Objectivity is a tricky concept to apply to any form of writing, but it fits the novel worst of all. A journalist goes to a war zone, or to a dog show, reports on what she finds there, and is immediately met with accusations of bias. Fair enough: The things she has seen happened as they happened, the people she met said what they did—the drone launched a missile that killed a dozen people who were traveling in a wedding convoy; the dachshund finally won best in show—and the journalist chose what to put in and what to leave out, whom to interview, whom to doubt and whom to trust, where to begin and where to end, in a stream of events whose beginning and end are, at best, arbitrary. But a novelist is in the business of inventing that stream and the people in it, the actions they take and the events that befall them. How ludicrous, you might think, for such a writer to believe that she could present you with a story that has no external existence and claim that she is doing it without consideration for her own feelings or point of view, when those are the very forces—the only forces—that brought her story into being.
That was the opinion of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who spent his writing life protesting the possibility of “objective literature,” even though he was widely credited with having invented it. Roland Barthes had applied the term to Robbe-Grillet’s first novel, and people went ahead and copied Barthes. But Barthes’s phrase had nothing to do with impartiality. He was referring to the objective lens of a microscope, the one focused on the specimen rather than on the eye; he meant that Robbe-Grillet’s style was a way of looking out rather than in. Still, critics kept conflating “objective” with “neutral” or “impassive”—and so, in a 1985 Paris Review interview conducted just after the publication of his memoir, Le Miroir qui revient, Robbe-Grillet became exasperated by his interlocutor’s line of questioning, especially her insistence that as “the spokesman of the ‘objective novel,’” his indulgence “in an eminently subjective exercise, an autobiography, seemed a provocation.” What about his theories calling for the novel to depict reality “exactly,” in all its precise detail? “I never describe something that exists in reality,” Robbe-Grillet replied. “Everything in my novels is pure invention.” The writer at the microscope isn’t bound by any premise of neutrality. He is more likely to be, as Robbe-Grillet insisted of himself, the opposite of neutral: a nurturer of the profligate subjectivity essential to his profession.
Rachel Cusk is an English writer, 48 years old, with eight novels and three memoirs to her name. In the most recent memoir, Aftermath, published in 2012, Cusk writes about her separation from her husband of 10 years. The immediate cause of the crisis isn’t made clear, but the breakup is rooted in the general disruption that followed Cusk’s insistence that her husband quit his job as a lawyer and stay home with their two young daughters so that she could devote herself to writing. As a mother, and her household’s sole breadwinner, Cusk felt herself to be “both man and woman”—powerfully self-sufficient, platonically whole, double-sexed and de-sexed at the same time. Her assumption of male responsibilities, and her ceding of the female stuff to her husband, severed Cusk’s claims to femininity and made her suspicious, even contemptuous, of maternal softness and indulgence. As she puts it, in the glancing, deceptively corseted tone that characterizes the book: “I perceived in the sentimentality and narcissism of motherhood a threat to the objectivity that as a writer I valued so highly.”
* * *
That’s one sharply double-jointed sentence. The thing intended to surprise and rile us—the mother coolly proclaiming motherhood to be an emotional taint that corrupts the intellect—does surprise and rile us. Still, it’s clear what Cusk means: We all know the model of the manipulative and overbearing mother that she makes a show of resisting. (Cusk recently wrote an essay for The New York Times Magazine in which she described the difficulty of dealing with her now-teenage children and her work on an adaptation of Medea. When one of her daughters asks if she’ll actually have Medea kill her sons, Cusk tells her to wait and see.) But how can she claim objectivity as a natural, necessary trait for a writer, what vocal range is to an opera singer, or flexibility to a dancer? What model could she possibly be thinking of?
