Rachel Cusk and the Revisionary Imperative

“Call it autofiction, metafiction, or the post-Sebaldian novel,” as Stephanie Bishop writes, or, if you prefer, follow Charles Finch and call it the “granular introver[sion]” of those who write “barely novels, all in an ambiguous first-person indistinguishable from the author’s own voice.” Whatever name it goes by now or at some stage in future, there’s no denying that the last few years have seen the growth of a body of literature in which — among other things — truth and fiction begin blurring together, long stretches of essayistic contemplation marginalise conventional modes of character development, and scenes and events are sequenced in an associative way rather than being bound to the rules of narrative causality.

Think, as Bishop and Finch do, of the novels of Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, and Sheila Heti. Each one lights upon a protagonist who very much resembles the author, finding that person in the thick of an existential crisis that manifests in a persistent self-doubt of his or her artistic and intellectual worth. Now thrown back on himself or herself, each protagonist takes to observing the minutiae of the surrounding world and detailing, wherever possible, the invisible forces — historical, cultural, social, political, economic — that shape and even predetermine the trajectories followed by people they know well and by those they encounter only in passing. The protagonist thus strikes out for some sort of stability, some firm footing in the world, by applying himself or herself to understanding intimately a set of surroundings that are both immediate and quite distant and, in the process, tethering himself or herself to the certainties of those surroundings.

The problem, however, is that those certainties are never as knowable or as fixed as the protagonist at first believes. Even on those rare occasions when information regarding certain places and certain people is transmitted to the protagonist in a form more detailed than a fragment, the facts to be assembled into something cohesive and comprehensible are acquired in piecemeal fashion. In each novel, the result is a protagonist continually wrong-footed by the world. The very aspects of the world that he or she hopes to understand incontrovertibly are unstable, forever in flux, so that all of his or her certainties linger in a state of perpetual revision.

The narrative arcs of the novels in which these protagonists appear are, to a greater or lesser extent, pegged to those moments in which the protagonist feels most acutely or realises most abruptly the need to revise his or her understanding of something formerly certain. The narrative drama, such as it is, usually amounts to the protagonist’s search for a place or a moment of stillness and calm, wherein he or she can catch breath and revise his or her understanding of all things and have it be whole and complete, even if only briefly, before the world again undercuts it and it is intruded upon by the need for yet further revision. Since the protagonist of each novel also serves as its narrator, the novel justifies its own existence as a written document insofar as the narrator’s act of writing becomes an attempt to diagnose, chronicle, and ideally allay his or her experience of crisis. This is as true of the novels by the writers above as it is of other recent and similarly conditioned novels by Jenny Offill, Catherine Lacey, Valeria Luiselli, and now Rachel Cusk.

Cusk’s latest novel, Outline, signals a significant aesthetic departure from all of her previous work but is very much of a piece with that of Lerner, Heti, and especially Cole. Its protagonist, Faye, a writer very much like Cusk herself, leaves her native England to spend a summer in Athens, where she is slated to lead a creative writing workshop, while suffering the ennui of a marriage that has recently failed. The revisionary imperative arises the opening scene as Faye comes to reassess her understanding of a man she has recently met, “a billionaire [who] I’d been promised had liberal credentials,” and it takes centre stage, becomes almost the protagonist in its own right, as the novel progresses. In a later scene, Faye’s creative writing students are asked to tell an impromptu story about something they observed on their way to the workshop that morning, and, by the time everyone has spoken, those who were first to speak feel the need to revise their contributions because they did not notice as much, did not describe as many fine details, and did not convey as clear a sense of self or as vivid an experience as those who spoke after them. In another scene, the revisionary imperative finds an almost explicit articulation when a fellow divorcée, a Greek man named Paniotis, recounts for Faye the story of the family holiday on which he sensed the impending dissolution his marriage:

[O]ne of the things that happened to me on that holiday, and that I believe has not changed since, was that I began to feel for the first time that I was seeing what was really there, without asking myself whether or not I was expecting to see it. When I think back to the time before, and especially to the years of my marriage, it seems to me as though my wife and I looked at the world through a long lens of preconception, by which we held ourselves at some unbreachable distance from what was around us, a distance that constituted a kind of safety but also created a space for illusion. We never, I think, discovered the true nature of the things we saw, any more than we were ever in danger of being affected by them; we peered at them, at people and places, like people on a ship peer at the passing mainland, and should we have seen them in any kind of trouble, or they us, there would have been nothing whatever either one of us could have done about it.

