“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.
UPDATE: a postscript on Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper and its place in this literary landscape.