The Outline Trilogy

And now for something completely different: the Outline trilogy (or the Faye trilogy, if you prefer) by Rachel Cusk.

Cusk’s novelistic trilogy concluded last year with Kudos and has received tremendous praise on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s generally acknowledged that Cusk has created something genuinely new with these books.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy: something genuinely new. Photo: lithub.com.

Many reviewers have described the trilogy novels as belonging to the “autofiction” category popularized by Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgaard. I think that’s wrong—to me, the books come closer to what one might term “negative literature,” in that they strip away many of the traditional lineaments of the novel, such as plot and dialogue.

Yet describing her books as negative literature doesn’t capture Cusk’s achievement, either. It’s not what Cusk leaves out that’s important, but rather the seemingly random conversations and observations she puts in.

I think Cusk has created a new kind of stream-of-consciousness for the age of Trump and Brexit (the latter of which Kudos observes in passing). It’s no one person’s interior thoughts portrayed here, jumbled together throughout the day, but rather an observer’s—Faye’s—registering of others’ diverse thoughts and observations, alongside and largely in place of her own.

The effect is remarkably lifelike, far more so than Knausgaard’s autofiction. (I had some minor difficulty making it through the first book in his series, but found each of Cusk’s books to be brisk, engaging reads.) Outline, Transit and Kudos have collectively been termed cool and cruel books. They are definitely cool; there is a built-in distance in these recorded observations. I’m not sure the books should be termed cruel, though.

What they are is relentlessly honest. If they are cruel, then they are reflecting life itself.

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