Rachel Cusk, “Outline” (2014) (narrated by Kate Reading) – Other than some stuff I read as part of my efforts to understand the far right, this highly-acclaimed literary novel was probably the least pleasant reading (in this case, listening, but there was nothing wrong with the reader or the audiobook production) experience I had this year. That’s not to say it’s the worst book I read this year (barring chud bullshit), though it is pretty bad. There were just a number of features in this one that made it particularly hard to put up with for its quite limited duration.
One feature is good press. I get that publishers had almost no reason not to praise anything they release in anything less than fulsome terms. I also get that critics, when they like something, also, increasingly, have no reason (other than a professional pride they haven’t seem to got) not to do the same. But there’s praise and praise. Fellow crappy contemporary scribblers Lauren Oyler and Charles Yu are praised in terms that are probably honestly meant but, if you squint, you can see them as being a bit backhanded- they express “their times” or “the experience of being” X, Y, or Z (for Oyler, a woman, notionally smart, or a millennial, for Yu, being Asian-American). Rachel Cusk, on the other hand, gets critics to call her no less than a major force shaping and advancing literature today. While her work is also definitely seen as expressing the experience of being a woman, she is also depicted as making major formal contributions to contemporary literature, in a way critics depict few writers.
Well… they’re not wrong. “Outline” condenses much of what makes contemporary literature distinctive into a product of peculiar purity. The novel consists of an unnamed narrator — a successful female British writer, like Cusk herself — relating stories told to her by assorted interlocutors, mostly in travels to Greece and around London. There isn’t a plot. The language isn’t awful but does not shine. And every single interlocutor — I basically refuse to call them characters — speaks in the same voice, that is, the narrator’s voice. They all relate their life stories — and they’re mostly Greek magnates of one degree or another or Anglo writing pedants — in the language and tone of Cusk herself. You can only tell when one is speaking as opposed to the narrator because of the accents the reader puts on!
Honestly, I can somewhat admire the chutzpah. Bret Easton Ellis and similar writers might have explored nihilistic self-absorption, but they were simple-minded enough to think that meant you just present an inner-monologue of a self-insert narrator. How much more self-indulgent is it to take the stories of others, quite dissimilar from the self, and just… rewrite them to sound like you! If it were Cusk just trying to report what people said, she would, accidentally if nothing else, slip into language other than what passes for high-toned contemporary English. But nope! Even when presented as quotes (as opposed to the narrator relating an interlocutor’s story), they sound exactly like her! It was excruciatingly boring — the only thing that could have saved these miserable stories of divorce and upper class anxiety would have been interesting language which Cusk either cannot or will not use — and when combined with both the knowledge that is considered cutting-edge writing, and the sort of dim knowledge that, yep, you know what, the critics are right, or half-right, it’s not brilliant like they say but they’re right that it is the distillation of contemporary literary fiction… yeah, it was a tough listen.
I don’t expect to read a lot of defenses of Cusk here — not unlike my other major category of unpleasant reads, the words of fascists, I read these shitty literary books so you don’t have to — but I figure if I did, what I’d hear is that this is what it’s like to be a woman. You have men just pouring out personal stories to you, on planes and in dinners, and it’s actually a work of subversion to regurgitate them all in your own voice. Well, maybe! That doesn’t make for a good novel. If that interpretation is correct, that just makes “Outline” similar to a lot of modern art- a joke, a stunt, a dumb point that would warrant, maybe, an essay, not a whole novel, written and read because no one involved has anything to really say but still fells compelled to self-expression. Extra half star for stones, though. *’