But, on that holiday, Paniotis was plunged into a moment of stillness and calm in which he was able to revise his understanding of his marriage and, in doing so, to come to terms with the reality of divorce. With his wife, Chrysta, having left their children in his care, he and the children had plunged into a pool beside a waterfall somewhere far from civilisation:

How cold the water was, and how incredibly deep and refreshing and clear — we drifted around and around, with the sun on our faces and our bodies hanging like three white roots beneath the water. I can see us there still… for those were moments so intense that in a way we will be living them always, while other things are completely forgotten. Yet there is no particular story attached to them… despite their place in the story I have just told you. That time spent swimming in the pool beneath the waterfall belongs nowhere: it is part of no sequence of events, it is only itself, in a way that nothing in our life before as a family was ever itself, because it was always leading to the next thing and the next, was always contributing to our story of who we were. … But there was no sequel to that time in the pool, nor ever will be.

This moment appears to have given Paniotis the space to do the very things Faye attempts to do when she collects and channels the stories of people like Paniotis. So — like the novels of Lerner, Cole, and Heti — Outline consists almost entirely of people testifying to experiences such as the above, experiences whose page-by-page accumulation discloses Faye’s own experience of crisis and her attempt to escape it. At times, the stilted reportage and the syntax of the sentences so closely mimic those of Cole’s Open City that Outline verges on parodying the very sort of literature it so clearly aspires to be, but more often it edges a little further along the line of revisionary logic that animates Open City and its kin. Whereas Cole’s narrator, Julius, is generally sympathetic and credulous towards those whose testimony he reports, and whereas Lerner’s Adam Gordon is self-obsessed and Heti’s Sheila is interrogative, Cusk makes Faye more skeptical and critical of what she is told by others. Julius, Adam, and Sheila report on their conversations with others and their responses to what is said, and subject both to revision. Faye does much the same, but also incorporates into her reports her speculations on the motives of her conversational partners, their possible reasons for saying what they say and presenting themselves the way they do. In a sense, then, she gives the appearance of conducting revisions in something close to real time as, in the act of recounting conversations, she interpolates the back and forth of discussion with revisionary manoeuvres that undercut or overturn the things that are said by others almost as soon as they have been said. It’s not necessarily the case that all this makes Outline in some sense superior to its predecessors, put it does more definitively articulate the logic of the aesthetic that unites them.

The Effects of The End of the Tour

I haven’t yet had a chance to see The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s film adaptation of David Lipsky’s book-length interview with David Foster Wallace, but I’ve found a lot to like about the responses it has drawn from critics so far — or, rather, the breadth and variety of those responses. At one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Tom LeClair lamenting that even though The End of the Tour “offers itself as a respectful homage to and elegy for David Foster Wallace,” “exploitation mars the film from its origin through its casting to the final product.” The result, writes LeClair, is “a movie that Wallace’s widow and his editors said Wallace would have hated” and, worse, “the kind of commercial entertainment that Wallace’s best work critiqued.” But then you’ve got Christopher Schaberg taking a more generous view of things — “the movie is perfectly okay!” — and pointing out that, far from downplaying or bypassing its treatment of Wallace’s major critical concerns, The End of the Tour gives consideration to most of them. “Nothing in the movie breaks from the overt themes of Wallace’s actual writings,” Schaberg insists, “unless you want to go meta and insist that the movie itself is everything Wallace would have hated — but then, the joke is on us, too.”

But by far the best assessment of the film comes from James Ley in the Sydney Review of Books. Paying careful attention to the technicalities of how The End of the Tour portrays Wallace scene by scene, rather than simply in sum or on the whole, Ley finds that “the film both relies on and participates in the construction of Wallace as a cultural symbol. It is very much about him as an object of fascination rather than as an artist” and, more than that, it works hard to make its viewers aware that they, too, “are no less complicit in [its] process of objectification.” “The End of the Tour is a film that is aware of the delicacy of its task,” Ley writes:

It does not presume to know its subject beyond his outward manifestations. Wallace lives alone in a small house on the edge of a large snowy field and speaks to Lipsky of loneliness, but we never see him alone. The film preserves the basic interviewer-interviewee structure of [Lipsky’s] book, such that our sense of Wallace is always framed by Lipsky’s observation of him. …

This interest in the tension between the man and his public persona — the way that the film implies Wallace’s success has made his isolation more acute — is the most obvious way in which its themes resonate with his writing. The tendency for a media-saturated, visual culture to engender a self-consciousness that sharpens the conflict between the part of us that is seen and the infinitely more complicated part of us that remains hidden is one of Wallace’s defining themes. The difference is that The End of the Tour is itself a part of that visual culture.

