My phone rang on the table in front of me. It was my younger's son number. I picket it up and said that I would call him back later.
'I am lost,' he said. 'I don't know where I am.'
Holding the phone to my chest I told that there was a minor emergency and that we would take a short break....I asked my son whether he could see a sign with a road name on it."
'I'll just look,' he said.
I could hear traffic in the background and the sound of his breathing. After a while he gave me the name of the street, and I asked him what on earth he was doing there.
'I am trying to get to school,' he said.
I asked why he wasn't going to school the way I had arranged for him this week, with friend Mark and Mark's mther.
'Mark isn't coming to school today,' he said. 'He's ill.'
I told him to turn around and walk back the way he had come, telling me the name of each street he passed, and when he reached the right one I told him to turn down it and carry straight on. After a few minutes, during which I listened to his puffing breath and the tapping of his feet on the pavement, he said: 'I can see it, I can see the building, it's all right, I can see the building.'--Rachel Cusk (2014) Outline, pp. 150-1.
There is something dissonant about quoting this passage. It does not have a memorable line, in the way, it seems, just about every other page of the book has. It is also not representative, in a certain sense, for the novel's conceit. (I call it a novel, but not much happens. It reminded me a bit of the film, Night on Earth.)
The narrator is an English (or English speaking) writer who is teaching a week-long, creative writing class one hot summer in Athens (Greece). The phone-call interrupts the class. After the quoted paragraph, the next paragraph starts, "in the classroom the group was waiting..." For much of the book, the first-personal narrator is an attentive, almost passive listener. (We follow her around, as she listens to other people's stories.) In fact, shortly after this scene, she claims that she "had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unremarked by self-will as possible." (170) She has an interesting explanation for her passivity; she treats it as a decision, which, itself, is a consequence of frustrated desire and her inability to accept the mismatch between what she wanted and what she could have.* From a similar mismatch, the great systems of morality, political vision, and religion are born as well as the grotesque techniques of personal transformation. Cusk’s Outline revisits the effects of such mediated mismatches throughout her fascinating novel (recall my post on her Aftermath). It would make a good blog post.
But today I digress. Through the quoted passage we are made to be aware that for all of the narrator’s passivity, she has maternal ties and responsibilities to others that are dependent on her. She is literally always available to them—one can decide to turn off the mobile phone during one’s lectures, after all, even do without such a device altogether. This dependence goes quite far: her young child has a mobile phone, but does not seem to know how to use maps.google; even when her arrangements fail, he can still rely on his absent, yet ever-at-hand, mom.
In reading the passage, I was a bit baffled: kids don't get lost like that anymore. Which is why I interpret it is a symbol of dependence. Now, one may think that the absence of maps.google is a mere oversight. Yet, technology matters greatly to the book: on the back page (where one sometimes finds acknowledgments in novels) we are explained that the photograph cover photo is an "example of solarisation a technique rediscovered by Man Ray and the photographer Lee Miler, who was his assistant, muse and lover." The novel really starts aboard a plane on the tarmac at Heathrow.
But is notable that the novel is book-marked by two intrusive men: one (who disappears from the novel) is a nameless software billionaire (with ‘liberal credentials’) who, creepily, has access to her itinerary; the second a thrice-divorced Greek by now elderly man, who is not especially attractive or interesting (she could only feel ‘absolute ambivalence’ (184))** about him, but despite this she goes with him on two boat trips. He is a kind of nameless everyman; he is called 'neighbour' throughout the novel. On the second boat trip, he tries to kiss her which she does not want. The novel closes with the information that the narrator has been ignoring his text messages since their second outing. So, oddly, one feature these two men have in common, in addition to not accepting boundaries, is the use of technology to reach (and track) her.
In reflecting on my puzzlement, I noticed that the internet is never mentioned in the book. It's not because the novel is supposed to take place, say, in the 1980s (or early 90s). Its decidedly contemporary: there are smart phones in the book, and we encounter Athens ravaged by the financial crisis. Most of the book reads like an extended diary by an especially astute observer who is attentive to detail. Yet, somehow, along the way, she has effaced facebook, google, snapchat, twitter, youtube, etc. So what we get is a peculiar illusion: an apparently contemporary novel in which talk and the imagination matters so much that we are liable to forget the little screens that draw our attention (and on which you may be reading this post).
That is to say, the book tries to enact something it calls "the shared world of imagination"--a "shared vision of things that strictly speaking could not have said to exist." As readers, each of us is invited to imagine seeing the world as the narrator sees it. And this is a world in which technology does not guide our imagination. And as it happens, this "is one definition of love, the belief in something that only the two of you can see;" a bit like the son and his narrator-mom.
I could stop there, but I'll add this thought. Of course, good story-telling relies on the reader's individual imagination; while each of us read the same text of (say) the (same) novel, it's very likely we each experience -- through the train of associations and differential attention -- a somewhat different novel. And so, peculiarly, while we may both appreciate the same novel, the love we may feel for it, the shared vision of our individual readership and the text, will be distinct. Unless, perhaps, we talk about the novel.
*She explains in a striking -- striking because the moral psychology seems flawed, yet rings true (to me) --passage:
"trying...was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become -- to put it bluntly -- anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted the things I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all." (170-171)
**It is notable that ambivalence runs through this life: his own mom had treated him "with a special ambivalence, in that his mother wishes to believe he was a girl." (9)