Dialogic Intimacy, Temporal Fluidity, and First-Person Free-Indirect in Rachel Cusk’s Outline
D. W. White
If people were all the same, she said, and shared a single point of view, it would of course make us so much easier organise. And that, she said, is where the real problems start.–Kudos
The mind, we are told by Cartesian philosophy, is separate from the body. It exists on its own, invisible, inherent, indispensable. It is in the combination of mind and body, a vital if uneven relationship, where human life, in some manner, comes into being. Je pense, donc je suis. Descartes himself believed that the mind could carry on without a body, that it was the thinking matter towards which the universe aligned. In her Outline trilogy, Rachel Cusk demonstrates something of this concept in formulation of her own—even if, in true English fashion, she’s far more the empiricist. In following its protagonist across three novels, the reader of Cusk’s most groundbreaking work delimits the frontiers of consciousness-forward fiction.
With Outline, via her innovative use of point-of-view, Rachel Cusk achieves in the first person a degree of temporal fluidity and dialogic intimacy typically only found in third, a spotlighting of the mind that is able to remove itself from its own fictive body even as it tells that body’s story. Should Descartes be correct, and his own mind somehow lives on, he would perhaps enjoy a series of novels that explore with fearless ingenuity the limits of consciousness, and just how far from its body a thought can stray.
On one level of analysis, a novel can be separated into two modes—separate, à la Descartes’ dualism, but here of equivalent importance. The narrative function describes those aspects of a book which operate as, quite simply, the story. A character storming out of a room to confront a cheating spouse, a protagonist agonizing over what to wear in advance of having brunch with her mother-in-law, the detective going back to the crime scene after a flash of insight—these are all examples of narrative actions. Textual functions, on the other hand, are those that inform theme, character arc, mood, tone, etc. Moments, in other words, where the book acts ‘as a book’, where design and craftsmanship come into play. The most effective writing unites these functions simultaneously, telling its story while advancing the philosophical-theoretical concerns of the novel. When the protagonist decides to dress in all black, with a small raven-charm necklace, she is not only getting ready as a fictional person who has a brunch to attend, but is also imbuing the book she inhabits with themes of death, mourning, or ill-omen; the scene has functioned both narratively and textually.(2) The meeting place of these novelistic Dioscuri is point-of-view, the element in which the character moves in relation to the plot and the novel is crafted as a work of artistic achievement.
To further understand point-of-view, in the Outline series or in any novel, one must look to the book’s central question, the underlying why. Within Cusk’s trilogy—which, as we shall see, is constructed in a loose Dantean parallel across Outline, Transit, and Kudos—this raison d’être is deceptively easy to find. What is the cost of an attempt to understand a person through her conversations, experiences, and interactions with others, rather than a direct telling of her own story? Our protagonist, almost always unnamed, is English, a recently divorced mother of two, and a novelist of some moderate renown. She makes her living by teaching creative writing and participating in professional readings and other events. In order to fully realize her grand ambitions, Cusk needs a point-of-view that is at once intimate and distant, one that is centered around and emanates from a single protagonist while preserving her elusive identity across three novels and more than seven hundred pages. To accomplish this, Cusk fabricates an original method of both consciousness presentation and point-of-view itself, forming a precise way of achieving the goals of her books and uniting the narrative and textual functions.
To demonstrate this, we will study Cusk’s technical-mechanical approach, taking into account aspects of structuralist and stylistic theory, in hopes of uncovering not only the essentials of her method within the trilogy, but also of analyzing how she is able to attain mastery of more advanced fictive elements—namely, temporal fluidity and dialogic intimacy—typically only found in third-person fiction. It is among Cusk’s great achievements that she manages all this within a deceptively simple plot—the trilogy unfolds in a series of conversations, slowly revealing the identity of our heroine through the people she meets and the stories she hears. To modify Descartes, perhaps: je parle, donc je suis.
