Perhaps, he said, we are all like animals in a zoo, and once we see that one of us has gotten out of the enclosure, we shout at him to run like mad, even though it will only result in him becoming lost. 1
Good writing follows the rules, it is said, but great writing breaks them. Expanding on this sententious, if illustrative, maxim, it can be further said that truly exemplary writing makes up rules all its own. It is here, perhaps more than anywhere else, where Rachel Cusk cements herself as the preeminent novelist of her time, the most radical revolutionary of the form. While her prose is consistently excellent, her characters singular and compelling, and her stories vibrant and finely drawn, she is truly peerless in her innovations. Her mastery of technique and style are without equal in contemporary fiction, and it is in her grasp of point of view — that most daunting of technical swampland — where she sets herself apart. This essay will examine Cusk’s employment of various methods of point of view across a selection of her novels, with the intention of illustrating how she uses the craft to further her central goals and answer her central questions in each.
Point of view is, to coin a Cuskian simile, like a raccoon. Unlike plot, character, or setting, big and brash apex predators prowling comfortably atop fiction’s pyramid, point of view does its work when no one is watching, only rarely — and then often disastrously — spotted full on. It is the element of writing that is the hardest to see, even harder to wrangle into effectiveness, but one which represents the largest range of possible outcomes, from painfully lumbering fiction to sharp and multidimensional prose. Like some foraging animal, one typically notices point of view only after waking up in the morning to see the trash cans have toppled over and nothing is quite as it seemed. Cusk, then, is the leader of the pack.
There is no other living writer as technically proficient or naturally gifted in this subtle, infuriating art. Throughout her industrious career, she has operated across the spectrum, from straightforward talkative first- to Woolfian third-person to techniques all her own, blending parts of stylistic approaches to build a tool perfectly designed for the novelistic task at hand. Innovation, perhaps, is the mark of the artist. When a creative writing professor challenges her student to imbue his work with more depth (or any number of similar terms), what that often times means is that the point of view is either not the correct one for the piece, or not doing the full extent of its work. It is the access point between author and reader, the place where the creator can most naturally interact with her audience through the medium of her work. The best technicians of the craft are those that use the communicator — either the protagonist or the observant peripheral character in first person, and the narrative entity2 in third — to both tell the story and establish the parameters of the fictive world. Although chiefly thought of as a third-person concern — which, to a certain extent, is true — as will be seen, much can be done in first-person as well. A quick note regarding technical definitions may be appropriate. The number of essays, articles, and full books written on point of view and other elements of the craft is nearly as great as approaches to the medium itself. Scholarship that is heavily relied on will be noted throughout, but for simplicity’s sake, this essay will focus on first- and third-person, looking at two novels using each. An especially useful study is Norman Friedman’s clear and logical system of classification. His examination, Point of View in Fiction, delineates eight technical approaches to establishing the relationship between author and reader.3 Two of them appear in the works discussed here. “I-as-Protagonist” is the quintessential first-person approach, where the narrator and the hero are one and the same. Conversely, “Multiple Selective Omniscience” is Friedman’s term for a limited third-person point of view that moves between the minds, actions, and surroundings of two or more characters.4 As we shall see, Cusk in her later work begins from, but rapidly expands, these neat and useful terms. The technical decisions and mechanical skills of the writer in their use of point of view have major effects on the overall success of a novel. The perfectly precise and brilliantly sympathetic blending between Virginia Woolf’s narration and her characters give Mrs. Dalloway its subtle and efficient power. Without her trademark free-indirect narration5, that work would lose its ability to cause the reader to experience the central characters’ emotional and mental journeys across its resonant hours. On the other hand, part of what makes Henry James so difficult to access, despite his virtuosity, is the barrier the inexhaustible and never-silent narrative entity creates between reader and character. While he has as much interest in the inner lives of his actors as any true Modernist, his Victorian insistence on guiding the reader through every moment means that instead of experiencing characters’ thoughts and memories, they are presented in antiseptic, smoothed-over blocks of text. Throughout all successful works of fiction, then, point of view is the ever present current, the near-invisible force that dictates the shape and feel of a book. A novel may be thought of as consisting of two parts, running concurrently with each other. The narrative function describes those aspects of a book which operate as, quite simply, the story. A character storming out of a room to confront a cheating spouse, a protagonist agonizing over what to wear in advance of having brunch with her mother-in-law, the detective going back to the crime scene after a flash of insight — these are all examples of narrative actions. Textual functions, on the other hand, are those that inform theme, character arc, tonality, or the like. Places, in other words, where the book acts ‘as a book’, where the design and craftsmanship come into play. The most effective writers often execute these functions simultaneously. When the protagonists decides to dress in all black, with a small raven-charm necklace, she is not only getting ready as a fictional person who has a brunch to attend, but is also imbuing the book she inhabits with themes of death, mourning, or ill-omen; the scene has functioned both narratively and textually. When viewed this way, it becomes clear how and why point of view takes on its outsized importance in literature. It is the nexus of the narrative and the textual, because it is the place where the character moves in relation to the plot and where the novel is crafted as a work of artistic achievement. In order to investigate Rachel Cusk’s exemplary use of this technique, we will evaluate, for each novel in question, both the central issues — the raison d’être, the underlying why, the gravitational force — of the book, and then how point of view is employed to further those ends. What makes her such a marvelous novelist to read and fascinating one to study is her expansion of the boundaries of both first- and third-person, mounting multiple challenges in different directions within each form. If Cusk is, as she is sometimes been called, a ‘writer’s writer,’ then this should be seen as high praise. Because for all her obvious talent and natural gifts, she is also a skilled and dedicated practitioner. In reading her canon, one quickly sees the extent to which she has studied the craft and refined her expertise and become the best possible writer her abilities allow. This essay, then, will examine her revolutionary activity across the spectrum of the technique, in an effort to uncover how she has been able to so thoroughly and completely reform the established thinking around the art of point of view in literary fiction. While the focus will be on the novels of Cusk’s middle and more recent career — namely, Arlington Park, The Bradshaw Variations, the Outline trilogy, and Second Place — it could just as sensibly encompass her early work. In The Fold and The Country Life are exhibitions of first person used with aplomb, the inherent informational limitations of Friedman’s I-as-Protagonist employed to maintain organic readerly mystery and tension throughout. The Temporary and especially Saving Agnes stand as classic uses of traditional third person limited — the latter, a pristine example of Friedman’s Selective Omniscience and a remarkable debut. Finally, the novel-in-stories The Lucky Ones serves as something of a survey itself — Cusk running the point of view gauntlet before pushing her craft to another plane of mechanical skill and technical inventiveness over her last six books. For all the wonderful range of her early career, however it is these more stylistically mature and ambitious works to which we now turn.
