In three days. I got the first book three days ago and read it that evening, ordered the second one and read it the next day, ordered the third, got it two days later and read it that evening. (Thanks, Amazon Prime. I had to buy the hardback, but I couldn't wait.)
It is very serious art, and unabashedly highbrow. I don’t follow the literary world, but I have a vague sense that there has been a backlash against high-faluting “literature” and in favour of genres and what would have previously been thought middlebrow. These books do not partake in that. There is very little plot, no dramatic events, just one conversation after another. And almost all the conversations are extremely intense: self-aware people dissecting their lives and relationships with the expertise of a sushi chef and the passion of a flagellant.
Reading it is unnerving. The narrator – Faye, a female author doing the rounds of writing courses and literary festivals – talks to other people, or listens to their monologues. They talk about the deepest things in their lives. Other characters are pinned down like butterflies, sketched in a few strokes of extreme skill. Everything is implicit. Neither Faye nor the author – it's in the first person, so the distinction perhaps does not matter – often expresses an opinion.
But, like Tom Cruise’s pick-up guru in Magnolia, Faye is “quietly judging you”. Family, and divorce, are pervasive in the conversations; everyone has behaved badly, but few want to admit it. Children, even when they are annoying or burdensome, come across as sinned against, not sinning. Freedom is weighed against commitment and it almost always comes out worse, or at least as a let-down; people are at their wickedest and stupidest when they exercise power thoughtlessly. As a child of divorce, I liked the books very much. But I was also troubled and provoked by them, because the narrator, and I guess the author, is a feminist, in some sense, which I am not. (There is plenty of mansplaining, and some atrocious behaviour by entitled guys; and sometimes that feeling of a conversational elephant-trap being laid as a man is allowed to talk himself into a corner.)
In Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, there is a chapter after the Great War when the cast reassembles, and the author suggests almost playfully that the values they hold should not really be taken seriously; as if the great comedy of the Victorian age, and its literature, can no longer be played straight. Reading Outline felt as if I was rewinding through that historical moment.
Nineteenth-century literature was explicitly judgmental. Dickens and Thackeray, for all their subtleties and play, saw wickedness and called it; and showed it in its harshest colours. And then that earnestness quite quickly vanished. Why?
A superficial answer is the rule of craft that says show, don’t tell. I think a deeper answer is that after the Edwardians, moral judgment got mixed up with aesthetic judgment, judgment of taste; and English judgments of taste, since (I guess?) the eighteenth century, have been made in silence and in code. You couldn’t say that someone was explicitly inferior; but you could imply it to those in the know, with a raised eyebrow.
One danger of this is passive-aggressiveness. I talked to somebody about On Chesil Beach and she asked if I had noticed that the heroine had been sexually abused. And I have heard about literature classes being told the same thing. “Did you spot that? Well done – you are aesthetically and morally sensitive – alive to other people’s hidden sufferings.” But if I was supposed to spot it, why didn’t Ian McEwan make sure I did? What is this, a cryptic crossword?
And in fact, where Faye does speak up and give her own opinions, she seems both warmer and braver. She lays it on the line.
About her we learn very little. She starts the trilogy after her own divorce, and has remarried by the third book. Occasionally her children call. These conversations are very different from the others. There’s less indirect narration, and more ordinariness. These, along with the narrator’s own talk, are the warmest parts of the book. It’s as if she and the reader can suddenly breathe out.
At the very end, the narrator is bathing in the sea when a man comes to the water’s edge and pisses in it. She watches his “merry, cruel face… and I waited for him to stop.” It’s a scene out of myth – the sighing breast of the sea, and the grinning Satyr. But I don’t know whether Rachel Cusk thinks of it really as myth, or as a piece of history, which could be brought to an end somehow.