Cusk: "Outline" + "Transit"
Rachel Cusk, who believes "character is dead," has been charged with "gut-renovating" the novel by the New Yorker. I expect a conviction will be handed down soon.
I remember it as the first sunny afternoon of the pandemic’s inaugural summer. I sat outside at a neighborhood joint in the crisp post-spring air, ordered a beer, and a cracked open a book. A couple sat next to me. After a beer or two, we got to talking. It was my first time talking to anyone outside of my own home in months. Though I never saw them again, there was something about talking with these two after months of solitude that felt like a conspicuous reacquaintance with something important which had been long been absent.
But it wasn’t just the feeling tone of this conversation that stuck with me. I remember distinctly something one of them—the man, I think—had told me. We had been discussing television, which I had been using as a kind of crutch to prop up my conscious existence when time refused to crawl at any faster than an infant’s pace. In particular, The West Wing. I can’t begin to tell you what a panacea it had been, in 2020, to participate in a world in which government works more or less as you might hope it would and run by more or less the kind of people you might hope would be in charge. This is what I was relaying as one of my key pandemic televisory experiences, when the man stopped to ask: “Well, if you like The West Wing, have you seen The Newsroom?”
I told him I hadn’t.
Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, had made The Newsroom as a counterpoint to his flagship show, and it was this man’s opinion that the new show surpassed The West Wing in Sorkin’s signature incisiveness, wit, and intrigue. The West Wing gives an inside glimpse into how the executive branch portrays its internal workings to the outside work. The Newsroom gives the perspective from the outside looking in. Whose job is it to inform us what the government is up to? Who gets to define what a fact is? What does it mean to report the news in an “unbiased” way? Is such a thing even possible? By what forces do individual facts get shaped into coherent narratives?
These are the questions of our time, and The Newsroom addressed them before most of us even knew they were worth asking. The show, the man told me, stars Jeff Daniels—the guy from Dumb and Dumber? I thought to myself, but didn’t ask out of fear of having the wrong Jeff Daniels—and all three seasons were available to stream on HBO Max.
The argument that The Newsroom is unequivocally superior to The West Wing is a difficult one to make, if for no other reason than the latter sustained its excellence for more than ten seasons. But what I will say is that I think the juxtaposition of the two shows makes the case for Aaron Sorkin’s brilliance in a unique and compelling way. The formal conceit of these shows—and to some degree, all of Sorkin’s work—is that every one of his characters is a hyper-articulate defender of their own beliefs. It is unrealistic. Perhaps it doesn’t require quite as much explicit suspension of disbelief as a show set in a colony on mars. But it does entail its own kind of unrealism. I don’t know about you. But in my experience people generally don’t carry around a readily deployable set of reasons for their beliefs. For most of us, our beliefs are tweets, not essays, and are just about as defensible. This conceit of hyper-articulateness is what makes the show works. It is what makes it inspiring and engaging. It is makes it feel smart and fast-paced, but since everything is said in the open you don’t have to read between the lines to keep up. It is what makes the show feel like reality, but a magnified look into its nuts and bolts. And it is also the defining conceit of Outline and Transit, the first two novels in a trilogy by the English author Rachel Cusk.
Cusk’s novel, Outline, does not have a plot, at least not in the traditional sense.
The book takes place across ten conversations. The only real ‘character’ is the narrator, who isn’t in any apparent rush to talk about herself. A few of the other characters recur across the conversations. But they aren’t there to ‘develop’ in the standard way that characters tend to do; the Greek taxi-driver is still a Greek taxi-driver when we meet him again a couple scenes later. What basic plot there is is that the narrator, a female English writer (presumably not wholly dissimilar in disposition to Cusk herself), is traveling from London to Athens to teach a writing workshop. The occasion for the story, the narrative foundation of the novel in your hands, is that along the way she... meets people.
The way the novel works is that her interlocutors don’t speak for themselves, specifically in that we’re not offered a lot of direct quotations. For the most part, what we get from them is factual content of what this individual would have said, filtered through the mind of Cusk’s narrator. Which is not to say the narrator is passing judgment or editorializing. Rather, the speaker is temporarily gifted with the expressive impulse and razor-sharp articulateness of the way Cusk as an author writes. What would a Greek taxi-driver say if he could in fact express himself the way Cusk can when she sits down to put pen to paper? It is a Sorkinite premise. It is utterly unrealistic. It is also what makes the book inexplicably fun to read—remember! nothing interesting actually happens—as well as what gives it the resonance of feeling more true and more vivid than reality itself actually is.