She shudders at the recollection of what she did. She makes a note to tell her father, though he is dead, and the world he lived in is dead too. 6
—The Bradshaw Variations 7
What is art? Thomas Bradshaw asks himself at the beginning of Cusk’s seventh novel. Indeed, this question serves as the central issue in this, her most egregiously overlooked work. She sets out to examine the year in the life of a fairly typical, upper-middle class English family, asking what happens when art is pursued over work, when the creative is given a place above the professional. The Bradshaw Variations follows the titular family over approximately a year, a period in which Thomas — husband and father — having given up his job after the birth of his daughter Alexa, elects to begin learning the piano. Meanwhile, his wife Tonie has begun a new career in academia, pushing her way out of the domestic space. The book also takes in within its scope the Bradshaw’s extended family, mainly Thomas’ brother Howard and sister-in-law Claudia, tracking the shifting, minute changes of daily life.
Because she wants to explore what happened over a substantial length of time, Cusk needs a point of view that will accomplish two main things. First, it must bring us close to the characters — closer than a typical ‘externally’8 focused book — and second, it must have the requisite elasticity and fluidity to be able to cover an entire year in the space of a moderate length novel. This immediately rules out a number of Friedman’s point of view methods; it cannot be anything in first person, because no one character would have, with anything approaching plausibility, the necessary internal access to the other characters.9 Furthermore, it needs to be fairly close10 to the characters — a Tolstoyian remove would be ineffective here. Cusk’s solution is an inspired one. She adopts a limited third-person — multiple selective omniscience in Friedman’s system — but one that relies more on pseudo-summary and habitual action than the pure scene found in most internally-focused third-person books. Moving between characters in small vignettes organized into chapters over the year-long plot, Cusk relies on language to do much of her work for her. Each time the narration moves to a new member of the extended Bradshaw family, the narrative entity takes on a diction quickly identifiable with that character. This allows her to obviate the need for extended passages of exposition, keeping the focus inward. In effect, it is an efficient and economical shorthand, one that richly presents the voice and inner lives of each character without the plot becoming waylaid in the authorial summary11 that would typically be necessary in a book covering an entire year. Cusk also uses the present tense and the rapid movement between perspectives to heighten tension in the absence of the typical temporal compression found in interior-focused novels. This reduces any risk of authorial over-saturation — we do not feel that we are being led around scene-to-scene, rather that a moment has been opened for us to view, making of it what we will. As is typical for Cusk, the narrative entity of The Bradshaw Variations performs much of its labors via the use of free-indirect discourse. The elegance of this decision is seen in the immediate identification she manages within each storyline, as they concurrently play out from vignette to vignette. By bleeding the narration and the character into each other, and heightening the distinctiveness of the language for each, Cusk is able to seamlessly, with nearly zero wasted effort or text, move through her story without creating confusion for the reader. In chapters of Thomas’ perspective, the narrative entity adopts his fixation with ‘the practical’ and existential questions of the nature of art. “What is art?” he again asks, seventy pages and eight chapters after the opening:
“It is the opposite of waste, of redundancy. Thomas goes through his cupboards and finds box after box of obsolete junk. Cables, computer
parts, a while crew of grey plastic cartridges still sealed in their airtight transparent wrappers. The printer they were designed to fit no
longer exists, and there is no other printer compatible with them. Yet they will last forever." 12
Here, through expert free-indirect discourse, the function is both textual and narrative; while we watch Thomas drudge through the cupboards of his house — a task he now has time for, in his year of change and experiment — his own fixation on the order and purpose, or lack thereof, of things in the universe is on full and natural display; in other words, his fictive characterization. The juxtaposition of his continuing question as to the nature of art and the extended thought on printer ink packaging is indicative of the book’s interest in the clash between the sublime and the mundane.
An example of Tonie’s perspective is illustrative of the effect Cusk achieves by her tightly-alternating perspectives:
On the train, Tonie thinks about sex. It’s like some old friend she hasn’t seen in years and then bumped into on the platform. She rides
with it in the carriage, her old friend sex, who one way or another she lost touch with, somewhere around the time when Alexa was born,
when love seemed like a mathematical problem to which, all of a sudden, she had found the answer.