Not her own, certainly. Memoirs are memoirs, and subjectivity is the whole game. Cusk should know: She was sued for libel by English vacationers who recognized themselves in The Last Supper, her memoir about a summer spent in Italy, and didn’t like what they saw. The book was pulped. In her fiction, Cusk likes to use omniscient narration, but knowing everything that’s going on in the world of her characters doesn’t prohibit her from subtly dyeing it with judgment—if anything, it does the opposite. The third person is the subtlest narrative voice, the one with the most room for exploiting the gap between substance and form, between the material of the story and its tone, and Cusk has made artful use of that tension in her previous novels. Take Arlington Park (2006), set during a single rainy day in an English suburb. Its opening sequence, an aerial shot that sweeps through the deluged town in the course of four pages, begins with a sentence that, it’s safe to say, is objectively objective: “All night the rain fell on Arlington Park.” Then comes this:
The clouds came from the west: clouds like dark cathedrals, clouds like machines, clouds like black blossoms flowering in the arid starlit sky. They came over the English countryside, sunk in its muddled sleep. They came over the low, populous hills where scatterings of lights throbbed in the darkness. At midnight they reached the city, valiantly glittering in its shallow provincial basin. Unseen, they grew like a second city overhead, thickening, expanding, throwing up their savage monuments, their monstrous, unpeopled palaces of cloud.
That the clouds came from the west, passed over the English countryside, and reached the city at midnight could be agreed on by anyone with a compass, a map, and a watch. But as soon as we enter the territory of Cusk’s figurative speech—the “dark cathedrals” and “black blossoms,” the city “valiantly glittering” beneath the “savage” and “monstrous” cloud “palaces”—we are way beyond the bounds of neutral observation.
To claim objectivity as a writer—not to have the premise foisted upon you, as was done to Robbe-Grillet, but to assume it as central to the writer’s vocation, as Cusk does—produces a paradox, even a crisis, of agency. On the one hand, objectivity is the source of ultimate power, the trump card that can be played in any dispute. To her ex-husband the lawyer, intent on arguing his own side of their separation, Cusk presents herself as an impartial judge, looking over their competing claims from the privileged remove of the bench. The ruling doesn’t exactly come as a surprise:
You know the law, my husband said over the phone. He was referring to my obligation to give him money.
I know what’s right, I said.
On the other hand, to be objective is to renounce all claims to a point of view, and to the personal authority—the power to form opinions, and to act on them—that comes from having one. This can be fantastically liberating. “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,” goes the famous line from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. Young, alone in a foreign city, alive to the sensuality of a world made new, Isherwood luxuriates in the pure pleasure of looking at everything around him without having to do anything about what he sees. He’s aware that this is a charmed, temporary state. “Some day all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed,” he says. For the moment, though, he’s absolved of the responsibility to evaluate, shedding the self and its analytical machinery like a swimmer kicking off his clothes to plunge naked into a lake.
Stepping out of the self when you know you can step back into it again is a transgressive thrill. Getting to play at being someone else is the prerogative of fiction. But for the writer intent on entirely suppressing her own subjectivity, escape from the self can become something more serious—estrangement or, in the case of Outline, Cusk’s latest novel, mortification: the self suppressed to the point of destruction.
* * *
Outline takes place over the course of two summer days that its narrator, an English writer, spends in Athens, where she has come to lead two sessions of a team-taught creative-writing seminar for a disparate group of teenage and adult students. The novel is full of drama, and dramatic action—marriages break apart; a child who is locked in a cellar by his stepmother succumbs to mental illness as a young man; an expensive ceiling made of glass shatters during a rainstorm over a table of people having dinner. But all of this happened in the past, and is recounted to the narrator in a series of conversations that she has with the people she meets on her trip, so that the heat and chaos of various crises are coated over with the contemplative veneer of retrospect.
Of herself, the narrator reveals little. Like Cusk, she is recently divorced and has two children (sons) whom she doesn’t seem to miss while she’s away, and who contact her only when they need to know something that can be easily communicated over the phone, like the location of a tennis racket. She isn’t given a name until the book is nearly over, and then only when a representative from her bank uses it while calling to refuse her a loan. Faye: the word is jarring, the personal appropriated and distorted through the meaningless niceties of corporate protocol. She leaves her classroom to take the call; afterward, “I stood there in the glare while the cars and people passed, as though I was expecting something to happen or for some alternative to present itself.” That “as though” is painfully revealing. The narrator won’t claim directly that she was expecting something to happen; she is like someone expecting something to happen, a person who has insulated herself against agency to the point of expressing her thoughts and feelings through the filter of analogy.