Et tu, Brute?: First-Person Free-Indirect Discourse
Before investigating those more advanced questions, let us study more closely the baseline technique which makes everything possible. Cusk’s first-person free-indirect, as it has been called elsewhere,(3) is essentially a sustained application of a very common third-person narrative method, only in the first-person. Free-indirect discourse goes by several names but, in short, is the blending of narration and a character’s interiority—any paragraph, sentence, or even phrase that can be plausibly read simultaneously as both ‘spoken’ by the narrative entity and thought by the character at a given moment.(4) So, how does Cusk use this bedrock of third-person narration in the Outline series, and what makes it so effective a strategy given the concerns and constraints of her trilogy?
In Transit, the second novel, the protagonist first encounters a man with whom she’d had a romantic entanglement years prior, Gerard. Running into him and his daughter on the street, we find a wonderfully neat example of Cusk’s first-person free-indirect discourse:
After we had greeted one another, and expressed an astonishment that on my side was feigned since I had already seen him once without him seeing me, Gerard introduced the small girl as his daughter.
‘Clara,’ she said in a firm, high quivering voice, when I asked her name.
Gerard asked how old mine were now, as though the bald fact of parenthood might be softened if I were impacted in it too. He said he had seen me interviewed somewhere—it was probably years ago now, to be honest—and the description of my house on the Sussex coast had made him quite envious. The South Downs were one of his favourite parts of the country. He was surprised, he said, to find me back here in the city.(5)
Here in the London morning, the narrative and the textual collide with the elegant force that is on constant display throughout the trilogy. To whom, precisely, does the probably belong? In true free-indirect fashion, both the protagonist and Gerard—as it comes in the middle of a summative part of the dialogue, it plausibly belongs to the protagonist, while the speculative nature and the ‘to be honest’ that follows lends it a conversational tone more appropriate to Gerard. In essence, Cusk’s protagonist has taken on the role of a third-person narrative entity, reproducing Gerard’s conversation with the nimble mechanics of a detached narration.(6)
Beyond the finer mechanical points, there is a choice example of Cusk refracting her ephemeral protagonist—whose sketching out via her interactions with others is the focal point of the entire trilogy—around the mass of those she meets. The first sentence takes, at first glance, a rather odd construction. With closer inspection we can see that the ‘astonishment’ is expressed on two levels, a sort of Schrodinger’s Astonishment, perhaps. On one hand, the narrator clearly outwardly agreed with Gerald as to the unexpected nature of their running into each other. On the other, she of course is not all that surprised, having espied him before, but, in an illustrative display, chooses to forgo that revelation. The passage goes a step further, however. The very structure of the sentence is doing work—by placing the partially feigned astonishment first, Cusk prioritizes the belief of the secondary actor over that of the narrator herself. In other words, even within this fairly nondescript sentence, it is only through negative space, by being something that another person is not (here: astonished, but throughout the book: possessing the long-sought identity that is her own), that the protagonist is given shape.(7) Of course it should not be overlooked, too, that the protagonist’s children are glossed over, even as Gerard’syoung daughter asserts her name, in a ‘firm’ voice, while that of our narrator stays (almost) completely hidden.(8)
The point-of-view in the Outline trilogy is perhaps the best illustration in modern fiction of Mark Shoerer’s concept of technique meeting subject matter.(9) Cusk elides not only the narration, as in the usual third-person use of the technique, but she manages to elide the protagonist as well. In scene after scene, the fictive present is suddenly subsumed by the narrative entity with a fictive past recounting of whichever character shares the stage with Faye. Cusk’s use of first-person free-indirect allows her to slip her protagonist—who, of course, is on a quest to find herself, both narratively and textually—behind the story-within-a-story of each of the people she meets. This gives every page and every encounter of the trilogy an immediacy, a direct tie to that feeling which is at the heart of the work as a whole—Faye’s journey as she is, in effect, filled in against an outline of the others around her, forming identity from the world that she explores.(10)
We have seen what we mean by first-person free-indirect, and its nexus to the narrative and technical functions of Cusk’s Outline trilogy. Next, we shall move on to the finer, and more remarkable, points of this method, the depths that grant her work its power and status as a landmark of the novelistic art.
