beach. Both are naked. The woman is swimming; the man, “resplendent and grinning,” is peeing in the water just behind her. Cusk’s writing in this scene approaches the mythic: The man’s urine is “like a gold rope he was casting into the sea”; the sea itself, she adds, is like “some sighing creature.” We are in an Eden beset by evil, a world in which women and men are locked in an old, inescapable conflict.

It’s an evocative scene, not least because, in a novel filled with people’s voices, it takes place in total silence. But the scene is significant for another reason. It illustrates a central theme in Kudos and the trilogy’s other novels, Outline (2014) and Transit (2016): How free can a woman ever be? Perhaps there will always be a man lurking in the background, muddying the waters of what would otherwise be a place of total freedom.

The question of female freedom, its variations and limitations, is one that has preoccupied Cusk throughout her career. From her earliest work, about the travails of being a hyperintelligent young woman in a world filled with difficult men, to her more recent work, on the uniquely female crises of midlife, Cusk has attempted to answer this question. She has explored it in conventional realist fiction, in her memoirs of motherhood and marriage, and again in the inventive Outline trilogy. Indeed, the series’ experimental form can obscure this thematic continuity. While these recent novels are far less conventional than Cusk’s early fiction—the three Outline books consist almost entirely of conversation, with little description of setting and even less of the narrator’s inner life—Cusk’s long-standing preoccupations are all present nonetheless. Like the work that preceded it, the trilogy is also about the strictures of femininity, the claustrophobia of domestic life, and the illusions we fashion in order to survive both.

The Outline series represents Cusk’s most rigorous and impressive attempt to date to write about the problem of female freedom. The women of Kudos grapple with the legacy of second-wave feminism and wonder why, if we’re closer to gender equality than ever, they still feel so trapped and miserable. Some characters make a radical break with bourgeois domesticity; others find ways to live within its confines. What they all share, however, is a commitment to speaking honestly about the compromises and sacrifices that mark many women’s lives. Cusk’s female characters, like the author herself, reckon with their imprisonment, rather than deluding themselves into thinking that they were always already free.

At 51, Cusk has had a prolific career. The author of 10 novels and three memoirs, she was listed as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and is the winner of several literary prizes, including the Whitbread First Novel Award for Saving Agnes, published when she was 26. Though born in Canada, Cusk has lived in the United Kingdom since she was 8, and throughout her career she has focused on the perils and possibilities of English domestic life. She is most interested in bourgeois domesticity; her characters tend to be artists, writers, teachers, intellectuals, and professionals of various stripes. The handful of poor or working-class characters who appear in her books are often rendered unsympathetically and without much psychological depth. This can be frustrating, given that her middle-class characters often opine on their experiences in ways that draw universal lessons from their privileged status.

Cusk’s explorations of bourgeois domestic life have come in a range of genres—satire, conventional realist fiction, memoir—and her approach to the topic has changed as she’s matured. Composed and published in the mid-1990s, her first two novels, Saving Agnes and The Temporary, examined the ordeals of young-female adulthood (boring office jobs, desultory love affairs) with a combination of irony and seriousness. In these years, she also wrote a comic novel, The Country Life, which drew on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. After giving birth to her first child, Cusk turned her attention to marriage and motherhood. Her style in these midcareer novels resembles that of her earlier work: She employs the same ironic tone, long sentences, precise and elevated diction, and a preference for internal monologue. There is so little dialogue in some of these early and midcareer novels that it can come as a shock when a character speaks aloud.

Her middle novels—all written in the first decade of the 2000s—were also remarkably fatalistic about women’s efforts to revolutionize the family and liberate themselves. The Lucky Ones begins with a woman in labor who is also unfairly imprisoned; the opening section is appropriately called “Confinement.” Arlington Park, her 2006 satire about a group of unhappy women living in provincial England, equates suburban motherhood with self-annihilation. “Actually, I’m dead. I was murdered a few years ago,” one mother explains. The Bradshaw Variations imagines a couple who swap gender roles. Tonie works full-time in a university English department in London, while Thomas, her husband, stays home and looks after their daughter. On the train into work, Tonie embraces her “masculinity,” hoping to achieve a “synthesis” between her male and female identities—but after their daughter is struck by a devastating illness, Thomas returns to work, and Tonie once again becomes the primary caregiver.

