Near the beginning of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov wanders into a seedy tavern, where he is approached by a bloated alcoholic wreck: a former clerk who introduces himself as Marmeladov and asks if they might have a polite conversation. Ignoring Raskolnikov’s obvious reluctance, Marmeladov skips the small talk and plunges into a monologue that lasts for pages and pages: a rambling, self-lacerating narrative of abject misfortune, poverty, addiction, guilt, shame, helplessness, sin, weakness, and betrayal. His long-suffering, consumptive wife, whose stockings he has sold to buy drink, has been beaten up by their exasperated landlord. His beloved daughter has become a prostitute to help feed the family. By the end of the novel, the unsolicited confession of this “useless worm” will turn out to be the thing that Raskolnikov most needed to hear, partly because it comes to mirror his own concerns in ways he could not have predicted during their initial meeting in the tavern.
The novels in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy—Outline (2015), Transit (2017), and the recently published Kudos—could be described as a succession of Marmeladov moments. In all three books, the narrator, a writer named Faye, who has two sons and is divorced from their father, encounters people—friends, a former lover, distant acquaintances, and total strangers—who, without much prompting, prove eager to tell her their secrets, to uninhibitedly and eloquently recount the most disruptive, wounding, and shameful events in their lives. Their stories are rarely as brutal as the Russian clerk’s account of seeing his daughter forced to wear the insignia of an official prostitute, but there’s plenty of malice, threat, deception, heartbreak, and damage. People make terrible decisions for reasons they barely understand. They lie, and proceed to distort their existence, to avoid admitting that everything about them is pretense. They treat their spouses or lovers very badly, or are treated even worse. Women suffer at the hands of manipulative and vindictive men. Children are benignly ignored, abused, misunderstood, or at least resented. Death matches over real estate transpire in gentrifying urban neighborhoods. Petty jealousies escalate into irreparable estrangements. As Faye hears these stories, the novels create a kind of liminal space, one we all experience when strangers tell us stories, where the point of view belongs to neither the teller nor the listener. It’s not so much that Faye’s a cipher; more accurately, the stories she hears are more like an environment in which she dwells, her novelist’s natural habitat—the very air she breathes or water in which she swims.