This is characteristic. Cusk’s narrator also aims to be a camera, recording what she sees and hears as she applies herself to the pursuit of passivity. Unlike Isherwood, though, her goal is not so much to let others in as to keep too much of herself from being let out. Her divorce hovers in the background, evidence of a former life that can’t be resumed and has yet to be replaced. In hot, torpid Athens, she accepts pretty much anything that’s proposed to her and listens to what is said, replying when necessary, rarely volunteering her thoughts without being asked for them. When she goes to dinner with a Greek friend, an acquaintance of his—a glamorous writer—orders food and drink for the table. (Cusk’s narrator is not the only one in the process of molting a former self. “That was another Angeliki,” the friend tells her, when she reminds him that she has met the writer once before, “an Angeliki who no longer exists and has been written out of the history books.”) She allows the Greek businessman who sat next to her on the plane from London to take her out on his boat and to barrage her, in a brilliant tour de force of ponderous, well-intentioned egomania, with his thoughts about the breakdown of his various marriages. Aside from the time she spends alone in the water, the boat trip bores and irritates her; the man is short and hairy, as unappealing physically as he is conversationally. But when he calls to propose a second outing, she accepts. That she finds him repulsive gives a religious flavor to her project of radical passivity, turning it into an ascetic endurance test of the limits of self-effacement.
In the classroom, she lets her students talk, in long, unbroken stretches one after the other, about themselves and their own lives, as if they weren’t in school at all but rather in the office of an inscrutable psychologist who speaks only to announce the end of the session. Most of them seem relatively pleased with this arrangement, but not all:
Each member of the group had now spoken, except for one, a woman whose name on my chart was Cassandra and whose expression I had watched grow sourer and sourer as the hour passed, who had made her displeasure known by a series of increasingly indiscreet groans and sighs, and who now sat with her arms implacably folded, shaking her head. I asked her whether she had anything, before we concluded, to contribute, and she said that she did not. She had obviously been mistaken, she said: she had been told this was a class about learning to write, something that as far as she was aware involved using your imagination. She didn’t know what I thought I had achieved here, and she wasn’t all that interested in finding out.
Cassandra is right: The narrator has abdicated her responsibility as a teacher. How will she respond to this challenge? Will she be apologetic and characteristically evasive? Or will she step to her own defense and explain that Cassandra is being dense and literal; that her fellow students, constructing themselves as characters in the stories they’ve been telling about their own lives, have learned far more about writing and the imagination than Cassandra ever will? Here, as at other points when dodging a response seems impossible, Cusk’s narrator is shielded from taking action by a chapter break.
But Cassandra’s anger has evidently stung her. The same afternoon, riding in the businessman’s car on the way to his boat, the narrator finds herself discussing the episode:
He listened, sombrely, as I relayed the details of her tirade, the worst aspect of which, I said, was its element of impersonality, which had caused me to feel like nothing, a non-entity, even while she was giving me, so to speak, her full attention. This feeling, of being negated at the same time as I was exposed, had had a particularly powerful effect on me, I said. It had seemed to encapsulate something that didn’t, strictly speaking, exist.
The businessman doesn’t respond directly; a woman’s sense of being simultaneously negated and exposed by harsh criticism is apparently not something that the failure of his marriages has taught him to understand. On the boat, he points out the cliffs of Sounion. These, he says, are the cliffs from which the father of Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur, threw himself when he saw his son’s ship returning from Crete with black sails, mistakenly believing Theseus to be dead. The moral of the story, the businessman says, is “not to take no for an answer, almost as a point of principle.” For once, the narrator is moved to speak freely:
I said that, on the contrary, I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying—it seemed to me—was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become—to put it bluntly—anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.
This remarkable passage reminded me of a story by Lydia Davis called “New Year’s Resolution,” in which the narrator determines “to learn to see myself as nothing.” Even though she’s pleased with her enlightenment, there’s a problem: “how does a person learn to see herself as nothing when she has already had so much trouble learning to see herself as something in the first place?” The question is moving and pitiful, and Davis offsets it by turning to the business of how her narrator actually achieves her resolution—not such an easy thing to do. “I’m pretty close to nothing all morning,” she says, “but by late afternoon what is in me that is something starts throwing its weight around.”
Like Davis’s narrator, Cusk’s passivity project is riddled with internal contradictions. Her declaration in favor of passivity keeps butting up against the fact of her having decided to be passive; she is repulsed by what she considers to be an artificial vision of human agency interfering with the random course of events, and yet her vision of passivity is unsurpassably artificial, an amateurish, fatalistic theology. There is something of the petulant child in her; because she cannot have exactly what she wants from life, she has “decided” to want nothing at all.