A similar disquieting theme can be found in Cusk’s memoirs. In her 2001 A Life’s Work, she describes the surprising, irreconcilable conflicts she experienced during the first year of her eldest daughter’s life. “I did not understand what a challenge to the concept of sexual equality the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is. Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves.” In Aftermath, her 2012 memoir about divorce, Cusk offered a different take on the significance of gender roles. Like the fictional Bradshaws, Cusk and her ex-husband had experimented with inverting the bourgeois household: She wrote full-time, while he cared for the children. This reversal, Cusk later came to worry, may have been what doomed their marriage. Precisely because men are not charged with being homemakers and caregivers, they can be enthusiastic about these activities without feeling compromised by them—if anything, they can congratulate themselves for acting in a politically enlightened fashion. Conversely, when Cusk took on those activities, she felt “most unsexed” and least like herself. Traditional gender roles reappeared in the wake of her marriage’s collapse. When Cusk and her husband divorced, she claimed that the children belonged to her; after all, she was their mother. Her husband wondered bitterly how she could think this and still call herself a feminist.

Despite similarities in style and substance, Cusk’s fiction has won prizes and critical praise, while her memoirs have proved controversial. Some called A Life’s Work “pure misery to read”; others noted that Aftermath was “maddening” for being elliptical and allusive rather than forthright and personal. (In the latter, Cusk writes more about the Oresteia than about her marriage.) “On and on it went,” she later observed of her memoirs’ reception. “I was accused of child-hating, of postnatal depression, of shameless greed, of irresponsibility, of pretentiousness, of selfishness, of doom-mongering and, most often, of being too intellectual.”

One might think this critical reception would have led her away from autobiography and back to fiction. But Cusk had come to view fiction as “fake and embarrassing,” and autobiography as “increasingly the only form in all the arts.” However, she had also learned her lesson: “I could not do [autobiography] without being misunderstood and making people angry,” Cusk told a reporter in 2014. With the Outline trilogy, then, Cusk creates a hybrid form, one part autobiography and one part novel, in which the writer speaks little and listens to others instead. In these novels, Cusk does away with many fictional conventions that might seem “fake”—exposition, characterization, rising and falling action—and replaces them with conversation. The stories told to Faye—the narrator and Cusk’s alter ego—are often more like sketches, remarkable not for their narrative drama or descriptive detail but for the emotional insights they communicate. The other characters speak to Faye intimately and eloquently. They use elaborate metaphors to describe their failing marriages; they speak solemnly about mortality and fate. Faye is usually silent and reveals little about her own life. We know that she’s a writer, recently divorced in Outline and recently remarried in Kudos, but what we know about Faye’s values and beliefs comes primarily through the questions she asks of her conversational partners.

This is a canny form of auto-fiction, one that occludes the authorial self rather than exposing it. Unlike other contemporary practitioners—Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Sheila Heti—who draw their material from their own lives, Cusk is largely drawing from the lives of others. She breaks as well with a longer tradition of female confessional writing that extends from Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath to Elizabeth Wurtzel and Leslie Jamison, a tradition that is sometimes described as “empowering.” Cusk, in contrast, derives her power from her refusal to expose herself while revealing, with precision and control, the intimate lives of others. As a narrator, Faye’s main function is to compile the stories that give shape to domestic life. Some of these stories she quotes verbatim; others she presents as reported speech; still others are swiftly and perhaps a little cruelly summarized, such as the one from the billionaire who appears briefly at the very beginning of the trilogy and is “keen to give me the outline of his life story, which had begun unprepossessingly and ended—obviously—with him being the relaxed, well-heeled man who sat across the table from me today.”

There are other, less obvious and more complicated (though not necessarily truthful) stories. In Outline, Faye, who is visiting Athens for two weeks to teach a writing course, listens to a Greek businessman, thrice-married and thrice-divorced, who relates to her the saga of his second marriage. She listens to a fellow writing instructor, Ryan, tell her about the equanimous and transactional nature of his marriage, then watches as he greedily ogles every young woman in Athens. She meets her Greek friend Paniotis, an editor, and listens to him discuss the demise of his marriage, especially how the pressure to accumulate infected his household; he then wistfully recalls the perfection of his childhood.