Probably my favorite thing about the novel is that it is positively littered with underline-able insights about the human experience. Here’s an example: “It seems success takes you away from what you know, he said, while failure condemns you to it.” That’s the Greek Taxi Driver! He “said” that! His daughter had won a scholarship to study at Harvard, whereas he had failed to transcend the modesty of the milieu into which he’d been born. A story as old as immigration. And what lesson does he draw from this banal observation? That success takes you away from what you know, while failure condemns you to it. That shit’s good enough to write on my gravestone!
Oh, and her musings on the nature of freedom? Don’t even get me started. Here’s another one of my favorites. This is the narrator herself, she’s swimming:
I felt that I could swim for miles, out into the ocean: a desire for freedom, an impulse to move, tugged at me as though it were a thread fastened to my chest. It was an impulse I knew well, and I had learned that it was not the summons from a larger world I used to believe it to be. It was simply a desire to escape from what I had.
Are you kidding! This is, like, the defining impulse of my life: a desire to escape from what I have, masquerading as a search for freedom in a larger, more expansive world.
Freedom and success, these are two big themes in Outline, and in Transit, too. She’s skeptical of them and the promise we invest in them. But they’re also the driving forces of her own life. Cusk’s narrator is a successful writer. She’s divorced. She’s living out her ideal career. She’s not tied down by anything. She got everything she asked for. And that seems exactly like the problem. It’s a paradox. And one that gives rise to the passivity of the narrator. The narrator doesn’t say a lot about herself in these conversations. They tend to be one-sided. She has a willingness to let the currents of her life (or of her story, at least) be defined by the contributions of those she finds herself in the company of. This is what she says about passivity, a rare passage of “dialogue” attributed to the narrator’s voice:
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.
Cusk’s Outline is a kind of secret third installment in Sorkin’s West Wing, Newsroom collection. The West Wing considers how an organization presents its own narrative. The Newsroom considers how an outside observer constructs a narrative from a series of disparate facts. Outline considers how each of us constructs the narrative of our own existence through series of facts and experience life presents to us.
I started reading Cusk’s books on someone’s recommendation. This wasn’t a one-off dialogical fling, but rather someone I knew quite well. It was someone who had played an important role in my life for more than two years, a professor I used to work for named Sam Gershman.
I had left Sam’s lab with a bruised ego and not a small amount disillusionment about the work I had done under his supervision. I had not talked to him much, if at all, since I’d finished my position in his lab more than four years ago. Then he published a book, and after stewing on whether to contact him for several months, I decided to reach to him about coming on my podcast.
The catch-up portion of our conversation consisted of me observing that he’d since earned tenure and offering my congratulations. This was followed by his observation that it sounded like I was finishing my PhD, which he said was also good. Then we discussed the kinds of things that were often talked about on my podcast at that time: the autobiographic sketch of his scientific career, and the contents of his recently published book on the computational mechanisms underlying human thought.
At the end, I asked him the question I asked all my guests: What are three books that have most influenced your thinking?
One of the things I’ve always admired about Sam is how his intelligence is truly one of great breadth, which is something that’s not true of most professors, most of whom are consumed by their narrow focus of specialty and seem to express something close to surprise when they relay a discovery evidence of the wider, unseen world washing up on the shores of their small and modestly inhabited intellectual island. When I worked in his lab, I received an unsolicited email from him one evening with the subject ‘some fiction’, containing a list of his personal favorite novels. His picks included David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is defined by its impressive, monolithic narrative structure, and the poet Kenneth Koch’s The Red Robins, which is defined, near as I can tell, by the absence of structure and comprehensibility. Both are representative of a very Sam archetype I came to think of as the “conceptual masterpiece”. These are capital-c Creations which required of the audience more than mere proletarian enjoyment, but a much less easily accessed form of capital-a Appreciation. I’d received this email after working with him only a couple months, at a time when I still harbored the sentiment that by working with him I’d achieve some sort of intimate access to his intellect. Potentially, I’d even come to Appreciate aspects of it that others never would, such as private lists of his most favored esoteric fiction. But though that informal note encouraged me to cling to that hope much longer than would have been wise, I never attained any such glimpse of intimacy again for as long as I worked with Sam.