The other passengers, daylight chorusing in their faces, the mood transitive, a shedding of properties: the train flies through the
September morning and Tonie feels it, an element that is all surface, all publicity…So! This is what people are up to, while women care for
babies in wholesome rooms, while they push strollers through the slow afternoon, satisfied that they have solved the problem of love. The
rest of the world doesn't care about love at all. The rest of the world is pure self, present tense, neither bad nor good, just flying free
through the morning’s instant. And it comes over her in a rush, the memory of what it used to feel like, being alive.13
This passage is impossible to mistake for one centered around Thomas; indeed of any other character. Tonie’s repressed romanticism abounds here, showing, in one go, her inner nature, her constant repression of it, and the reasons — her career ambitions — she does so. Again, textual and narrative effects are achieved; Tonie is, of course, on the train to work, a commuter in with the bustle of Monday morning, as she begins her new position at the beginning of the book. Cusk’s decision to introduce Tonie’s point of view early on — chapter two, nine pages in — is also a deliberate technical move. The Bradshaw Variations takes among its themes domesticity, motherhood, and feminism, and there is no one better to introduce those ideas to the reader than the character most concerned with them.
Cusk’s use of point of view as a tool to answer the questions of The Bradshaw Variations is not only in the character-specific language, but also the interest, the focus paid to particular things, the world viewed in a certain way. Within a few chapters at the most, the reader has decoded the book, and learned the obsessive perfectionism of Thomas, Tonie’s mix of ennui and ambition, the affable neuroticisms of Howard, and Alexa’s intelligent, hesitant emergence into the strange adult world, along with the rest of the varied and compelling cast of characters. Cusk uses the language of the narration, the present tense and habitual action to jump from point to point over the course of the year in question and keep momentum alive while maintaining interior focus. While this would be too light and thin for a study of a single character — a la Joyce or Woolf — here it works precisely because the focus of the book is not Thomas Bradshaw, but the Bradshaw family. It is a study of what happens over the course of a year to the entire family when one member makes a decision to pursue art over practicality — it is the Bradshaw variations, plural very much intended. Ultimately, by forming a narration willing and able to freely blend with a number of her distinct characters, Cusk achieves in The Bradshaw Variations something quite difficult indeed — a book of penetrating psychological insight alongside an extensive and swift plot. We turn now to a novel that in some ways is the inverse, and one that, with its temporal compression and absorption with scene, stands as her most direct link to Virginia Woolf and the modernist tradition.
And what, Christine wished to know, was life meant to be, if not interesting? 14
—Arlington Park 15
If one book from Cusk’s canon were to be used as a guide to crafting that particular type of novel — in terms of style, technique, subject, tone, language — it would be Arlington Park, the most perfectly executed of her works. While Outline, as we shall explore later, has received more accolades, and certainly takes more risks with its approach, there are few novels by any author as fully conceived and masterfully realized as this one. Arlington Park stands, on a level all its own, as an exemplary display of how point of view can unite the dual functions of a novel.
A study of a group of mothers in a London suburb on a single, dreary day, each one navigating commonplace social and profound inner challenges, Arlington Park sets up an ideal framework for Cusk’s greatest achievement in the third-person form. As we move between each character and her family, the point of view metamorphoses, taking on, like a cunning demon, the language, action, and even thought of its host.
Before unleashing such a potent creature of narration, however, Cusk delineates its powers and range with an absorbing and efficacious opening16 : The rain fell on Arlington Park, fell on its empty avenues and its well-pruned hedges, on its schools and its churches, on its trees and its gardens…All night it fell, until with a new intensity, just before dawn, it emptied a roaring cascade of water over the houses so that the rain was flung against the darkened windows. In their sleep they heard it, people lying in their beds: the thunderous noise of the water. It penetrated their dreams, a sound like the
sound of uproarious applause. It was as if a great audience were applauding. Louder and louder it grew, this strange, unsettling sound. It
filed the night: it rattled the windows and made people turn beneath their covers and children cry in their sleep. It made them feel
somehow observed, as if a dark audience had assembled outside and were looking in through the windows, clapping their hands.17
These first few pages are crucial in terms of point of view, smartly establishing the identity of the narrating entity. In Cusk’s finest prose, it defines and adjudicates the boundaries of its own territory, following rain clouds — literary descendants of the Dickensian fog that opens Bleak House, and forecasts to the book’s sombre, quotidian thematic concerns — into the titular suburb, telling us that it will catalogue all while zeroing in on the mundane, the daily, the slices of the ordinary, and turning it, by some potent alchemy, into a vivid portrait of life. It declares that it will be privy to all yet narrowly focused — the classic limited third-person.
The rain itself, too, is a prime example of Arlington Park’s narrative and textual functions coexisting. From a plot, or narrative, standpoint, it provides the exact type of rather banal complication that these characters face on a daily basis. Moderate rain is an irritant; it gets in the way of everything but cancels nothing. Textually, it works much in the way Big Ben does in Mrs. Dalloway, as a unifying force among disparate perspectives. It allows the point of view to move organically between locations, and unites the characters as, broadly, similar women facing similar issues, even as the reader will soon see the vast differences among them. In addition, the tactical, incisive inventory of London and its environs on a rainy night makes clear that this book is not about any one of the young mothers we meet throughout, or any particular family. It is Arlington Park that is taken as subject, and the gravitational center will be their relative domestic lives, the spheres of the daily routine they all share and describe throughout a single day that serves as microcosm of all their days. To explore this in a fairly short book, Cusk fashions a point of view that evolves directly from Woolf’s in Mrs. Dalloway; a mobile, swift third-person that, while eschewing the plunges into deep consciousness of Joyce’s famous literary day, does not hesitate to adopt the language and thought pattern of the characters it meets. The result is a perfectly calibrated technique that brings us close to each woman in a matter of sentences while avoiding growing so near as to necessitate spending an inordinate amount of time with them. After all, this is not Ulysses, and is not concerned with exploring the entirety of a single character’s mind. Rather, the book is a mosaic, and such an approach only works with all the pieces in place and properly lit. Our first encounter with a named character is an illustrative example of the abilities this point of view possesses. Juliet Randall has just woken up beside her husband, Benedict, after attending a soirée the night before at the neighbors’ house: She, Juliet, aged thirty-six, mother of two, a teacher at Arlington Park High School for Girls—a person regarded in her youth as
somewhat exceptional, a scholarship student and at one time Head Girl—had been slightly obnoxious to their hosts, the Milfords:
Matthew Milford, the vilely wealthy owner of an office supplies company in Cheltenham, and his horse-faced, attenuated, raddled wife,
She thought of their house, into whose kitchen alone the whole of the Randalls’ shoddy establishment in Guthrie Road would
have comfortably fitted. What had they done to deserve such a house? Where was the justice in that? She recalled that Matthew Milford
had spoken harshly to her. The lord of the manor had spoken hardly from amidst his spoils, from his unjust throne, to Juliet, his guest.
