Grounding the Ethereal: Rachel Cusk’s Word Choice

Introduction

For anyone who writes, there will eventually be an author who seemingly does something so acrobatic with their prose, or introduces such a glaringly obvious change from what you’ve read before, you wonder how they did it.

How did David Foster Wallace write Infinite Jest in three years? He produced almost a million words in such a style as to be new for the literary sphere, and did so while also providing a critique of the late 1990s American idea of obsession in a wildly funny black comedy style.

And how did Rachel Cusk go from writing a memoir of her divorce, Aftermath, to writing a trilogy whose prose was so clear and so pristine that I read it out loud in a different tone than anything else before?

Though her popular response is not there (and what does “popular” even mean in the literary world), Rachel Cusk has my vote for being one of the best writers alive. The critical response agrees though, if being on the front page of The New York Times Book Review is any proof of that. Love her style, or hate it, she is someone you have to at least pay attention to.

And what I have found most astounding is in the pleasure not only of that first reading, but in re-reading her.

Due to a somewhat spacious throughline of the protagonist in her Outline Trilogy, many of the particular instances of the book I had forgotten. I had forgotten the conversation in Kudos about Amazon reviews of Dante’s Divine Comedy that had me laughing out loud. I had forgotten about the renovations to an old house in a decent neighborhood in Transit. And when a character from Outline returns in Kudos, I had to be reminded of it by an interview Cusk did with the New Yorker…after I had already finished the novel.

So it is not the content of the books that have me coming back: it is their style. If I had to describe it, I would say that both Haruki Murakami and Rachel Cusk are doing similar things from two different sidelines. Murakami provides flow by taking each snag or corner in his vocabulary and smoothing it out by providing a simpler way of describing the event. Characters have conversations much like Cusk’s work, and though Murakami is not afraid to be wild and imaginary, the style of his work is resolutely calm. Cusk makes a similar gesture, though she is not reductive but rather additive. Her sentence lengths are intimidating, and her vocabulary density is much higher than the average of modern novels and literature, and yet I never feel lost in the page-by-page turn. She is able somehow to do what Murakami does with much heavier lines.

Each of the three novels in Cusk’s trilogy speak to different situations in content, but at first glance it appears as though her style remains consistent.

In this post, I want to figure out some of the bird’s eye view of what she is doing. I will be using Voyant Tools to do a cursory analysis of unique words, words per sentence, and most used content words.

As a reminder, the words we use most often in writing are functional words, though we have a hard time seeing it. These are words like infinitives “of” and “the” that help more in a contextual space, where they lean on bigger words of content in order to provide them with a better way of use that helps the reader or listener understand the way we are communicating.

Perhaps in the future, I will do a functional word analysis of her work, as I have done that in the past using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, a piece of software designed by James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin.

For today though, I simply want to see how her style remains and what her content covers. Let’s get started.

Outline

This corpus has 1 document with 60,615 total words and 6,565 unique word forms.

Vocabulary Density: 0.108

Average Words Per Sentence: 26.1

Wordssaid (530); time (148); like (147); people (127); way (125); life (124); just (102); children (100); didn’t (90); things (85); asked (82); neighbour (82); felt (81); away (79); man (77); place (76); fact (71);  looked (67); day (66); came (65)

The first thing to notice about her first work, without any comparison to the others, is the vocabulary density and average words per sentence. As a reference, most of the writing I have encountered as a teacher has had 12 to 16 words per sentence on average. Cusk’s is much higher, and just imagining that her average is 26.1 means that there are some noticeably higher word counts, which can make your head spin. When reading Outline, one can see that Cusk’s athleticism does not come from plot orchestrations like David Foster Wallace, but in the distillation of information at the sentence level. Paragraph breaks in her work are an afterthought, just a way to give the reader a break on the eyes before going to the next train of thought.