No Time Like The Present: Temporal Fluidity and Temporal Fixity
Before turning to the forging of dialogic relationships between Faye and her interlocutors, we can first stop at Cusk’s temporal flexibility, the movement in time she is able to achieve via the memories of characters besides her own narrator—something that, in the first-person, is remarkable. In the close third-person novels of the High Modernist tradition, inner temporal fluidity within a temporally limited fictive present is a foundational system.(11) In a typical first-person novel, too, there is a great deal of temporal movement, even if the actual reactive present events—the time of the characters within the plot—is limited, due to the easy and continuous access the narrator has to his or her own memories. However, in Outline, we see temporal movement within other characters’ inner worlds, an ability to quickly traverse years in the minds of those our protagonist encounters—even as the fictive present time of all these encounters is notably short and fixed, being as they nearly all are brief conversations in restaurants or on walks. While we are given so little direct information about our narrator as to make her story, in one sense, timeless, her mode of storytelling is such that vast swaths of other peoples’ pasts are taken up and used as fuel for her own narrative. Add to all this that none of it is achieved through direct speech or unwieldy exposition, but the entwining of consciousness allowed for by Cusk’s narrative mode.
The first of Faye’s partners in conversation is her neighbor on the plane she takes to Athens, en route to teach a writing workshop. He invites her out on his boat, motoring briskly through the Aegean and telling her his lamentable life story:
He was [then] thirty-six years old and still felt the force of exponential growth in his veins, of life straining to burst the vessel in which it had been contained. He could have it all again, with the difference that this time he would want what he had…It was nearly thirty years [now] since his first marriage ended, and the further he got from that life, the more real it became to him…the older he got, the more it represented to have a kind of home, a place to which he yearned to return.(12)
The speed and efficiency of the temporal movement here is of a third-person calibre—it is the type of fluidity one might find in a very close narration granting direct access to a character’s interiority. Again by eliding her own narrator, Cusk reaches the freely-associative past and accessed memories of other characters with a third-person immediacy. This allows for Faye’s story to be refracted through theirs, much in the way of her overall identity. At this crucial time in her life, one of change and destabilization—we learn, indirectly, that Faye has recently been divorced—when her life’s story is being called into question, Cusk’s narrator foregrounds the turbulent pasts of those she meets. This pattern continues—in order to learn something about Faye’s current, fictive life, we are treated to a conversation she has with a character who dealt, long ago, with a similar situation. Neither character nor creator, too, offer much in the way of reflection—Cusk lets her heroine find her own way, and Faye in turn does the same with us.
The above quote, too, serves as something of a statement of intent for our narrator’s journey. Hers will be a quest to get back home, to return to some identity of herself, and she shall take the long, circuitous, oblique route to do so. That this raison d’être is outlined by the experiences of another is, of course, no accident. Much as in all three novels, the narrative and textual functions are in precise alignment. This is both the first sustained look at Cusk’s innovative and ingenious technique while also a moment when our narrator reflects on where she is in life at the outset of her trip. Here, in short, is Cusk laying out her expansive trilogy within the first dozen pages, setting down the contract between novel and audience.(13) It will be a return home, a reassertion and rediscovery of identity, a journey made by Faye in conversation and aside, through Odyssean trials towards something like herself.
Much of what makes the Outline series work as three volumes and not a single book is that in answering her central question Cusk asserts that her method is precisely the wrong one. What makes the final enunciation of Faye’s name at the very end effective is that it is realized only after the extended journey, the difficult process of sketching the outline of herself. Everything up to then has been circuitous, indirect, on the oblique; we come to understand that the best way to answer the central question would have been to ask her ourselves, as it were. But, failing that, we must take the long way, and the result is a trilogy of depth, power, and perception.
Entre Nous: Dialogic Intimacy
In her stylistic study Consciousness in Modern Fiction, Violeta Sotirova offers an insightful look at dialogic consciousness, or the unification of multiple characters’ interiority across perspective(14) lines, linking them via the narration to enrich the fabric of the novel.(15) The aquatic opening quoted above also serves as a fine starting point for our look at dialogic intimacy in Outline. Like the heroic philosopher of Plato’s cave, as we move through Cusk’s trilogy, our eyes adjust, and we gradually realize that it is through these very conversations, the ones in which we learn so little directly about the protagonist herself, that we will come to understand her. The free-indirect mechanics, the removal of the narrator as delineated conspicuous intermediator, establishes the type of dialogic relationship usually only found in third-person, where the narrative entity is able to have the freedom of cross-consciousness movement. In short, Faye’s narrative style is such that she removes any boundaries between her own life and the recollected experiences of those she meets, using them to tell her story, ventriloquist par excellence.