“This is an irony of which the film is aware,” Ley contends, “and which it negotiates with understated intelligence” by appropriating and reconceiving Wallace’s own techniques for “satiris[ing] the terminal involutions of self-referential postmodern art,” “turning [them] around in order to reinforce our sense of Wallace’s objectification.” What I find particularly striking about these words — aside from how respectfully they treat a film that a good number of Wallace devotees have shown no hesitation in trashing — is how in tune they seem with Wallace’s own writings on films and filmmaking. They do him the sort of posthumous honour that the filmmakers were likely aiming for, capturing very acutely the analytical spirit in which Wallace himself approached the artifice of the cinema and picked apart its effects on its audience.

All Over the Place

Gary Saul Morson has an essay in Commentary entitled ‘Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature.’ It’s a real piece of work. He begins by taking a few pot-shots at Martha Nussbaum’s familiar concerns about declining enrolment in literature courses at colleges and universities, then he identifies himself as the teacher of “the largest class at Northwestern University, with an enrollment of about 500 students. The course is about Russian literature.” He continues:

I speak with students by the dozens, and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. … What can students learn from literature that they cannot learn elsewhere? Why should they bother with it? … For understandable reasons, literature professors assume the importance of their subject matter. But students are right to ask these questions. … To teach anything well, you have to place yourself in the position of the learner who does not already know the basics and has to be persuaded that the subject is worth studying. You have to subtract knowledge and assumptions you have long since forgotten having learned. And one of those assumptions is that literature is worth the effort of reading it.

That sort of stuff is music to my ears. I teach literature partly because I love exactly that aspect of the job: challenging myself to approach the familiar from an outsider’s perspective, dismantling my own assumptions about literature at the beginning of the academic year, and finding new and creative ways of introducing students to the discipline without ever taking for granted their interest in it. But then Morson drops this paragraph:

More sophisticated students usually have in mind some version of what might be called the Wikipedia test. If a book has a point, and the point can be briefly summarized, why not just read the summary? If a teacher cannot give a coherent reason why such a shortcut simply won’t do, then why should the student assume anything important is left out?

Good questions, no doubt, to which I’d answer that the “point” of a book is the word-by-word experience of the particular effects it generates in the act of reading it, not some post hoc claim or statement to be extracted from having read it. This means, for teachers of literature, the focus of a literature class has to be the aesthetic capabilities and resources of literature as an artform, with any analysis of things like narrative momentum and character development and thematic concerns taking place in an aesthetic context. But then, a few paragraphs later, Morson rails against taking an aesthetic approach to the study of literature:

Time and again, students tell me of three common ways in which most high school and college classes kill their interest in novels.

The most common approach might be called technical. The teacher dedicates himself to the book as a piece of craft. Who is the protagonist, and who is the antagonist? Is there foreshadowing? Above all, this approach directs students to look for symbols. … At a more granular level, this approach involves teaching a dense thicket of theory focused on “the text.” But literary works are not texts; that is, they are not just words on a page linked by abstruse techniques. Does anybody really believe that Dickens set out to create a sort of puzzle one needed an advanced humanities degree to make sense of? And that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving a crossword puzzle?

As someone who actively discourages his students from leaning on the rickety old crutch of symbolism when undertaking literary analysis, it’s mystifying to me to see that my preferred approach to the study of literature involves hunting out symbolism “[a]bove all.” Putting that aside, however, I have to say that I really don’t understand what a teacher of literature is actually teaching if he or she isn’t teaching students how to pay attention to the words on the page. I don’t believe that Dickens set out to create some sort of unsolvable puzzle, or that he wanted the experience of reading his works to resemble solving one. But an appreciation and understanding of that experience is quite distinct from the experience itself, involving as it does a reflective intellectualisation of an affective encounter with a text, and one cannot thoroughly appreciate or understand how the experience has come into being without paying close attention to the words from which it arises. At the end of the day, the words on the page are all we really have.

Morson’s general point is that “the real literary work” has less to do with authorial technique than with “the reader’s experience,” and this means that “the first thing a teacher needs to do is help students have the experience the author is trying to create. There is no point in analyzing the techniques for creating an experience the students have not had.” He ends his essay, bizarrely, by basically adopting Martha Nussbaum’s view of the importance of literature as a cultural force that expands one’s capacity for empathy, and his conclusion is just flat-out embarrassing:

[G]reat literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel. The greater the premium on understanding other cultures in their own terms, the more the study of literature matters.