In taking a quick glance at Transit and Kudos’s most used words, one can see that the top content word, “said,” appears far less, despite the fact that it is the longest work. Outline has Faye, the protagonist, building up an identity based on her listening and reacting to the world around her, rather than her actions and dialogue. In the following novels, Faye begins to assert herself more, until her debut (so to speak) in Kudos. Beyond actions, the concepts involved in her deep conversations with characters take the form of time, which is dominant throughout, but children seems to take center stage in Outline. As it is the soonest book after her divorce, perhaps Rachel Cusk was concerned about the effect the divorce would have on her own children. All throughout the book there are discussions about families, marriage, and the resilience of children (as well as their capacity for evil). In each of the conversations, Cusk attempts to make complex the role of motherhood, to add some ambiguity to the task.

Transit

This corpus has 1 document with 60,437 total words and 6,604 unique word forms.

Vocabulary Density: 0.109

Average Words Per Sentence: 18.3

Wordssaid (818); like (222); people (138); time (133); asked (112); went (110); looked (98); house (97); way (97); know (96); just (95); didn’t (87); long (83); things (83); it’s (82); lawrence (81); life (81); away (76); door (75); face (75)

Compared to Outline, Transit is far shorter in average words per sentence. There is plenty more to be said, as the word skyrockets in usage despite the comparable word length of the entire work to its predecessor. The vocabulary density, the amount of unique words, is only slightly easier (higher numbers indicate an easier read). Interestingly, the discussions of Transit are far more action-based rather than object based. Here we have many human interactions with the world like “asked” or “went” or “looked” that provide the movement in space and time that comes from the word “transit” itself. It’s sort of fascinating that the title of the work accurately describes what is being discussed at a word-based level, like the material of the work coincides, not just the overarching themes.

Kudos

This corpus has 1 document with 58,722 total words and 6,438 unique word forms.

Vocabulary Density: 0.110

Average Words Per Sentence: 27.0

Wordssaid (843); time (157); like (135); people (131); way (100); fact (99); just (99); didn’t (83); life (83); away (77); went (74); things (72); man (67); work (66); day (65); looked (62); felt (61); eyes (60); long (60); come (59)

Kudos returns Cusk to her massive sentence length while at the same time reducing the total words of the novel and the vocabulary density to the shortest and easiest of them all, respectively. There is more talking than ever, and more care has been given to events in Kudos. In the third installment of the trilogy, Faye attends a literary festival in Europe in a time when European ideals are unhinged. If Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe has any bite to it, the prevailing notion is that a greater part of Europe has become apathetic towards Western culture, as though it has run out of gas, or it has complications of its own that do not justify the museums that house it. Brexit as a term comes up more than once in the novel. In that political milieu, words like “fact” and “way” and “time” shoot up in usage, more so again because Kudos is the shortest of the bunch. Everyone is thinking of what reality should be, not just for their own accord, but as a foundation to have a democratic exchange of ideas. In order for conversation to work, in order for politics to do the work it needs to do, facts and evidence need to be accepted as a sort of evidence we can all lean on, and in Kudos that conflict is manifested in the personal lives of the people Faye interacts with.

Conclusion

When reading the three novels, they have the low hum of similitude, so much so that the fluctuations in the content and the style scream out for attention. I hope here I was able to provide some context for what is changing and how that affects the reader. Even in a series of novels, such as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, or even in Harry Potter, an author does not remain static in his or her writing of the product. Whether novelists know it or not, they change, and their style is the gold that readers must mine.

More than anything, I hope you will consider reading her works. They are impeccable summer reads, for like the still water the quiet of the prose and the shocking power of its wisdom gives the reader a desire to shift gears in their life. It did for me. When I first read her in 2016, I loved the book so much I made it one of the books on my groom’s cake.

We all find our literary allies and enemies as we get older, and with each group we can still laugh together by the end of the day. But only those allies will we share our most deeply guarded secrets, or spend long summer nights engaging in conversation with them, because we trust their judgment enough for them to tell us when we are mistaken. More than anything, Cusk takes intuitive notions of family, marriage, persuasion, and even market economies, and flips them for us to marvel at in a new way. If that is not what literature is designed to do, I don’t know what is.

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