And Benedict called her obnoxious!
What was it he’d said? What was it Matthew had said, sitting there at the table like a lord, a bull, a red, angry, bull blowing air through his nostrils? You want to be careful. He’d told her she wanted to be careful. His head was so bald the candlelight had made it shine like a
shield. You want to be careful, he’d said, with an emphasis on you. He had spoken to Juliet not as if he’d invited her to his house but as if
he’d employed her to be there. It was as if he’d employed her as a guest and was giving her a caution. That was how a man like that made
you feel: as if your right to exist derived from his authority. He looked at her, a woman of thirty-six with a job and a home and a house
and two children of her own, and he decided whether or not she should be allowed to exist.18
Notice how quickly we cover the ground; with her faultless mechanics, Cusk races across stretches of backstory that would take a lesser writer — and a lesser point of view — pages of tedious exposition to relate. There is much more happening here than mechanical precision, though. Free-indirect’s greatest advantage is the flexible characterization it allows the author, a product of the blending of language between narrative entity and protagonist. Reading this excerpt, Juliet’s personality, manner of speaking, and even opinion of her life (she seems to regret her squandered promise and modest house, for example) are readily apparent, despite the fact that, up to this point, there has not been one word of dialogue. The ‘vile’ wealth and ‘horse-face’ of Mr. and Mrs. Milford are Juliet’s descriptors, even as they are embedded perfectly in summative narration. In the second paragraph, Cusk’s ease of movement between standard scenic prose (‘She thought of their house…’) into Juliet’s interiority is on display—even within that first sentence, we move from an objective external look at her to a series of subjective, inner opinions held by her, without a wasted movement or word.
This is free-indirect discourse teaching tape; the circular structure, the colorful adjectives and subjective views that texturize the character, and the questioning, self-interrogatory tone—all while conveying needed expository information (and establishing many of the important themes — domesticity, marriage, and the patriarchy, among others) in the early pages of the book. So much of this passage is spotted with Juliet’s speech and general state of being, not to mention the repetition and fixation on salient moments from the night before, that the reader is immediately allied with her. As her section progresses, and the encounter with Matthew Milford and Benedict’s failure to speak up for her continue to obsess Juliet, the emotional alignment that this early scene creates between her and the reader continues to grow in importance. Arlington Park carries on along much the same lines, technically, although the language and feel of each character’s section is as disparate as they are. For so momentous a work, it is deceptively simple to analyze. What makes it an expansion of the form, and warrants inclusion here, is Cusk’s ability to render so fully several distinct characters in an empathetic, psychologically penetrating manner. Where classic free-indirect has typically been used to depict one or two characters extensively, with perhaps a few others in a more cursory, supporting manner, here all the women are reached as quickly and totally as Juliette. For their section, each is completely the center of the story, commanding the stage during their time upon it. Each woman in turn sees her world transform into the world of Arlington Park itself, as the narrative entity relies on memory and inner thought to paint in lush colors the complete background of their profiles. We see, and truly know, all of them as well and intimately as any protagonist in any sweeping epic. It is a marvel of narrative flexibility, bending around the mind of each character to illuminate their vibrant inner lives, all set against the identical damp day in English suburbia. As the novel progresses towards its concluding dinner party (another smart nod to Clarissa Dalloway, in many ways the literary matriarch of the genre), we have fully seen and experienced the daily struggles, the mundane happenings, the domestic cross section of upper middle class Arlington Park — an exquisite answer to the novel’s underlying question. By Arlington Park, Cusk had established herself as one of the foremost practitioners of third-person point of view in the modernist tradition. After completing her most delicately patterned and finely-shaped novel, she turned in a new direction. Thus, her work since has been an engagement in questioning the boundaries of first-person narration, an investigation we begin next, with her most recent offering.
You see, I still somehow believe in the inexorability of that other force — the force of narrative, plot, call it what you will. I believed in the plot of life, and its assurance that all our actions will be assigned a meaning one way or another, and that things will turn out — no matter how long it takes — for the best.19
In perhaps her most personal work, Cusk fashions a technique properly termed a first-person discursive, a half of a conversation, forcing the reader to stand somewhat apart from her probing, neurotic narrator possessing an affinity for exclamation marks and mysterious damage lurking in her past. As we will discover, this is a similar approach, albeit on a smaller scale, to that of Outline. But where in the trilogy it was the protagonist’s identity that was being filled in, here it is the character’s personality, sussed out via her letter-writing style. And the defining aspects of that personality — nervous yet insightful, unsteady yet penetrating — fits perfectly with the plot she largely drives. For the center in Second Place is held by an investigation into the price paid for art, for greatness, alongside a study of the transformative power of physical place, located within the long tradition of literature’s representation of the English landscape.
