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16 October 2014

How to disappear completely: the novel as an exercise in self-scrutiny

On self and voice in new novels by Rachel Cusk and Will Eaves.

By Leo Robson

Outline 
Rachel Cusk
Faber & Faber, 256pp, £16.99

The Absent Therapist 
Will Eaves
CB Editions, 122pp, £8.99

Towards the end of Rachel Cusk’s new novel, the narrator, a tight-lipped novelist, meets a playwright with a problem. Whenever she conceives a new piece of work, she finds herself describing it too neatly. “Why go to the trouble to write a great long play about jealousy,” she asks, “when jealousy just about summed it up?”

It’s the same question that the American essayist David Shields asked from the reader’s perspective about conventionally constructed novels such as Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity: why wade through several hundred pages in order “to get the handful of insights that were the reason the book was written”? The fashionable way around this putative Aesop’s corner, in which realist story­telling is just a labour-intensive form of allegory-building, has been to give the insights about jealousy – or their equivalent – a greater degree of directness, drawing on first-hand experience and adopting the essayist’s straight talk.

That was the road taken by Shields in the 1990s, when his novel-in-progress about “the immense power of the camera lens on our lives” mutated into Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity. It was also the road taken by Karl Ove Knausgaard about 15 years later when he pushed against writing a “realistic but fictional work” about his father and embarked instead on A Death in the Family, the first of six digressive memoirs published under the collective title My Struggle.

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In Outline, Cusk tweaks that winning formula, combining an embrace of personal experience with a retreat from personal expression. The novel’s factual component is substantial: the narrator goes on pretty much the same British Council trip to Athens that Cusk herself did. But self-revelation is nowhere to be found. The Cusk figure encounters a couple of businessmen, various writers, a group of writing students, a publisher, all of them highly talkative. Occasionally she shares an opinion with the reader (“I remained dissatisfied by the story of his second marriage”) but mostly she confines herself to listening and describing – a reflection of her need to find “a different way of living in the world”, less concerned with winning and wanting, more attuned to the “virtues of passivity”.

An author whose memoirs – the most recent being Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation – have prompted howls of dissent would be forgiven for taking refuge in the “fiction” element of novel-writing but writers don’t get to choose their impulses and Cusk’s clearly tend towards autobiography. The difference between her memoirs (and the burgeoning memoir-essay form) on the one hand and her new, memoir-ish novel on the other is the remoteness of the Cusk character, which undermines the usual charge of narcissism or exhibitionism, leaving only the ones about her spite and coldness. (The initial run of her memoir The Last Supper: a Summer in Italy had to be pulped after someone depicted in the book threatened legal action.)

The result is peculiar and fascinating, though not altogether innovative. While Cusk’s use of real, comparatively mundane personal experience derives from a recent enthusiasm – “The best book I read this year was Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family,” she wrote in 2012 – the blankness of the narration shows the belated influence of W G Sebald (Austerlitz was one of her books of the year in 2001).

A Sebald-like reticence is applied to Knausgaard terrain, with a particular aim in view. In considering “the meaning of Sebald’s ‘I’”, Cusk wrote that his books trace “the process by which the artist erases himself”, striving to “become” what he “observes”. Becoming what she observes is an ambition more devotedly pursued by Cusk’s narrator than by Sebald’s stand-ins, who are hardly averse to pontificating, though in other respects Outline cleaves to the method of The Emigrants, in which the narrator lends an ear to four men whose testimonies, trading heavily in epigram and epiphany, are reported as indirect speech.

Sebald’s experiments weren’t polemical or oppositional, like those of David Shields, but in a late interview, he offered passing disparagement of novels dealing with “relationship problems in Kensington in the late 1990s”. It’s a description that, if expanded to include other parts of London and a bit of the provinces and a decade on either side, applies to almost all of Cusk’s past work. The distinctiveness of that work makes Sebald’s clever tag look shallow. On the other hand, you wouldn’t confuse Outline with any of Cusk’s previous novels – and Sebald and Knausgaard have enabled that leap into the relative unknown.