In Outline, male voices predominate; it’s as though Faye has gathered a group of men to fill the space that her ex-husband used to occupy. In Transit, set in London, the voices of Faye and other women emerge more fully. The title refers to Faye’s transition from her earlier conjoined life to a new, solitary existence. (The word first occurs in an e-mail from an astrologer, in reference to a shift in the alignment of the stars.) Faye decides to renovate her newly purchased flat; the renovation, and the feud it sparks with her neighbors downstairs, provides the novel with its major narrative conflict. Faye is more talkative and less passive in this book. There are still characteristic moments of self-effacement—participating in a literary panel, Faye reports extensively on the speeches by her fellow panelists, all of whom are men, but refuses to disclose what she herself says—but, on the whole, she is less of a cipher than she was in Outline. She makes decisions about flooring; she gives private writing lessons to a student; she goes on dates.

Faye also offers some revealing statements about herself, after having been mostly laconic in Outline. “My current feelings of powerlessness had changed the way I looked at what happens and why,” she tells a dinner date, “to the extent that I was beginning to see what other people called fate in the unfolding of events, as though living were merely an act of reading to find out what happens next.” Faye no longer believes in fate, which Cusk, in an interview, has called a particularly female form of self-deception (she thinks women too often substitute a belief in “destiny” for a reckoning with their own powerlessness). She now understands it as an effect wrought upon the vulnerable by those in power, a “reverberation of their will.” In renovating her flat, in deciding “to create a disturbance,” Faye attempts, from her place within an existing structure, to work her will upon the world.

In Kudos, Faye again retreats into the background. Here she’s replaced by a slew of women, each of whom is navigating the challenges of midlife. Like her, many of these women are divorced and have children. They work in the publishing industry as writers, editors, journalists, or translators. They are contemptuous of men, if not afraid of them. And they are preoccupied with the twin problems of freedom and power: how to attain them, or how to live without one or both.

Kudos takes place in a small German town during a literary conference. Shortly after Faye arrives at the conference hotel, she meets Linda, a “tall, soft, thick-limbed woman” with matted hair and pasty skin. (As an observer, Faye—like Cusk—is unforgiving.) Linda has just spent two weeks on a writing retreat, trapped in a castle like a fairy-tale princess. While there, she wrote a story about a family’s pet hamster. In this story, a mother, feeling neglected and driven mad by the sound of the hamster on its wheel, eventually lets the creature out of its cage and shoos it from the apartment. She cruelly allows her daughter to draw her own, self-punishing conclusions for the pet’s “liberation.”

The episode is typical of the trilogy: It’s a series of stories nested within each other like Russian dolls, each taking up the theme of captivity. (Linda and Faye are being held hostage in a different sense—at the behest of their publisher, they’re about to engage in the farce that is a festival panel discussion.) Releasing the hamster doesn’t free the unhappy mother any more than Linda is freed by a writing residency abroad, where she only finds new ways to feel trapped and unhappy. Linda compares herself to a pet dog: “It’s never going to be free, if it even remembers what freedom is.”

These layered stories—rich and evocative and, at times, quite moving—are all retold at a hotel bar where, several yards away, a wedding party populated exclusively by happy young people has gathered. Faye notices the scene immediately upon entry, along with the “expression of self-consciousness, almost of culpability,” worn by the bride and groom. Linda, for her part, wonders whether they’re watching a film being made.

This sense of watching happy lives from afar is a recurring motif in the Outline trilogy. The observation of the wedding party recalls an episode in Outline when Faye and the Greek businessman, having taken out his boat, gaze across the cove at a family with many children, swimming and playing alongside their own boat. Faye knows that this image of domestic tranquility is just that—an image, and one with a tenuous relationship to the truth—but all the same she longs to immerse herself in it once again.