The protagonist, M, lives with her daughter and her second husband, Tony, on their mystical, beautiful homestead in England. M has invited L, a painter with whom she is, it is fair to say, infatuated, to come and stay at the second place, a sort of artists’ studio on their land. L’s tortured genius and the demands and constraints of the natural world give the book much of its gravitational center. However it is also, like all Cusk’s books, concerned with identity and formation — and this is where her use of the pseudo-epistolary form is so effective. The narrative is told entirely through letters M writes to some unidentifiable acquaintance of her past. The result is that, while we are told the story through M’s eyes and hand, it is not to the eternally unmentioned reader she addresses. Rather, it is ‘Jeffers’, identity unknown, who serves as audience. The opening lines, which are perhaps the most powerful and arresting in the Cuskian oeuvre21 , are illustrative: I once told you, Jeffers, about the time I met the devil on a train leaving Paris, and about how after that meeting the evil that usually
lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of life. It was like a contamination, Jeffers: it
got into everything and turned it bad. I don’t think I realised how many parts of life there were, until each one of them began to release its
capacity for badness. I know you’ve always known about such things, and have written about them, even when others didn’t want to hear
and found it tiresome to dwell on what was wicked and wrong. Nonetheless you carried on, building a shelter for people to use when things
went wrong for them too. And go wrong they always do!22
Immediately we see (along with M’s characteristic love of the exclamation mark) how this approach allows Cusk enormous flexibility and intimacy. By establishing a specific audience — an unusual move for first-person narration23 — she simultaneously carves out space for the inclusion of enough expository information to ground the reader, allows room for M to occasionally wax poetic about the life of the artist, and provides the rationale for not offering much in the way of backstory — she and Jeffers, after all, already know each other quite well. These three elements — all of them direct results of the point of view technique she employs — creates at once Cusk’s most mysterious and philosophical work.
M’s personality is an exercise in contradiction, and the long passages she gives over in her correspondence with Jeffers to the meaning and hazards of an artistic life are offset effectively with the in-scene moments of actual plot24 , which often show her distressed and unsure. M’s first real moment alone with L is typical. Set against the marsh at dawn, M’s hesitant conversation and internal fretting about her outfit is broken up by extended sections of deep philosophical insight:
‘You don’t have to be here,’ I said, or rather heard myself say, since it was the kind of thing I never usually said. He looked startled, and the light in his eyes went out for a second and then came back on again. ‘I know that,’ he said. ‘I don’t want gratitude,’ I said. ‘It makes me feel dowdy and ugly, like a consolation prize.’ There was a silence.
‘All right,’ he said, and a mischievous smile came over his face.
I stood there in my crumpled nightdress, with my hair unbrushed and my bare feet growing cold from the dew, and felt I would like to
have burst into tears — such strange, violent impulses were coming over me, one after another. I wanted to lie down and hammer my
fists on the grass — I wanted to experience a complete loss of control, while knowing that I had lost control, in my exchange with L,
M’s honesty and self-critique are made all the stronger by the audience she directs them towards — the reader’s necessary act, peering over M’s shoulder like a fellow passenger on a crowded train, imbues her narrative with reliability and purpose.
That these scenic moments of doubt are interspersed with M’s remarkable musings as to art and life make the entire work all the more compelling. There are numerous examples to draw upon, her thoughts on the humanity of art being particularly poignant. Because her protagonist is continually engaged in speaking with a close friend,26 Cusk is able to move seamlessly between the philosophical and the practical, the nature of art and the nature of life, sweeping up answers to her central questions without pause in narration. A final technical element of Second Place is worth noting. M will occasionally engage in free-indirect discourse, in effect stepping out of the way and allowing the story of whomever she is speaking with — usually L or Tony — to be rendered in language both hers and theirs. This is a technique that will be explored thoroughly in the final section of this essay, as it is the keystone to the Outline trilogy, but is worth illustrating now. During that first conversation at sunrise, M comes around to providing Jeffers, and us, with some of L’s hazy past. While relating his childhood — as L himself told it to her — M at times drops her narrative flags and takes on L’s story as her own:
He [L, as M is telling Jeffers] supposed his lack of horror and emotion could be attributed to the deadening that results from repeated exposure to something, but in that case he had been dead almost from the beginning. No, in the striking of that note there was something else, a feeling of equality with all things that was also an ability to survive them. He himself could not be fatally touched, or so he
had always believed: he could not be destroyed, even as he was witness to the destruction. He had taken his survival as freedom, and run
away with it.27
The last few lines can be read as L’s feelings he had in the moment of his past that he and M are discussing, as well as M summarizing for him. In this way Cusk refines the approach she formed in her earlier work, Outline. Passages like these are particularly effective, capturing as they do the essence of M’s refractive personality, the legacy of trauma that can give rise to great art, and the indefatigable pursuit of ourselves that our histories are ever on. It also, for our purposes, serves as a first look at the most revolutionary technique Cusk has created in point of view: eliding the first-person narrator to reach the language of the character in conversation with her — a method first discovered in a singular trilogy of talent, inspiration, and skill.