To return to Outline’s moment on the boat: while Faye is ostensibly relating what her neighbor from the plane said, she’s really telling us about herself. She recounts his discussion of his failed marriages, his worries about his children, that what-might-have-beens of his life, because those are the issues that weigh on her mind as well—it is through what she notices and remembers about her encounters that she herself begins to take shape. In the best early example, he is telling her about his fractured relationship with his first wife:
She didn’t answer his calls, or answered them curtly, distractedly, saying she had to go. She could not be called upon to recognise him, and this was the most bewildering thing of all, for it made him feel absolutely unreal. It was with her, after all, that his identity had been forged: if she no longer recognised him, then who was he?(16)
This is true dialogic intimacy, a connection in which a first-person narrator becomes close enough to those she meets to enable them to be the vehicles to her own self-expression. The method is on the surface level, but the result is born out across the series. As a textual function the quote is a sterling example of first-person free-indirect, one so advanced as to allow us direct observation of her neighbor’s self-interrogation, a typical hallmark of intermediate-range third-person narration. On the level of the narrative function, the passage’s question could quite clearly be applied to our heroine herself; the fact that it is this section of his story that she remembers and chooses to tell illustrates her own situation. It is this connection—one made possible by the technical-mechanical innovations in point-of-view between the protagonist’s current mental state, her reflections on whatever the point in her journey in which she happens to be, and what she chooses to highlight in the conversations with her interlocutors—that creates this level of dialogic intimacy.
The next person she meets is her writer friend, Ryan, with whom she walks through Athens. Faye’s guilt about leaving her children to teach the writing workshop—and the associated questions of feminism, motherhood, and agency that are foundational to the series as a whole—can be glimpsed via the parts of their conversation she chronicles.
It was a shame the wife and kids couldn’t see it [Athens] too, but he was determined not to ruin it by feeling guilty…there was no reason he shouldn’t feel he’d earned it. And to be perfectly honest, the kids slowed you down: first thing this morning he’d walked up to the Acropolis, before the heat got too intense, and he couldn’t have done that with them in tow, could he?…he wouldn’t have felt it, as he was able to feel it this morning, airing the shaded crevices of his being.(17)
Further reinforcing the connection-by-association is the negative implication of Ryan’s determination to vacation guilt-free—as a father—contrasted with our narrator’s angst over leaving her children—as a mother. As noted in the previous section, such examples abound, each showing another piece of our heroine’s identity, shaded in by implication. What is remarkable is that we have virtually no direct evidence of how the narrator feels; occasionally we are told how she felt at some earlier time, but almost never in the fictive present. Everything is by implication; her first-person story is merely a story of many other people, shards of glass that eventually make up the entire mirror. She is a recorder, one of which, by virtue of Cusk’s technique and her structural decisions, we eventually are granted a fuller and clearer picture. This approach could only work via an entirely new point-of-view, one that can quickly and sustainedly slip around the first-person narrator while retaining enough of her individuality to paint the world in her image. This, then, is the epicenter of Cusk’s achievement.
Mikhail Bakhtin, in elucidating his theory of discourse in the novel, holds that “[w]hat is realized in the novel is the process of coming to know one’s own language as it is perceived in someone else’s language, coming to know one’s own belief system in someone else’s system”. (18) While he is discussing structures of language across socio-cultural systems, there is a resonance and a relevance to Cusk’s technique on the levels of sentence and character in Outline. Faye exists within the language of others, she is defined and shaped by them—but because she is first-person narrator, as slippery and ephemeral as she may be, these conversations are transformed back into an exercise of her own agency, as an observer, a narrator, and a character.
