Review: Just a writer of women’s fiction?

Rex Dunn reviews Rachel Cusk,'Outline', Vintage, 2014, pp249, £8.99

Despite being shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2015, Cusk is potentially more than a ‘women’s writer’. But we shall have to wait and see. In an interview with Lynn Barber for The Observer, back in 2009, she revealed that she is angry about “men, marriage, children - I don’t know, everything”.1 Then she added that, as a mother of two girls, she is “loathed by other mothers, attacked with slings and arrows from every side”. Her novel Arlington Park (2009) “seemed to express a hatred of almost all aspects of family life”. Oh dear!

It is a pity really, because she has this amazingly acute insight into the lives of others, which at the same time, reveals more and more about herself. Like Flaubert - a worthy template - she values writing as a craft. In Outline she has created many fascinating, imaginative images, rendered in precise, beautiful prose. It moves effortlessly from the present to the past, and back to the present; from the viewpoint of the story-teller to the other characters, and back again.

Despite her limited world view, Cusk might possibly have helped to create a new form: the auto-biographical novel: ie, a postmodernist variation of modernist realism. On the one hand, she writes autobiographical fiction, which is largely plotless (compare the realism of Ulysses), via the narrator’s chance encounters with strangers (eg, a fellow passenger on a plane to Athens). On the other, she goes beyond the realism of Joyce or Woolf. She does not merely copy the latter’s technique of interior monologue or streams of consciousness. Rather hers is based on the narrator’s own story (a middle class woman like herself), but a story which is rooted in sensuous reality. The writing is closely observed, detailed, palpable (whether she is describing the plane journey or a trip to the beach in the Greek high summer, as a respite from the stifling Athenian heat), whereby the narrator’s voice (herself once removed), her feelings, thoughts and attitude are fused - albeit in a fluid, dialectical manner. They segue between herself and others, including anecdotes which she picks up through chance encounters along the way.

The stories which emerge are tragicomic, and sometimes stand as extended metaphors: the man sitting next to her on the plane, who maintains contact with her in Athens (thereafter referred to as “my neighbour”), relates his life story to her (centred around three marriages and divorce); in particular the macabre mix-up concerning the burial of his parents. At her writers’ group (which is the purpose of her visit to Athens), one students tells her a story about some friends, whose panel in the kitchen ceiling had an ominous crack in it. Come the usual violent summer thunder storm over Athens (which I myself have experienced at first hand), the ceiling suddenly collapsed on a dinner party, drenching all concerned. (Is this an intimation of the political/social crisis engendered by Greek austerity, which is touched upon elsewhere, if only briefly?)

Another student relates the story about a family which acquires an untrained puppy with a voracious appetite. It was bought for some spoilt, ungrateful children, who soon abandon all responsibility for its care to their mother; whereupon it is regularly beaten by this increasingly exasperated woman. (But would she also slap her children when they misbehave?) That story reaches its climax when the unfortunate dog devours a birthday cake, which is bad for all concerned, especially the dog!

The first assignment of the 10-strong writing group is to tell a story about what happened on their way to class; whereupon the 10th person rounds on the narrator, accusing her of abdicating her responsibilities as a teacher. (Maybe here Cusk is having a dig at one aspect of her own career: she is also an established writer in residence, centre-piece of one of those expensive “creative writing courses”, ritually advertised in the review pages of The Guardian.)

Given Cusk’s innovative narrative technique (so the novel is not quite dead yet), it is unfortunate that she limits her realm of reality to bourgeois marriage/the bourgeois nuclear family (which is clearly shown to be in disarray), wherein the currently popular discourse on gender politics is always lurking in the background. In this sense she and her peers have regressed from the world view of their 19th century predecessors: eg, Balzac or Flaubert. They, of course, radicalised the concept of realism - they were the pioneers of modernist literature. By so doing, they showed an ability to criticise their own class from within (ie, as acute observers of the hypocrisies and social mores of the bourgeoisie). Hence Both Marx and Engels were drawn to such writers, heaping critical praise upon them in the process.


Cusk is also an admirer of DH Lawrence. But why? They come from very different backgrounds. He was working class and then an erstwhile member of the middle class; otherwise he settled for exile and the role of wandering sage. She comes from a wealthy Catholic family. Cusk’s The last supper (a travelogue about a summer in Italy, published in 2009) begins with a quotation from Lawrence: “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move ... I’m in awe of how much DH Lawrence managed to get around.” But is that the limit of her admiration for this controversial writer (compare those bourgeois feminists who ensured, for politically correct reasons, that he has long since been evicted from the literary canon)? No, there is more: “DH Lawrence is a good example [of a writer from the wrong side of the tracks] who think they want acceptance, but actually they can’t stand it and they’ve got to annoy people by pointing out uncomfortable things, and that’s more me.”

But what about Lawrence’s view, à la Rousseau, that modern industrial society - ie, capitalism - is based on the paralysing effects of the “division of labour”, the increasing mechanisation of all forms of human activity, the engulfing of “quality in quantity”2; so that, as the literary critic, WW Robson, says, the “right kind of human naturalness, showing itself in a play of emotional spontaneity and mobility and a capacity for tenderness [in a man] whose form of life grows from that ‘life centre’, withoutwhich Lawrence thought modern living was mere automatism ...”?3

(As Marx and Engels say in the Communist manifesto, in terms of the historical dialectic it is the human male who is affected most by the vestiges of the old society; albeit in due course, the bourgeoisie destroys “all feudal patriarchal idyllic relations”4, though it prostitutes everything, having resolved personal worth into mere exchange value. But, with the arrival of the proletariat, the bourgeoisie will be swept away, in part thanks to the nihilism of modern capitalism itself.)

Apart from her published novels (of which Outline is the latest), Cusk has also written a new (somewhat loose) translation - of Euripides’ play, Medea, which was performed at the Almeida in late 2015. (Note, here she has turned to a classical Greek drama which is more personal than political. It is a play about the breakdown of a marriage and the mother’s desire for bloody revenge - ie, infanticide - unlike Antigone, which is a political drama about the conflict between the individual and the state.) One can only hope that, in her future work, like Flaubert et al, Cusk will endeavour to broaden her canvass, to include the whole ensemble of class relations (whilst not, of course, feeling obliged to see the world from the standpoint of the proletariat!). Combined with her undoubted talent for innovative writing, then she might become a truly radical and worthy novelist for the 21st century - rather than being pigeon-holed as a ‘writer of women’s fiction’!

Nevertheless, Outline is a wonderfully refreshing novel, which should appeal to everyone. This applies whether or not you decide to take it as a holiday read on your next visit to Greece - whilst sparing a thought for the Greek people themselves, especially the working people, considering what they have been through of late!


1 . www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/30/rachel-cusk-lynn-barber.

2 . To quote Mikhail Lifshitz’s paraphrase of Hegel: M Lifshitz The philosophy of art of Karl Marx London 1973, p14.

3 . www.utgjiu.ro/revista/lit/pdf/2011-01/7_MINODORA_OTILIA_SIMION.pdf.

4 . Once again using Lifshitz’s phrase: op cit p103.