“I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character – these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”
Rachel Cusk in an interview for The Guardian, August 2014.
For Levy, the line to tread lies between needing facts ‘to tune the reality levels of my books so I can do a deal with the reader and subvert that reality’, and veering away from ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing that has tragically died in the crib’… As a steely, soft-spoken critic of literary orthodoxy, Levy has a gift for languidly dismissive metaphors. Coherence is ‘the bloody, mauled fox’ of the writing process, while rigid narrative convention is ‘a sort of painkiller’ resulting all too often in the ‘sacrifice of poetry on the altar of plot’.
Laura Garmeson, reporting on a seminar given by Deborah Levy on Form and Content in the 21st-century Novel at Birkbeck College.
I recently read Rachel Cusk’s Baileys- and Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Outline, in which a writer travels to Athens to teach a creative writing workshop. She describes the flight, the apartment in which she is staying and its immediate environs in unfussy yet precise, quietly harmonious prose. She recounts in detail her conversations with those she encounters – the businessman who happens to be sitting next to her on the plane, two writers she has dinner with, the students on the course – and her internalised thought processes relating to those conversations. Nothing at all happens, apart from what happens. There is nothing in this novel that might be analogous with ‘narrative tension’. There is no such thing as plot. The book is what it is. It makes no claims for itself. It has the feel and texture of a found document.
The eschewing of plot elements is a very deliberate decision on Cusk’s part, of course, and whether Outline is a thinly fictionalised work of autobiography is beside the point. What Cusk is doing here is something other than ‘telling a story’. She is replicating the fabric of lived experience through the incompatible medium of words.
Cusk’s prose is certainly flawless, an act of mimesis so perfect that as a writer it is almost impossible not to admire it. Such moment-by-moment evocation of ordinary occurrences is notoriously difficult to achieve, the kind of writing that can only succeed through, as Cusk describes it, an ‘annihilated perspective’, a willed invisibility on the part of the writer, style that moves beyond style and into a kind of verbal photo-realism.
But to paraphrase Jerry Leiber, is that all there is to a novel? This question has been preoccupying me ever since I reread Cusk’s interview in the context of having read Outline, and the article about Deborah Levy only added to my feelings of fascination and unease. The warning bell began ringing for me, I think, when I realised why my reaction to Outline was so divided: as a writer, I found the book admirable, an experiment in form and fiction well worth pursuing. As a reader, I couldn’t think of a single reason to continue the book to its end. As a reader, you can learn everything there is to know about Outline in fifty pages (or even fewer, if you feel like being callous about it). As a reader, once you have grasped Cusk’s take on the tyranny of plot, there is nothing here for you. You will exit the narrative in the same semi-passive, semi enervated state in which you entered it.
I find it ironic that in a novel which seeks to annihilate authorial perspective, what you end up with, finally, is a novel that is wholly, tirelessly, overbearingly about authorial perspective: this is how it feels to be a writer, this is how we see, this is what we do, this is how we never switch off because everything is work, everything is live meat, everything must be
exterminated captured and descrrrribed. Yes, fine – as a writer I’m kind of down with that. But as a reader? God, it’s tiresome.
I’m aware even as I write this that I may no longer be properly qualified to speak as a reader, to offer my opinions on what a reader may desire or find provoking. One of the unspoken penalties of being a writer (I’m not going to do a Cusk here, I promise) is that you give up your reader privileges. Everything you read, you read as a writer: what is the author doing, how did they do it, do I like it/hate it/agree with it/find it relevant or irrelevant to what I, as a writer, am trying to do myself? Those moments when you’re completely swept away, when you find yourself so lost in the narrative and your reaction to it – the very feeling that made you want to be a writer in the first place – become vanishingly few. Far more often you find yourself distracted by that crushing sense of yes OK I get it, so what now?
Which makes it all the more rewarding when it does happen. If a novel can succeed in not bugging you, if you find you’ve read 200 pages and not thought once about the next book you absolutely have to read before the month is out, you know you’re on to something amazing.
Need I add that this did not happen for me with Rachel Cusk’s Outline. My two top reads of the year so far have been Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, which is pretty much all description and character (so much for them being dead, then) and Sara Taylor’s The Shore, an act of mimesis every bit as convincing as Cusk’s, yet combined with elements of mystery and speculation that gave that mimesis – yes! – a narrative engine, a sense of urgency and relevance that felt almost entirely lacking in Cusk’s novel.
In terms of its form, there is nothing in the slightest bit revolutionary about The Wolf Border – and yet the power and urgency of the writing, the conviction Hall brings to her narrative, together with a plot hook (the importance of conservation and rewilding) I’m passionate about and (YES, I ADMIT IT!) a protagonist I loved and was totally rooting for, makes this novel a keeper, the kind of book people will still be reading and loving decades from now. The Wolf Border feels like a book Sarah Hall really needed to write and perhaps that’s the entire point.
Sarah Taylor’s The Shore is fired with that same passion for communication, the same depth of resonance – with a landscape, with its people. The Shore is a fractured narrative (my favourite kind) a multiplicity of mini-narratives that build a greater whole. Taylor is not afraid of being elliptical, in other words, she is not afraid to dispense with the concept of linear, mimetic narrative in favour of something more wayward, that owes as much to the imagination as to the author’s inner documentary maker. Yet this is also a novel that feels comfortable with the idea of story, not only as a vehicle for self expression but equally as a necessary and vital component of human experience. It is almost impossible, as a writer, to not bring an element of autobiography into your work. What you bring to the page is yourself, after all – not just your opinions and passions, but the amalgamated sum of your personal experience. This is bound to seep out somehow, no matter what area of literature you choose to work in. And this investment of self in the unlikeliest of places and characters – this is what makes a novel feel true, even if it happens to be set three hundred years in the future (or in sixteenth century London).
I said in an interview recently that as a writer and as a reader I am mostly allergic to linear narrative. I love the idea of ‘the novel’, not simply as a words-on-paper version of a drama or narrative that might just as well be played out on TV (and perhaps more compellingly so) but as a construct, an abstract idea – a symbol of intimate communication between one human mind and another. The novels I enjoy most are novels that play with the idea of what a novel should be – in the characters and events they describe, but mostly in the way they are constructed. I like to be in dialogue with the writer I am reading – I like to feel I am a part of the process, in other words. It doesn’t bother me at all if I’m not always one hundred percent sure of what is going on, or if the novel has loose ends that are never tied up, or if the protagonist is an absolute arse. So long as I feel compelled to discover more about what the writer had in mind.
For the most part, this means there has to be a story, a mystery, a reason for reading. This does not mean eschewing autobiographical or non-fiction techniques – if in doubt, read Emmanuel Carrere or Gordon Burn. It certainly does not mean adhering rigidly to nineteenth century models of narrative realism. But to deliberately withhold all forms of narrative tension, to deny story its importance or its seriousness, seems not only self-aggrandising but also selfish. I’ve ploughed through ‘stories’ that seem so wilful in denying the reader anything approaching ‘hyperintelligible, readable writing’ to quote Levy – so clever, so self-aware, so pedagogic in their pursuit of obscurity they have made me want to go away and read – I don’t know, Jeffrey Archer in retaliation.
I suppose that what I am saying is that as a writer I happen to believe I owe the reader something in return for their investment of time and patience, not to mention money. A reason to go on reading, in other words. A story they can care about, or even love.