If I didn't want to compete, I wanted even less to make new rules about what constituted victory. I would want what everyone else wanted, even if I couldn’t attain it.28
We begin our study of Rachel Cusk’s most famous and esteemed effort by once more locating the central question. The Outline series is comprised of three novels; Outline, Transit, and Kudos. They are, of course, similar in tone and style — it is a true collection — but remarkably distinctive in storyline. Across this trilogy, epic in feel yet swift in execution, the heartbeat is deceptively easy to find. The question to be answered is, what is the cost of an attempt to illustrate the portrait of a woman through her conversations, experiences, and interactions with others, rather than a direct telling of her own story? The unnamed protagonist, a recently divorced mother of two, is a novelist of some moderate renown. She makes her living by teaching creative writing and participating in professional readings and other events. To fully realize her grand ambitions, Cusk needs a point of view that is at once intimate and distant, one that is centered around and emanates from a single protagonist but that preserves her elusive identity across three novels and more than seven hundred pages.
This is, quite obviously, far more difficult to achieve than to discuss or even to formulate. Cusk reaches her ends by devising the most purely inventive point of view of any of her novels — quite the statement, all things considered. It is, in essence, both first- and third-person at the same time. In a masterclass of layering the narrative and the textual together, Cusk’s protagonist essentially takes on — via what can be only properly called free-indirect discourse — the language and stories of those she meets throughout the series. Cusk is so adept at this that it takes some time before one even notices what is happening. But it so apt an approach, so total an accomplishment, that a rather minute analysis is appropriate. Across all three books, the plot unfolds in a series of conversations. In Transit, the second novel, the protagonist first encounters a man with whom she’d had a romantic entanglement, years prior, Gerard. Running into him and his daughter on the street, we find a wonderfully neat example of Cusk’s first-person free-indirect discourse:
After we had greeted one another, and expressed an astonishment that on my side was feigned since I had already seen him once without
him seeing me, Gerard introduced the small girl as his daughter.
‘Clara,’ she said in a firm, high quivering voice, when I asked her name.
Gerard asked how old mine were now, as thought the bald fact of parenthood might be softened if I were impacted in it too. He said he
had seen me interviewed somewhere — it was probably years ago now, to be honest — and the description of my house on the Sussex coast
had made him quite envious. The South Downs were one of his favourite parts of the country. He was surprised, he said, to fine me back
here in the city.30
Here in the London morning, the narrative and the textual collide with the elegant force that is on constant display throughout the trilogy. To whom, precisely, does the probably belong? In true free-indirect fashion, both the protagonist and Gerard — as it comes in the middle of a summative part of the dialogue, it plausibly belongs to the protagonist, while the speculative nature and the ‘to be honest’ that follows lends it a conversational tone more appropriate to Gerard.
Beyond the finer mechanical points, there is another example of Cusk refracting her ephemeral protagonist — whose sketching out via her interactions with others, we must remember, is the focal point of the entire trilogy — around the mass of those she meets. The first sentence takes, at first glance, a rather odd formulation. On closer inspection we can see that the ‘astonishment’ is expressed on two levels, a sort of Schrodinger’s Astonishment, perhaps. On the one hand, the narrator clearly outwardly agreed with Gerald as to the unexpected nature of their running into each other. On the other, she, of course, is not all that surprised, having espied him before, but, in an illustrative display, chooses to forgo that revelation. The passage goes a step further, however. The very structure of the sentence is doing work — by placing the partially feigned astonishment first, Cusk prioritizes the belief of the secondary actor over that of the narrator herself. In other words, even within this fairly nondescript sentence, it is only through negative space, by being something that another person is not (here, astonished, but throughout the book, possessing the long-sought identity that is her very own), that the protagonist is given shape. 31 Of course, it should not be overlooked, too, that the protagonist’s children are glossed over, even as Gerard’s young girl asserts her name, in a ‘firm’ voice, hundreds of pages before our narrator does. The point of view in the Outline trilogy is perhaps the best illustration in modern fiction of Mark Shoerer’s concept of technique meeting subject matter.32 Cusk elides not only the narration, as in the usual third-person use of the technique, but she manages to elide the protagonist as well. In scene after scene, the fictive present is suddenly subsumed by the narrative entity with a fictive past recounting of whichever character shares the stage with our heroine. Cusk’s use of first-person free-indirect allows her to slip her protagonist — who, we must remember, is on a quest to find herself, both narratively and textually — behind the story-within-a-story of each of the people she meets. This gives every page and every encounter of the trilogy an immediacy, a direct tie to that feeling which is at the heart of the work as a whole — the protagonist’s journey as she is, in effect, filled in against an outline of the others around her, forming identity from the world that she explores. One of quite literally dozens of such passages comes from Outline, an early example of the series’ incredibly fluid and precise signature narration. On the plane from London to Athens, our protagonist meets an older, rather voluble man, who proceeds to tell her his life story. Picking up in the middle of the man’s account of his first wife, their son, and his father-in-law, we will take a longer look in order to examine in full Cusk’s technique:
A long time ago — so long that he had forgotten the author’s name — he [the stranger on the plane] read some memorable lines in a
story about a man who is trying to translate another story, by a much more famous author. In these lines — which, my neighbor said, he
still remembers to this day — the translator says that a sentence is born into this world neither good nor bad, and that to establish its
character is a question of the subtlest possible adjustments, a process of intuition to which exaggeration and force are fatal. Those lines
concerned the art of writing, but looking around himself in early middle age my neighbor began to see that they applied just as much to the
art of living. Everywhere he looked he saw people as it were ruined by the extremity of their own experiences, and his new parents-in-law
appeared to be a case in point…He was, in effect, manufacturing an illusion: no matter what he did, the gap between illusion and reality
could never be closed. Gradually, he said, this gap, this distance between how things were and how I wanted them to be, began to
undermine me. I felt myself becoming empty, he said, as though I had been living until now on the reserves I had accumulated over the
years and they had gradually dwindled away.33
What a remarkable passage this is, especially coming as it does some twenty-odd pages into a several-hundred-page trilogy. In addition to laying out the themes, tone, and much of the subject matter of the entire series, we see all the technical and mechanical devices that Cusk will use to render her protagonist’s search for self within the negative space of others. The movement between speech clearly identifiable as our heroine’s and that which can plausibly be her neighbor’s is rapid and so skilled as to be hardly noticeable. Authorial flags — here, properly, narrative flags, as we are in first-person34 — such as ‘my neighbor said’, ‘my neighbor began’, and, later, ‘he said’, serve as beacons in this avalanche of a passage. They remind the reader that the protagonist is here, before she darts away again behind the onslaught of her companion’s tale of woe. Cusk even takes things a step further at the end of this excerpt, allowing her narrator to give way entirely for snippets of reported, or indirect, speech, when discussing the gap between what his life was and what he wanted it to be.