During our podcast conversation, Sam told a story I’d never previously extracted from him before. It was about how in college, in New York City, he used to go to art shows and performances with his friends. Afterwards, they’d invariably ask him whether he liked whatever it was they’d just seen, and it bothered him that he had to reduce such a complex and multifarious experience down to the single dimension of emotional valence. I’m the kind of person who asks people, immediately upon leaving the theatre, whether they enjoyed the movie. I would find myself undeniably impressed by anyone who reported that they were unable to locate their experience on a scale of like to dislike.
At any rate, on the podcast, the question about the three books is the only one I seed guests with ahead of time, as I think people are more comfortable giving an answer to that sort of impossibly arbitrary question with a little preparation. Aisde from Sam, every other guest I’ve had on comes to the interview having picked out exactly three books. They might protest the basis of the prompt. But they pick the books. Sam didn’t. I don't remember how many books he picked out—I’d have to go back and listen to it—but he went more with three categories of books, each of which elicited its own smattering of representative examples. The first answer he gave was Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, which is often the novel of choice selected by scientists, as all of its protagonists are scientists and the driving forces of the plot all scientific. I read it after his recommendation, and more recently submitted an alternative: the scientific book that The Three Body Problem should be. Then he mentioned Rachel Cusk. I’d never heard of this author. I didn’t think much of it at the time, and I failed to make any mental note of the selection. It wasn’t until I listened back to the conversation to in post-production that it occurred to me that it was the only one of his literary selections who hadn’t been on my radar. However much I’ve tried to leave behind my desire to have unique, privileged access to this mind, there’s still a part of me which believes I still rank among the world’s foremost Gershologists. I couldn’t ignore the possibility that reading Cusk might prove an important frontier for scholarship in this field. I ordered a book called Outline, which was the first in a recent trilogy that appeared to be well-received.
I was talking recently with my friend Matthew Jordon about movies. I’m a fan of his taste, and I’d asked him what he’d seen recently. He told me about a movie that’d really stuck with him, a subtitled 2021 film originally in Norweigen, called The Worst Person in the World. He described it as "non judgmental." I wasn’t sure what this meant until I watched the movie.
The movie can be read as a quasi-satire of Salley Rooney’s gazillion-copy best-seller, Normal People. It is the same story, but told with a different narrative strategy. One way to interpret Normal People—depending on who you think the titular normal people are—is as a story about two people who cannot help but do fucked up shit in private to one another and for that reason feel estranged from everyone else. While from the internal perspective this experience feels singular, it is a microcosm of what all of us face. At least all of us sentimental types who read Salley Rooney. Worst Person is a riff on this theme. No one in the story ever does anything wrong. No one is blameworthy, certainly not the protagonist. In most scenes the camera sits motionless and stationary; it’s just presenting things as they happened, no editorializing. Bad stuff happens, but none of it is really anyone’s fault. But instead of trying to convince you this is “normal,” it’s trying to convince you that this is evil in its most unadulterated form. It verges on satire because the movie knows you’re not going to believe it.
Cusk’s books work from a similar non-judgmental tact. In Transit, some of the characters are a lot more objectionable than in Outlines, where most of the people we meet are pretty unexceptional (an arrogant billionaire excluded). A healthy number of the characters in Transit—there are more characters overall—are dicks. And when they’re finished acting out, Cusk just gets on with it. There’s a scene in which she’s at a dinner party in which some of the guests employ rather questionable child-rearing practices. The narrator doesn’t say something judgy (though appropriate) about how despite overtly manifesting this unsavory character flaw he continued to dip his chips in the salsa like he was a normal guy. No, we just move on to what the next person is saying. There are none of the usual tricks that authors use to imply tone, narrative slights of hand that give us a clue about how we ought to feel about what just transpired. The camera just sits there, totally still.
It is the same observation about the paradoxes of freedom and success and passivity that the narrator applies to herself, applied to those around her. This is Cusk’s true innovation. We’re usually more than happy to find a way of fitting our own behavior into a box marked ‘normal.’ Pretty much every book is on board with this project: our own behavior is defensible, our own behavior is normal, our own behavior was demanded by the situation—whatever the argument may be. It’s sensationally interesting to apply that same leniency, that same willingness to understand to the behavior of others. Even more the the ability of Cusk’s characters ability to express themselves, the narrator’s ability to accept it without judgment is the greater departure from the standard terms of what's realistic.