To return to the scene in Transit when she meets Gerard—it is there, at the beginning of the second novel, where Faye seems to impart to us the length of the journey still to come. Gerard, as she sees, has completed the process that she is undergoing within the trilogy. He was an outline long ago, when she left him, and he has now filled himself in. As he tells how he met his wife, we can see the temporal flexibility discussed above while achieving one of the series’ more striking moments of dialogic intimacy:
By failing he created loss, and loss was the threshold to freedom: an awkward and uncomfortable threshold, but the only one he had ever been able to cross…He had destroyed the thing she [his current wife] loved most; she, in her turn, had exposed him to failure through expectations he was unable to fulfill. Without meaning to, they had found one another’s deepest vulnerabilities: they had arrived, by this awful shortcut, at the place where for each of them a relationship usually ended, and set out from there.(19)
This passage encapsulates a larger section that serves as a mirror to the tearing down and the building up of her own life Faye will have to undergo in order to complete her process of self-discovery. Outside Clara’s elementary school we find ourselves in Transit’s Inferno, after Outline’s Purgatorio—the journey will be long and fraught, as seen through Gerard’s past, but there is a light at the end, as seen through Gerard’s present, content and at peace in the temperate English morning.
As Faye continues in her quest, these moments stack atop one another to ever-increasing effectiveness. In the middle of Transit, she is again teaching a writing class, this time at home in London, and must manage a rather difficult pupil:
I found myself wondering who exactly she was: there was a sense of drama about her that seem to invite only two — responses either to become absorbed or to walk away. Yet the prospect of absorption seem somehow arduous: I recalled her remarks about the draining nature of students and thought how often people betrayed themselves by what they noticed.(20)
The point-of-view here is a very traditional, first-person observational approach,(21) but one that makes use of Cusk’s incredible sense of detail and scenic description—a consistent strength in the trilogy, and the element which provides the forward momentum in a series of novels composed nearly entirely of scene and ellipsis, in Gérard Genette’s terminology(22)—to form the dialogic interconnectivity between Faye and her student.
While this essay could run to novelistic lengths itself in choosing examples, we shall limit ourselves to one choice selection from Kudos(23). At a literary conference, the narrator runs into a woman with whom she had spoken at a similar event many years prior. As their conversation picks up, Faye begins telling this woman of how her own description of her hometown has stayed with her, in effect becoming a part of Faye’s own story:
The quality of the town’s silence, she had said, was something she only really noticed when she went elsewhere, two places where the air was filled with the drone of traffic and of music blaring out of restaurants and shops and the cacophony from the relentless construction sites where buildings were forever being torn down and then put up again.(24)
This is an evolution of the technique to the extent that the protagonist now elides herself and the other character, thereby ending up back at herself. She is telling the story of her own memory of another’s story, back to that same person, separated from their younger selves by only time. The two women, having a conversation about a conversation they shared years ago, have seen their recollections collapse into each other, and level of dialogic intimacy so advanced that to separate the two would render the scene an ontological impossibility.
For a final excerpt, we return to what is probably the best of the three novels, and observe its great strength—a haunting, suffusive descriptive ability that pulls the world to the page. Late in Transit, Cusk begins to grants a modest yet significant amount of direct access to her protagonist’s inner world, at times shifting the focal point of the dialogic connection to be one with Faye’s journey itself, a process that continues to build in the trilogy’s second half. Driving through the gloomy English countryside, our narrator seems to embody the very road she traverses:
The submerged shapes of trees showed faintly along the roadside like objects imprisoned in ice. At certain points the fog became so thick that it was blinding. The car felt its way along, sometimes nearly colliding with the steep verge when a corner loomed up unexpectedly. The road unfurled with an apparently inexhaustible slowness and monotony, only ever showing the part of itself that lay immediately ahead. It was entirely possible that I would crash at any moment. The feeling of danger was merged with an almost pleasurable sense of anticipation, as though some constraint or obstruction was about to be finally torn down, some boundary broken on the other side of which lay release.(25)
It is not difficult to see the parallel to Faye’s own life, the way in which she reacts to the world around her as she endeavors to find herself. That world, as we have seen, is often made up of other people, but it is just as powerfully, if not more so, at times made up of the physical reality of that raw, undulating England Cusk is so adept in describing.