The italicized words, conversely (italics which are added), are the clearest examples of pure free-indirect — they are obviously the colored, subjective notions of the man in the plane, but are reported as if they belong to the protagonist’s account of her interaction with him. This would be exemplary free-indirect in third-person; in first, it is the prime example of the Outline trilogy as forefront of the Cuskain revolution. Throughout the series, we see almost nothing about the narrator’s life; we are told of children with whom she communicates during her travels — especially in the first book — but only by constantly having to interrupt her teaching. She encounters numerous people, all with those endlessly consuming stories, overwhelming not only the protagonist but also stretches of her own narrative, but none of them asking much about her. It is the great, subtle, and of course purposeful irony that this protagonist, perhaps the most perceptive in all of literature, whisks her way through hundreds of pages while managing to reveal almost nothing of herself. Cusk’s protagonist is constantly interacting with writers, giving readings, attending talks, having dinners with peers in the industry, and running into them on planes and in the street. We are treated to a veritable mélange of these figures talking about their writing, while learning very little of our own narrator’s work. As we attempt to find her as a fictive person — the textual function — she at the same time is attempting to find herself, in life, art, and family, as a character — the narrative function. A final excerpt is drawn from the last pages of Kudos, when we finally learn the protagonist’s name — after all, our narrator has reached the end of her odyssey — but even then only in a rushed aside, negotiating a family crisis on the telephone. Her son had, it seemed, gotten into a bit of trouble the night before, and after being unable to reach his father, calls our heroine in a panic: I asked him whether he was all right. I asked him how on earth it had happened, and what he had been thinking of. ‘Faye,’ he said fractiously, ‘will you just listen?’35
The analysis writes itself. The rushed, impatient manner in which Faye’s name is finally spoken, that it is done so by her son, presumably someone for whom it is a strange and rather unsettling name to call her, that her words are only indirectly reported while his are directly said, and that it is immediately followed by a demand that she be quiet and listen. That Cusk then follows this exchange with one of the most proficient stretches of her narrative technique in the entire series is no accident; nor is it that, when Faye hangs up the phone, she wanders to the sea to meet with her final, astonishing encounter.
Much of what makes the Outline series work as three volumes, and not a single book, is that in answering her central question Cusk asserts that her method is precisely the wrong one. What makes the final revelation of Faye’s name at the very end effective is that it is realized only after the extended journey, the difficult process of drawing herself in outline. Everything up to then has been circuitous, indirect, on the oblique; we come to understand that the best way to answer the central question would have been to ask her ourselves, as it were. But, failing that, we must take the long way, and the result is a trilogy of speed, power and efficiency. Even within an oeuvre of such varied virtuosity and fearless confrontation of traditional methods, Outline stands as the vanguard of Cusk’s revolution of the novel. While this action is not only performed here — as this essay has attempted to demonstrate, all of her novels consider, challenge, and ultimately expand the use of point of view in fiction — this is the center of the engagement. The reputation that the Outline series enjoys as Rachel Cusk’s best work, and its unarguable standing as her most well-known, is fittingly built upon a career-thick foundation of technical brilliance and stylistic innovation unmatched by any writer of her generation.
1 Cusk, Outline, 160.
2 A term for the third-person narrator that is a bit more specific—often times in the best third-person fiction, the narration will have its own personality, color, and even character arc, traits that ‘entity’ rather neatly captures.
3 Friedman, "Point of View in Fiction”, 1168-79, esp. 1175-77. For a study that analyzes point of view by levels of consciousness as opposed to angle of authorial lens, see Dorrit Cohn's Transparent Minds.
4 Ibid. Friedman’s term for a limited third-person limited confined to a single character throughout is, sensibly, “Selective Omniscience.” Limited, here and throughout, refers in a general way to a third-person point of view that works with something less than full omniscience — the style in which thought, word, and deed of every character are on display. Close third-person is a similar term, meaning narration that in some way renders the consciousness of one or more characters. This will be discussed in greater detail below.
5 Free-indirect discourse goes by several names — including Cohn’s useful “narrated monologue” — but for our purposes is best thought of as a technique employed in the limited third-person approaches discussed here. It is, in short, the blending of narration and a character’s interiority — any paragraph, sentence, or even phrase that can be plausibly read as simultaneously ‘spoken’ by the narrative entity and thought by the character at a given moment. As such, it is also frequently used in close third-person usage; the two are often coexistent. For the most succinct and digestible explanation of direct vs. indirect vs. free-indirect discourse available anywhere, see Wood, How Fiction Works, 5-19.