While Linda and Faye may still envy the domestic lives they observe, other women in Kudos have put the images of family life far behind them. Near the end of the novel, Faye lunches with Paola, her editor, and Felícia, who has translated some of Faye’s books. Divorced from an angry man whom she refers to as “The Buccaneer,” Paola is a strong, wiry woman with an appetite for walking and a sense of humor regarding her past domestic abuse. At 50, she favors loose tunics because her “body is asking for privacy…. It has finally cast out my lifelong belief in romantic love.” Meanwhile, Stefano, Felícia’s ex-husband, is turning their daughter against her and has reclaimed the family’s only car. Felícia’s mother blames her for the difficulties of the divorce. “Look at what all your equality has done for you,” she remonstrates; if only Felícia had committed herself to motherhood and stopped working entirely, she would have been able to win a better settlement. Despite her mother’s opprobrium and her husband’s cruelty, Felícia remains steadfast in her independence and gets by on her small teaching salary.

Faye takes in these stories without comment. Paola and Felícia have chosen to live as self-described “outlaws,” forsaking bourgeois domesticity entirely. Faye, however, has returned to it with her new marriage. She is no fool—she knows the often difficult and dangerous reality of married life—but she thinks it’s better to try to survive marriage than to transcend it. As she explains to her companions, “I hoped to get the better of those laws…by living within them.” She believes that she can renovate from the inside out.

In some sense, Cusk has done the same with the Outline novels. Critics have praised the way the trilogy upends the rules of fiction, and they’re mostly right: Although Cusk’s material here is the same as in her earlier novels, she has reworked it so that it’s almost unrecognizable in its new form. The formal strategies she’s devised—outlining and erasing, compiling and undercutting—allow her to write honestly and precisely about the many sacrifices that women and men make in order to abide by the rules of domestic life. Unlike her memoirs, which at times can feel overwrought, Cusk finds a way here to be serious without being self-serious. While the novels are about the impossibility of achieving freedom or liberation, they are also evidence that an experienced artist can dispense with old habits and conventions to experiment with new styles and forms. Cusk finds a freedom in art that she cannot locate in life.

Why would a newly liberated writer return to old themes? For Cusk, it’s the duty of the female artist to document the challenges of domestic life, to write honestly about the many ways that women struggle and fail to be free. She makes this point most clearly in an interview near the end of Kudos, which is conducted by a beautiful television host who hopes to talk to Faye about “the problem of recognition for female writers and artists.” While they wait for the camera crew to set up, the interviewer launches into a long, rambling disquisition on the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, whose work, she insists, is about femaleness and invisibility. The interviewer praises Bourgeois’s sketches from the 1940s, in which the artist, then the mother of small children, represents herself as a spider and motherhood as an inescapable web. Faye reports the interviewer’s evaluation of this work:

It is understandable, she said, that a woman of talent might resent being fated to the feminine subject and might seek freedom by engaging with the world on other terms; yet the image of Bourgeois’s spider, she said, seems almost to reproach the woman who has run away from these themes and left the rest of us stuck, as it were, in our webs.

For the interviewer, and it seems for Cusk as well, solidarity requires the female artist to take up “the feminine subject” rather than sidestepping it. By writing from within the bourgeois domestic world, describing its compromises and complexities, Cusk has created for herself not power or freedom, exactly, but what she once called (in reference to another woman writer) “female authority.”

If, at times, this fiction feels claustrophobic, with its fixed gender roles and its preclusion of alternative ways of living and loving, it is also compelling in subtle and surprising ways. Cusk has produced a portrait of domestic life that will resonate for some and feel entirely foreign for others—those to whom freedom comes more easily. But even women who have freed themselves from the web may still wonder about some of the questions these books raise: about the limits to self-perception, and about the continual challenge of living peaceably with those you love.

At the end of Kudos, as she tries to explain her new marriage, Faye refers to a painting that her son once made, a copy of Salome With the Head of Saint John the Baptist by Artemisia Gentileschi, an artist who specialized in portraits of female vengeance. But her son—his mother’s child—has left out all the details, so that only the outline remains. “[W]ithout those details,” Faye recalls, “and the story to which they were associated, the painting became a study not of murderousness but of the complexity of love.”

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