Heidi Julavits profiles memoirist and novelist Rachel Cusk for New York Magazine’s The Cut. Julavits focuses on various aspects of Cusk’s writing, including the ways in which her approach to “autofiction” is somewhat different from that of some compatriots in the land of blurred lines between memoir and fiction. Those include Sheila Heti, Ben Learner and Karl Ove Knausgaard, all of whom tend to infuse their protagonists with recognizable strains of their personalities.
Both Outline, which came out in the U.S. in 2015, and Transit are narrated by a woman named Faye, who, like Cusk, is divorced, has two children, and is a writer. Faye describes, or really more accurately transcribes, her encounters with other people. In Outline, she travels to Greece and meets a man on a plane; she goes to a restaurant with a friend; she teaches a writing workshop. She is less an interlocutor than a recording device or a processing machine. She receives. Faye, in literary terms, is a cipher. She is a zero, a naught, a nothing.
In Transit, Faye becomes slightly more “visible” (and audible) via her involvement in a home-renovation project; she converses with contractors and pacifies angry neighbors. Nothing happens, really, but these books are nonetheless gripping self-portraits of multiple humans. They are like eavesdropping on strangers, or watching a secret video feed of strangers, if those strangers were also casual philosophers. The conversations vacillate between the mundane and the lofty, as if the characters — enabled by Faye’s presence — are always grasping at bigger life questions. Outline and Transit both are welcome breaches of privacy that emphasize the intensely shapeless loneliness of people. They are books about middles.
Faye, while she shares biographical data with Cusk and appears to present and process events from Cusk’s actual life, is quite different from the characters devised by other autofiction writers of late — Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgaard — with whom Cusk is frequently grouped. The books of these writers, though distinct from one another, more centrally feature an authorial self; about Heti, for example, Cusk says, “She uses herself, her Sheila-ness, much, much, much more than I do.” Cusk does not, in these novels, use her Cuskness. And yet she’s filtering through a narrator that does not by accident resemble her.