While the rhetorical strategies of Outline and Transit are the same, the content under consideration feels like it shifts slightly. The former is about worldviews, about how people interpret their own stories, and how they convey them is they were as a deft a teller of tales as Cusk herself. These are the outlines promised in the title: outlines of lives. (Though admittedly, her writing students are also share the outlines of their potential stories, and there’s probably some symbolic resonance there as well.) The title of Transit, I think, refers to the fact that the main plot point is the author’s moving house, going from England’s south coast back to London, post-divorce. (Though admittedly, it starts off with a reading from an astrologer, who predicted a ‘transit’ in the narrator’s ‘sky’, but I think that’s more a play on words.) And as such it is perhaps happier to linger in the in-between spaces. I haven’t resolved this point yet, as I haven’t read the third installment yet, and I’m hoping that the differences of perspective conveyed in the triptych becomes clear once the final piece is in place.
Yet either way, freedom plays a prominent role. In Transit, one of the narrator’s interlocutors, one who frequently stays up all night partying and doing drugs, says of that lifestyle: “It doesn’t get you anywhere and it isn’t meant to, because what it represents is freedom.” Woah. Not only does this articulate the alluring escapism of the party-heavy lifestyle, it is puts its finger right on the immutable drawback of freedom itself. Freedom is formless. It doesn’t take you anywhere for the same reason an open desert or an unpathed forrest doesn’t—the opportunity to go in any direction means that you end up going in none in particular. It’s only when we close ourself off to the possibility of total freedom that we’re able to get somewhere specific.
Outline is, at least superficially, a travel book. The narrator is escaping England for warmer, more picturesque climes, and therefore has more space to look at her life from a remove. In Transit, she’s back home, and in the process of altering what home means and looks like. She encounters old friends, friends who knew her back before the divorce. We learn a lot more about her previous relationship, about her sons, about what’s she’s lost and looking for, about what she’s going through to make that lose comprehensible. As a consequence, there are a lot of great lines about relationships. For instance: “it seems to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief. It wasn’t, in other words, perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities.” Or how her hairdresser—her hairdresser!—tells her “‘You can’t stop people coming in... and you can’t ask what’s in it for you when they do.’” Or—and this one is probably my favorite—how “a lot of people spent their lives trying to make things last as a way of avoiding asking themselves whether those things were what they really wanted.”
If that line doesn’t make you want to read the book, I don’t know what will.
There’s something else Sam said in our podcast conversation that I’ve been returning to ever since. Like I said, Sam’s book (like his research) is about the computational foundations of cognition. Essentially: what AI-based computer models best approximate the thinking process of humans? If you give a computer model and a human participant the same information, do they come to same conclusion? If they do, then perhaps that computer model is a good description of what’s happening in the human mind. But because computer simulated models and human minds are very different things—a fact that even cognitive neuroscientists can appreciate—there’s an ever-present question about what constitutes a useful model and whether it successfully approximates reality. How close a fit, exactly, do you have to get for the project to be worthwhile?
I asked Sam this question and his response was that the point of these models was not to describe reality. The point is to articulate the space of possibilities, to see concrete version of all the different truths that could be found, if you were actually to find them. Models, then, don’t have to be right. But they have to give a strong version of a particular position. The more I think about it, the more I’ve come to think about the novels the same way. The point of them is not to be “right” in some unassailable, scientific sense of the word. The point of them is to play out in detail the consequences of working from a specific set of premises. This is one reason, I think, why Cusk’s (and Sorkin’s) unrealism makes their works seem more vivid and more true than reality itself.
Cusk’s work, in particular, is a model of what human relationship could be like if we could express our thoughts and feelings to one another like a world-class novelist. It is a model of how things could play out if we understand the same sensitivity and understanding to others that we extend to ourselves. In Cusk’s rendering, that world doesn’t look too different from the one we live in. Maybe that has to do with the whole passivity thing, how we can never get to a point where we can have everything we want, and so maybe it’s better to just not want anything at all and just accept what we get. Even if we could explain to ourselves and to each other exactly what we wanted, it wouldn't mean we'd be any closer to getting it.
I don’t view that as a negative, though. It entails its own kind of freedom. Freedom from the liability of self-blame when things don’t go the way we hoped. Freedom to let things unfold as they may, even when we feel powerless to alter them. Freedom to forgo the right to judgment, of ourselves and others. But then again, who knows. I haven’t read the third book yet. Maybe she does get what she wants. I doubt it. But I look forward to finding out.