Outline is a radical experiment in seeing the self as nothing. Its method reflects its title; by saying little and doing less, Cusk’s narrator presents herself to others as a shape to be projected onto and filled in, a reflection of whatever they might want to see in her—or at least she thinks she does. Cusk relies heavily on monologues to push her characters into saying revealing things about themselves. She is like Clelia, the owner of the Athens apartment where her narrator stays, whose classical-music collection turns out to contain hardly anything but symphonies:
I wasn’t sure I would choose to sit through symphony after symphony any more than I would spend the afternoon reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it occurred to me that in Clelia’s mind they perhaps represented the same thing, a sort of objectivity that arose when the focus became the sum of human parts and the individual was blotted out.
Cusk, too, is trying to hush the individual in favor of the chorus. Yet as the novel progresses, an odd pattern starts to emerge: Everyone sounds identical to her narrator—same detached tone, same precise and glassy diction, same sentence rhythms, same tics of phrasing. Her Greek students, taking a writing course taught in a second language, speak in sophisticated English sentences and use sophisticated English vocabulary. Cutting out her own tongue, Cusk’s narrator manages to express herself by speaking through everyone else. Far from being blotted out, the individual has been replicated over and over again, her subjectivity amplified on a universal scale. The effect is strange and spectacular, like walking through a foreign city and seeing everyone wearing a mask of your own face.
* * *
On the narrator’s final morning in Athens, she opens her bedroom door to find a woman sitting on the sofa, eating honey from a jar with a spoon. It’s the writing instructor who will teach the next segment of the course—she has arrived to replace the narrator, in the classroom and at home. She is as chatty as the narrator is silent, and soon comes to seem vulgar and grotesque. “Her voice came out in a kind of squawk,” the narrator thinks; the woman, gobbling her honey, seems bestial, as loose and corporal as the narrator is cerebral and austere.
Yet, as she speaks, she comes into focus as a double for the narrator. While on the flight from London, she says, she began talking with the man sitting next to her, a diplomat. She asked him question after question about his life and his experiences, which were, in every respect, totally different from her own. If anything, his life was her life’s opposite. “This anti-description, for want of a better way of putting it, had made something clear to her by a reverse kind of exposition,” the narrator observes, summarizing what she is told. “While he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.” But for the woman, this turns out to be a good thing. She has recently gone through a separation and been attacked by a violent man in the street—experiences that have eclipsed her sense of self. The outline of herself that she glimpsed from listening to the man on the plane, “even while its content remained unknown, gave her for the first time since the incident a sense of who she now was.”
Confronted with her chattering replacement, Cusk’s narrator preserves her own outline through contempt. The woman persists. She is relentlessly friendly, cheerfully candid. Is there a place she ought to see while in Athens? The narrator directs her to the Agora. She was there once; she stayed with her children, stranded in the city for three weeks when flights were canceled because of volcanic ash in the sky. She had friends in the city but didn’t call: “the feeling of invisibility was too powerful.”
Objectivity isn’t the only quality that allows one to see from another person’s point of view. There is empathy, too. Objectivity requires detachment; empathy requires feeling. That power is increasingly alien to the narrator, but not to her double: Might they go to the Agora together, she asks? The narrator hedges. It takes a lot of willpower to insist on seeing yourself as nothing day after day, even more when someone has seen through to the person beneath the pretense of invisibility. There’s a gorgeousness to Outline’s rigor, a meticulous elegance to the exacting cut of its sentences, but here its insistence on purity of thought and absence of feeling comes to seem an exercise in exhibitionistic masochism.
Cusk, for all her allegiance to severity, is not insensible to the fuller range of the world. Much of what her narrator observes has the markings of pleasure. There are bouts of talk and storytelling; people eat and drink together. Cusk needs to let a little air in, and she knows it. She doesn’t show her narrator doing anything so direct as actually agreeing to go to the Agora; that would be forcing the current of events, a betrayal of her private moral code. Still, when the Greek businessman calls to take her out, she turns him down for the first time, saying that she has an “engagement with someone, to do some sightseeing.” It’s not much. It’s not nothing, either.