It is the business of the novelist, like all artists, to make alchemy of life, to transpose and transform the ordinary and the everyday into the literary form. Midway through her Commedia, Cusk’s narrator finds herself in the darkness—of the road to her cousin’s house, of her own life, of her narrative method. She is a shapeless entity to whom the story of three novels has been entrusted, the apparition who blindly lights the way. Ghost and machine, character and identity, are one and the same, yet there still remains a long, tortuous journey towards reconciliation.
That Faye emerges as one of the most detailed, perspicacious, and living protagonists in recent fiction is a testament to the power of her creator—not Descartes’ deus, but a fabricator of more subtle and worldly gifts. In the Outline series, Rachel Cusk asks how much of ourselves we can know by those around us, how brightly the mysteries of the mind can be illuminated by the machinations of the body. Her answer to these questions is, like so much else of her oeuvre, at once comprehensive and equivocal, resulting in a revolutionary technique which transcends the old, the familiar, and the understood, to illuminate a new outline of the novel as an art form.
1. Cusk, Kudos, 104.
2. These terms have something in common with the semi-related narratologist and stylistic concepts of fabula and syuzhet, histoire and discours, mimesis and diegesis, or whichever one likes.
3. This essay is an adaption from and expansion of a previous work by the author on point-of-view in several of Cusk’s novels. The Revolution Comes from Within: Interiority and Point of View in Selected Works of Rachel Cusk, published in A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Dec. 2022. www.athinsliceofanxiety.com/2022/12/essay-revolution-comes-from-within.html?m=1
4. For the most succinct and digestible explanation of direct vs. indirect vs. free-indirect discourse available anywhere, see Wood, How Fiction Works, 5-19.
5. Cusk, Transit, 11.
6. So, while in third-person we would typically see the “omniscient” narration reproduce the thoughts of the point-of-view character in a manner that could be read as belonging to both, here it is the first-person narrator who narrates the conversation between her and another character in such a manner.
7. Of course she does make decisions, many of them, in fact. Whom she engages in conversation with, the details she notices, the places she goes—these are all examples of indirect characterization. This, too, fits the central issues; after all, it is an outline being sketched, not an entire person. Even a negative space possesses its own borders.
8. The name of Cusk’s narrator—Faye—is mentioned only once in each novel, usually in an uncomfortable or otherwise strange moment, and most notably at the very end, during Kudos’ astonishing finale.
9. “Technique as Discovery.” Schorer’s piece is especially insightful when discussing the connection between point-of-view and thematic definition, 68-9. These terms are further cousins of our narrative and textual functions. This point could be said of Cusk’s other (perhaps even greater) masterpiece Arlington Park, as well, but Outline does it so brightly and for so sustained a period that it takes the plaudit.
10. This is not unheard of in contemporary fiction—Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversion being perhaps the most well known; Lucy Corin’s Everyday Psychokillers and Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women two other fine examples—but Cusk is probably the innovator and surely the master of the technique.
—Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michel Holquist, 259–422. University of Texas Press, 1981.
—Cusk, Rachel. Kudos. New York: Picador, 2019.
—Cusk, Rachel. Outline. New York: Picador, 2016.
—Cusk, Rachel. Transit. New York: Picador, 2018.
—Friedman, Norman. “Point of View in Fiction: The Development of a Critical Concept.” PMLA 70, no. 5 (1955): 1160-184.
—Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Translated by Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.
—Popkey, Miranda. Topics of Conversation. New York: Knopf, 2020.
—Schorer, Mark. “Technique as Discovery.” The Hudson Review 1, no. 1 (1948): 67-87.
—Scanlon, Suzanne. Promising Young Women. St. Louis, MO: Dorothy, A Publishing Project, 2012.
—Sotirova, Violeta. Consciousness in Modern Fiction: A Stylistic Study. London: Palgrave, 2013.
—Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.
D. W. White writes consciousness-forward fiction and criticism. Currently pursuing his Ph.D. in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he serves as Founding Editor of L’Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review. His writing appears in 3:AM, The Florida Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Necessary Fiction, and Chicago Review of Books, among several others. Before returning to Chicago, he lived in Long Beach, California, for nine years, where he began his literary commedia. He can still hear the waves.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Ostopovich lives on the frozen plains of Canada with her family and five crazy pets. She is currently working on her first novel. Pen and Ink on Paper.