I discovered Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos) last June on some news outlet’s summer reading list. Initially, I borrowed the book from the library, but after reading a couple dozen pages and finding passage after passage I wanted to underline, I capitulated to my desire to mark it up and bought a copy.
In the following passage in the first (and arguably best) novel of the trilogy, Outline, Cusk’s narrator describes the nature of Truth in terms of her two children who previously played happily together daily and were now in a constant state of war:
“Their antagonism was in exact proportion to their former harmony, but where the harmony had been timeless and weightless, the antagonism occupied space and time. The intangible became solid, the visionary was embodied, the private became public: when peace becomes war, when love turns to hatred, something is born into the world, a force of pure mortality. . . Each of them wanted more than anything to be declared right, and the other wrong, but it was impossible to assign blame entirely to either of them. And I realized eventually. . . . that it could never be resolved, not so long as the aim was to establish the truth, for there was no single truth any more, that was the point. There was no longer a shared vision, a shared reality even. Each of them saw things now solely from his own perspective: there was only point of view.”
This excerpt represents Cusk’s main project as an author, as I understand it: to search for captial-t Truth in everything. She asks what conditions Truth requires; she deduces its nature by examining those places where it is absent. She asks her readers to not accept stories at face value, but to accept them insofar as they are True.
For example, in Outline, Cusk’s narrator moves through the world as a spectator and offers herself as a listener. After a character has told Cusk’s narrator his or her story — just when the reader has nearly forgotten there was a character-listener at all — Cusk’s narrator will often challenge the story’s facts and conclusions. For example, after a man seated next to Cusk’s narrator on a flight from London to Athens tells her his life story (unprompted), Cusk’s narrator concludes: “I remained dissatisfied by the story of his second marriage. It lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to those extremes were often incorrect.”
In her Coventry essays, Cusk is just as rigorous with herself as a storyteller as her narrator in Outline is with others. For example, in the title essay “Coventry,” Cusk investigates her parents’ use of the silent treatment against her, concluding: “My mother and father seem to believe they are inflicting a terrible loss on me by disappearing from my life. They appear to be wielding power, but I’ve come to understand that their silence is the opposite of power. It is in fact failure, their failure to control the story, their failure to control me.”
However, the next paragraph begins, “But perhaps it isn’t like that at all.” Cusk goes on to consider an entirely different take on what the silent treatment might represent by discussing its employment among middle school girls. She writes: “By sending someone to Coventry you are in a sense positing the idea of their annihilation, asking how the world would look without them in it.” In this sense, the perpetrators of the silent treatment aren’t “like desperate people taking the last of their possessions to the pawnshop” realizing “a failure so profound that all they have left to throw at it is the value of their own selves” (as she first postulated) — but rather they use it to wage a psychological battle against their victim, i.e., “If other people pretend you’re not there, how long can you go on believing you exist?” And both of these ideas are offered by Cusk herself, on the same page.
Thus Cusk demonstrates how multiple perspectives on a single subject can be capital-t True. The second understanding does not undo the first, but rather reveals the first to be incomplete. This is what I love about Cusk’s writing. One of the biggest challenges for me, as someone who likes to write, is constant self-doubt and ever-evolving understanding of the world, myself, and the stories that make up both. If I decide upon one version of events and their meaning one day, but the next alter it completely – what do I do with that first understanding? Erase it? But how would I have landed at the second without the first? And now, what about a third perspective that hits me tomorrow? How do I ever write anything at all, if my understanding of the world is always changing – if the shape and color of Truth keeps changing within my grasp?
As a reader and writer, I find Truth not only in how Cusk sees the world, but in how she reveals her thinking and writing process. Her stories all contain a writer’s journey of postulating, doubting, re-forming, doubting again, and landing at what can only ever be temporary conclusions. Rather than begin at the end – with a single idea – she reveals how her thinking process begins, builds, partly undoes itself, then builds again. There is no certainty in any conclusion – only in the joy of the continued search.
One of my favorite examples is Cusk’s sharp vision is her description of Walt Disney World in her essay “Lions on Leashes.” She describes Disney as a “world where wish fulfillment had become a moral good yet whose ultimate desire was to obscure the truth.”
This image of Disney World reminded me of my family’s Make-a-Wish week-long trip there in the summer of 2015. As a Make-a-Wish family, we were put up in a “village” for a week called Give Kids the World with other Make-a-Wish families. To me, a cynical 21-year-old jet-lagged after a semester studying abroad in London, it felt like a Candy Land board come to life — or like that dystopian episode of Sesame Street where Elmo wishes it were Christmas every day. At Give Kids the World, Santa and the Easter Bunny come every day and will even tuck you in at night (unless that idea is terrifying to you – as it was to my brother Michael). A Wish Kid, as well as his or her parents and his or her college-aged siblings, can order free pizza and ice cream at any time of the day, go on free fair rides, eat unlimited amounts of dining hall food (at the Gingerbread Palace), swim in the pool, fish in the ever-stocked pond, etc. Fun all day, every day – at least, of the material variety.
The confluence of this colorful, material dream-world with the terminally ill kids it housed was shocking, at least to me. As we rode a golf cart from the Welcome Center to our house on the first day, I saw kids on all kinds of medical machinery being wheeled around under giant Disney sculptures by tired-looking parents. Michael seemed to have no idea of anything particularly exciting in these surreal surroundings, but was excited that our family was together. My brother David and I ordered free ice cream and pizza (not things Michael could enjoy, due to his specialized medically-necessary diet), reluctantly interacting with the overly-cheerful volunteers. As Cusk wrote, “wish fulfillment had become a moral good whose ultimate desire was to obscure the truth,” and yet “the truth had stubbornly continued to insist on itself.”
My memory of our week at Give Kids the World has haunted me for a long time. Why did I hate that place so much? Why is my view of the thing so bleak? The rest of my family did not react even close to as strongly as I did. But now my newfound Cuskian understanding of storytelling and searching comforts me. It’s not that the first version of the story (that Give Kids the World sucks and everything is fake) is not true, but that there remains a perspective by which I can drop deeper into the truth – i.e. move towards captial-T truth. Cusk, rather than trying to make the reader question him or herself, works to make the reader comfortable with uncertainty as a necessary part of the journey to truth.
So maybe it was not like that at all. Maybe Give Kids the World is True for the people it was made to serve – terminally and/or chronically ill children. Kids who only see Santa as Santa – even if he’s played by a different leather-skinned retiree every night. Its goal is not to obscure the truth, but to dare to believe entirely in a child’s perspective of it. And perhaps the experience of college-age Make-a-Wish siblings secretly making fun of the place all week long is an added joy of such an earnest commitment. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll write something else tomorrow. As Cusk says, “A desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language.”