Because literature is about diverse points of view, I teach by impersonation. I never tell students what I think about the issues the book raises, but what the author thinks. If I comment on some recent event or issue, students will be hearing what Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, not I, would say about it. One can also impersonate the novel’s characters. What would Ivan Karamazov say about our moral arguments? How could we profit from the wisdom Dorothea Brooke acquires? Can one translate their wisdom into a real dialogue about moral questions that concern us — or about moral questions that we were unaware are important but in light of what we have learned turn out to be so? Authors and characters offer a diversity of voices and points of view on the world from which we can benefit.

Such impersonation demands absorbing the author’s perspective so thoroughly that one can think from within it, and then “draw dotted lines” from her concerns to ours. Students hear the author’s voice and sense the rhythms of her thought, and then, when they go back to the book, read it from that perspective. Instead of just seeing words, they hear a voice.

I don’t think you have to be a teacher of literature, or even an experienced reader of literature, to see that this is crazy talk. I’d defy Morson to put Dostoevsky and Tolstoy aside for a term and try using those techniques to teach something like Gravity’s Rainbow or Lolita. Those are just two novels, among many, that are clearly artistically ambitious and yet make a problem of the very possibility of empathy. I doubt that Morson’s students would get anything of much value out of their attempts to use empathy alone to fully experience those sorts of novels, but experience tells me that students who receive guidance in approaching them aesthetically develop a real love for the extraordinary capabilities of the written word that is, after all, their lifeblood.

On Backwardness

When Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands was published last year, it met with a bewildering and dismaying response from reviewers. Set in an unnamed but vaguely Middle Eastern country, the novel follows a foreign doctor’s attempts to live with the pseudo-tribal inhabitants of the desert marshes — a people modelled on, but not faithfully representing, the marsh Arabs of Iraq. The lands of these “marshmen” have been occupied by a foreign power within the region and, in response to the occupation, a more distant foreign power offers military and logistical support to the insurgency of the marshmen. The marshmen are thus proxy soldiers in a war between two much larger nation states, and when that war results in the defeat of the original occupying forces, the marshmen launch an insurgency against the second-run occupiers who were once their allies.

In summary form, it’s true, Marshlands might appear to be the sort of novel that seeks to engage with current affairs or, more broadly, with the political upheavals that have plagued the Middle East over the last few decades. In fact, though, Marshlands possesses a number of unconventional qualities which altogether bend the novel towards fabulism at the expense of realism. Among these are the total absence of a specific and recognisable narrative setting, a determination to abstract rather than particularise the conflict and its participants, a detailed but necessarily speculative anthropological commentary on a fictional people, and a light dose of self-referentiality. The novel’s clearest antecedent is arguably J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which employs the aesthetic strategies mentioned above, but it also seems to owe something to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, whose narrator reads significance into the everyday actions of the foreigners he calls “plainsmen” in much the same way that Olshan’s protagonist can watch a marshman simply shrug his shoulders and remark that a shrug by a marshman is “a gesture with infinite subtle inflections.” In any event, although it offers implicit commentary on the follies of imperialism in a general sense, Marshlands is not a novel determined to say something perceptive or insightful about the conditions of the contemporary world.

What’s interesting about the response to Marshlands is the attention given to one of its least interesting features. After the novel sets up its story, according to the blurb on the back, “Marshlands reveals one of its many surprises: it is written in reverse. The novel leaps backward once, twice… unraveling time to reveal the doctor’s ambiguous relationship to the austerely beautiful land and its people.” But don’t think it’s something along the lines of Time’s Arrow, in which time proceeds backwards action by action, sentence by sentence. The story is simply broken into three sections, each of which depicts events that take place after the section that follows. That’s not exactly radical experimentalism, and yet that’s the feature of Marshlands to have attracted the most attention from its reviewers. “[F]or all its shocking revelations,” according to the New York Times, “the story lacks propulsion, its backward narration and withholding of information distracting us from the action and motivation.” “Mr. Olshan’s control over his story-in-reverse is impressive,” the Wall Street Journal protested, but perhaps at the cost of “adept[ness] in his uses of the past.” And even when the novel’s reverse chronology escaped criticism for its supposed shortcomings, there was a tendency to downplay its effects and undersell its success. “Fiction that moves backwards in time,” wrote Benjamin Rybeck at Three Guys One Book, “often milks the structure for irony [and] Marshlands is no exception. The reader moves into the protagonist’s past, holding knowledge of what will become of him, while he blunders onward, oblivious to the future.” That’s true, but is that all there is to it?