But Cusk departs from those writers in refusing to offer clarity. Knausgaard imposes himself, plainly communicating his feelings and opinions, and Sebald speaks through others by letting others speak through him – whereas Cusk whisks her novel’s voices into a cloud, planting a few references apiece to marital breakdown, the challenges of wealth, the quest for an objective vantage point (free from “bias” and “extremes”), but otherwise allowing the novel to mean nothing in particular.

In his fight against the realist novel, David Shields recommended not just “overt meditation”, ideally on real events, but also collage forms that explore underlying themes such as “sexual desire, anger, despair” or “love, terror and imagination” – an ideal fusion being The Emigrants, in which a meditating narrator presents miscellaneous narratives on a single theme. While Outline does without the overtness and the cohesion, Will Self, a no less conscious emulator, has gone in very strongly for cohesion in his recent novel Shark, which uses narratives separated in time and space to reveal the centrality of the shark as an image of predatoriness to modern culture, a tour that takes in Hiroshima and Steven Spielberg.

Self’s version of Sebald is a writer aiming not for self-erasure but for the presentation of a historical vision, his solipsistic “I” doubling, in Self’s words, as “a triumphantly synoptic eye”. It is virtually the opposite of Cusk’s Sebald – which partly accounts for the difference in their books. Reading Shark, like reading Cusk’s linked story collection The Lucky Ones, is an act of synthesis, whereas Outline prompts a series of largely isolated responses. For Self, the one-word title makes a useful linchpin, establishing a central programme of unity through diversity. For Cusk, it merely announces or confirms the impressionist agenda (even the book’s font is sans serif).

Outline has more in common with a work that shows no Sebald influence, Will Eaves’s novel The Absent Therapist, than with a work, such as Shark, that proceeds from a vision of Sebald as strident. Eaves’s novel unfolds over a series of divided paragraphs, in which unnamed characters – some recurring, some not – deliver brief comic monologues on subjects including artificial intelligence, holidays and (again) Steven Spielberg.

An epigraph taken from Corinthians says that none of the world’s many voices is “without signification”, but Eaves is careful to stop the signification of individual voices from building to a whole. In Shark, whose therapist figure – the anti-psychiatrist Zack Busner – is present on almost every page, drawing parallels, joining up the dots, the cacophony of voices makes a symphonic <span style="letter-spacing:
-.1pt”>sound; in Eaves’s novel, it stays a cacophony. (For Eaves, as for Cusk, this approach has provided a route away from the more or less conventional English social novel.)

Perhaps the only way of getting a firm hold on Outline and The Absent Therapist – both shortlisted for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize for bold and original fiction – is to view them as exercises in self-scrutiny by other means; novels that, in refusing to communicate opinions or messages, tell us about their authors’ refusal to communicate opinions or messages. Whatever its other ambiguities, Outline is clearly concerned with how a novelist interacts – and shows the novelist to be a kind of no one, defined by their style of remove, like God or Shakespeare or a shrink. Flipping the analogy, Eaves’s idea of an absent therapist points partly to his own novel’s lack of a narrator and partly to the role of gentle ushering played by a certain kind of novelist. One of the book’s earlier monologues refers to someone talking as if “addressing an ideal person, a sort of absent therapist”. That’s Eaves – ears pricked, mouth closed. (The book’s last words, spoken by the closest we get to an author figure, refer to the sort of understanding “which made me a writer”.)

Later on in the book, another character describes their younger self in a way that recalls this ideal figure – and also the novelist as embodied by Eaves and Cusk; not a confessor or tour guide but a conductor, a medium, at once intuitive and impersonal, receding from the stage to let the characters and reader work things out between themselves: “I didn’t have an identity and I didn’t want one. I was neither boy nor girl, male nor female. I was just a pair of eyes, a nose, some ears. Receiving the world, the brilliant blue sky, people talking above me.” 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer of the New Statesman. The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, in association with the NS, will be announced on 12 November