6 Cusk, The Bradshaw Variations, 135.
7 The Bradshaw Variations is a classic take on Friedman’s Multiple Selective Omniscience style.
8 In other words, a book that is more concerned with the external events around its characters than the internal changes they undergo; what happens to them rather than what they think, feel, want, or remember. This is, in extraordinarily basic terms, the transformation that the novel as a medium underwent during the Modernist period at the outset of the previous century. As novelists became more focused on the inner lives of their players, the techniques and mechanics they employed to render them had to evolve, as well. All Cusk’s works are internally-focused. See Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” and “Modern Fiction”; Stevenson, An Introduction to Modernist Fiction, 58-63.
9 So, although an “I-as-witness” approach, where the narrator is more observer than hero, would allow for a first-person narrator who could engage on approximately equal terms with all the central figures, none of them would be able to impart their internal desires — the central issue in The Bradshaw Variations — without resorting to such crude authorial tricks as mislaid diaries, overheard dialogue, or, worst of all, straight expository conversation.
10 There are numerous studies of the various levels in which third-person point of view may operate, in terms of how near or far (‘close’) to the character’s thoughts the narration is. Perhaps the best formulation is Cohn’s psychonarration — quoted monologue — narrated monologue scale, as outlined thoroughly in Transparent Minds, esp. 134-6. In effect, an author can range from Henry James — who, as noted above, is interested in the inner lives of his characters, but from so far a distance that it can be difficult to separate outer narration from inner thought — all the way down to James Joyce, who, by Finnegan’s Wake, had ventured beyond the conscious and into the unconscious. In general, as a narration grows closer to a character’s consciousness, the rules of language fall away and the mind runs on with increasingly less interruption. So, as the level of the point of view goes down, freely-associative thought increases and basic grammar decreases. Because every second of time takes more text to convey, for every inch downward one slides on the consciousness scale, the amount of plot and temporal range that can be managed decreases. Questions of mechanics (as opposed to broader ones of technique) are somewhat outside the scope here, as Cusk avoids the murky waters of stream-of-consciousness in her work. See Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 42-50, for a discussion on the shifting focus of the novel from Flaubert to James; pp. 155-9, on narrative distance, and Genette, Narrative Discourse, 185-211, for his alternative but equally instructive three-part system of zero focalization — internal focalization — external focalization, where the middle tier encompasses free-indirect and much of modernist and contemporary third-person fiction.
11 Used as a term of art here, from Narrative Discourse. In addition to the levels of point of view noted above, Genette also lays out a wonderfully simple scheme for the four types of narrative moments: pause — scene — summary — ellipses. The primary instances are scene and summary; classic action and moments of exposition, respectively. Modernist literature in part distinguishes itself from other styles (especially the Victorian) by emphasizing scene, and even pause, over summary. Although somewhat outside the scope of this essay, this formulation has proven too useful to go without mention.
12 Cusk, The Bradshaw Variations, 70.
13 Ibid., 9.
14 Cusk, Arlington Park, 243.
15 Arlington Park is technically Friedman’s Multiple Selective Omniscience, but is more accurately Selective Omniscience repeated for each character, giving the book its kaleidoscopic look at the women of an English suburb.
16 A fairly common teaching point among professors of creative writing is that of the ‘readerly contract’ — the idea that the first few pages should convey to the reader how the book will proceed, both in terms of form and content, as if it were an agreement signed by both parties. While this is sage advice, it naturally proves rather difficult to put into practice. The opening section of Arlington Park is the best example of such a contract ever encountered by this reader, at any rate.
17 Cusk, Arlington Park, 7.
18 Ibid., 10-11.
19 Cusk, Second Place, pp. 156
20 Second Place is written in Friedman’s I-as-Witness, with epistolarian elements adding more depth and intricacies than might commonly be found.
21 While the opening as a whole is more effective in Arlington Park, as discussed in footnote sixteen above, here the leading sentence is, for this reader, the more striking.
22 Cusk, Second Place, 3.
23 First-person is, of course, typically addressed to ‘no one’—the narrator simply tells their story into the void. This creates a myriad of possibilities for the release of information and establishing readerly mystery, with varying success. The epistolary form, by providing a clear motivation for the act of the telling, gives organic justification to, for example, information withholding. The letter writer is simply crafting an exciting message to their confidante.
24 Everything is addressed to Jeffers — everything is included in the letter, as it were — but Cusk’s usual mechanical ease gets her in and out of scenes with one barely noticing the transition.
25 Cusk, Second Place, 56-7.
26 One would imagine, at any rate. While the nature of M and L’s relationship is never quite defined, it is safe to say it is one of familiarly.
27 Cusk, Second Place, 61.
28 Cusk, Transit, 7.
29 The Outline trilogy is written in Friedman’s I-as-Protagonist, but with many elements typically found in Selective Omniscience, making it so fertile ground for study.
30 Cusk, Transit, 11.
31 Of course she does make decisions, many of them, in fact. Who she elects to engage in conversation with, the details she notices, the places she goes — these are all examples of the indirect shaping that Outline’s protagonist. This, too, fits perfectly the central issues; after all, it is only an outline being sketched, not an entire person. Even negative space possesses its own borders.
32 Schorer, Mark. “Technique as Discovery.” Schorer’s piece is especially insightful when discussing the connection between point of view and thematic definition, 68-9. This could be said of Arlington Park, as well, but Outline does it so brightly and for so sustained a period that it takes the plaudit here.
33 Cusk, Outline, 21-2.
34 Authorial flags in a close third-person point of view are words which break the blended state of narration and speaker sharing language. These are typically signal words, including ‘he said’, ‘she thought’, ‘he wondered’, and the like. Because Cusk has effectively introduced free-indirect into first-person, they must be called ‘narrative flags’. See Cohn, Transparent Minds, 30-31, for an illuminating discussion of authorial flagging in third-person narration.
35 Cusk, Kudos, 227.
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