Irony is, without doubt, one effect of the reverse chronology of Marshlands. The doctor visiting the marshlands is a citizen of the foreign power that at first supported the insurgency of the marshmen, and he lives among the marshmen with pretensions of being apolitical but without realising that he cannot be. Whereas he sees himself as an agent of strictly humanitarian interests, over time he fails to see that his interests conflict with those of both his native country and the people of the marshlands. Although he wants nothing more than to practise his profession, to offer medical aid to the marshmen, the marshmen come to resent the ways in which his techniques and his disposition do not accommodate their cultural customs and the government of his native country comes to see him as guilty of treason. Finally, for the assistance he provides to enemies of the state, he is apprehended by representatives of his government and imprisoned for some twenty-one years. His release, however, is the event with which Marshlands opens before it takes the double plunge into the doctor’s past. Thus, as Matthew Olshan himself has written, “the reader’s sense of [the doctor] as a victim… slowly give[s] way to an awareness of his complicity in the crimes against his beloved marshmen.” That’s irony at work. Yet there’s no reason to think that this is the sole effect of the reverse chronology, nor even that it obstructs the “propulsion” of the narrative. While Olshan admits that the chronology drains Marshlands of dramatic suspense, the novel doesn’t entirely lack suspense so much as it finds suspense in exposition rather than drama. The question that draws the reader into Marshlands is not “what happens next?” but “why is what is happening, happening?” and what follows the inciting incident — the doctor’s release from prison — is simply a search for causes instead of a series of consequences.

The same could easily be said of any number of other works of literature. Half of the Sherlock Holmes stories operate on the same grounds, albeit without so starkly foregrounding the regression of narrative causality. For reviewers of Marshlands, though, it proved to be a little too much to take, too great a departure from narrative convention — which is a shame when the novel’s greater virtues lie in a series of other unconventional moves that remain overlooked.

Distance and Partitions

Ben Parker has a perceptive and contrarian take on Karl Ove Knausgaard in the Los Angeles Review of Books, perhaps the best essay yet on the fourth volume of My Struggle. Parker begins with the observation that many novels “contain a spectral double, another book trapped within their pages” — Cervantes’ parody of an illicit sequel to the first volume of Don Quixote, for instance, or Tristram’s father’s Tristrapedia in Tristram Shandy — and then considers the purposes towards which Knausgaard incorporates fragments of his father’s diaries into his own work. One of his purposes, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to sharply differentiate himself from his father, which eventually leads Parker to the assertion that My Struggle in its totality “is an attempt to create distance and partitions, to police psychic boundaries.” Parker goes on to support this assertion, more or less convincingly, by carefully and compellingly reading the novel’s aesthetic strategies as an almost necessary outgrowth of the experiences that prompted Knausgaard to write it:

The textures and devices of the book are best thought of as neutralizing tactics — in line with Knausgaard’s image of life as “a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides,” where this “enclosedness” is protective, regulating. Nicholas Dames has remarked on the “immersive” quality of the world conjured by the writing; this is right only provided we understand that immersion is a kind of threat or unwelcome outlet. Instead, writing means monitoring proximity, regulating intensity, maintaining a proper scale and distance. …

The point is never understanding; it is always distance. More precisely, a safe distance. … The much remarked-upon abundance of detail in My Struggle is not revealing, not sublime, not meaning-infused. The profuse description is only another distancing mechanism, a way the author pushes off. Knausgaard’s so-called “realism” is only the senseless, resistant substance he is hacking his way through.

All of which leads Parker back to a comparison of Knausgaard’s father’s diary with Knausgaard’s own unwieldy novel. Knausgaard’s “aesthetic program,” Parker says,

demonstrates a basic objection to his father. Namely, that [his father] tried to create distance by fiat, by detachment, and by drinking. The diary is a chronicle that holds experience at arm’s length, rendering it as compact as possible. The son’s novel also creates distance, but by the opposite means: distance cannot be merely affirmed with a sneer, and drinking is only a temporary and reversible means of producing it.

We’re at a point in the publication of My Struggle when there exists, on the one hand, a broad critical consensus on the purposes of Knausgaard’s aesthetic program, and, on the other hand, a kind of critical inoculation to its effects which has led to a largely underwhelming response to Knausgaard’s fourth volume. It’s refreshing, then, to come across a re-evaluation of Knausgaard as provocative as Parker’s — an attempt to overturn the existing consensus, and to challenge the assumptions it encourages Knausgaard’s readers to make, in order to reinvigorate our capacity to appreciate the subtleties and dynamics of My Struggle.