Readings: Outline, The Silence

So far this year I’ve read more literary fiction than genre. This will probably shortly cease to be true, so the end of January is about the last chance to say that. I am of course even more poorly read in litfic than I am in genre, so this is me cheerfully blundering into quite well-known semi-recent books having never heard of them before.

The Silence by Don DeLillo: this was my first DeLillo, and I think fairly obviously that was a mistake. It’s beautifully written, in a heavily stylized, theatrical way—people declaim at each other in extended paragraphs, nobody talks like a normal person, there is a great deal of (intentional) uncertainty about what exactly is happening, except that it is obviously some sort of shallow apocalypse discernible only when all the phones and screens &c. suddenly go dead, which is indeed what the apocalypse will look like when it finally reaches the living rooms of upper-class New York. The living room in question here includes a most relatable uncle who just wants to watch the cricket and begins grumpily imagining/hallucinating/fantasizing the game in the absence of broadcast. As a story about apocalypse and human disconnection, this is a hat so old that it’s entirely worn through, like a tiktok joke that has already passed through the long and short intestines of twitter and facebook and has now reached the sphincter of being an anonymous whatsapp forward. Perhaps this is what late style is, and if so, my takeaway is that I should instead go back and find the early style.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline is a novel in stories, with a frame story thicker than most—I love this as a structure, and have in fact written one in it (my still-untitled second novel, at present tentatively scheduled for 2024)—and I was startled, on googling this book, to discover that many critics at the time represented this as a groundbreaking, form-busting innovation for some reason. (The reason appears to be that Cusk was previously known for highly interior, confessional novels, and after a cancellation for being too open about motherhood and its travails, opted to write a novel in which the narrator’s interior is entirely implicit, only hinted at in the echoes of the stories she listens to. Which is a wonderful comeback, but that’s not the same thing.) Cusk herself gave interviews declaring that character was dead now, and so on, which at least is straightforward book promo. But I enjoy a good novel in stories, and this is a very good one, fast-moving and yet delving deep into some lusciously developed characters. And I must remember, when my book comes out, that declaring things dead is good press.


I was used to writing short stories in quick bursts of sustained focus. A single afternoon, perhaps a weekend. But I could not write novels like this, so my method, as evolved, is to work every weekday morning, as much or as little as the day allows, the only goal being to reinforce the habit and stay close to the work, keeping it ticking along whether I wrote ten words or several thousand, to create chains of virtue that, the longer they got, the more reluctant I would be to break them. This is a method often attributed to, of all people, Jerry Seinfeld, though he certainly didn’t invent it. Here’s a Lifehacker article about it. Hey, remember when Lifehacker was a thing? When productivity culture was a thing? So glad that ended. Imagine the horror if there were entire podcasts where people talk about nothing else except how to squeeze more productive output out of the limited hours of your life.

the 56-day streak is when I was really in the flow of writing my second novel; the current streak is from the third

I do enjoy productivity porn a lot. I don’t listen to the podcasts, but this is mostly because I have not yet learned to listen to podcasts regularly. I find audio makes me impatient, because the content of most podcasts is exactly the sort of material I am used to skimming and speed-reading. I love all the other bits of productivity culture, the pointless essays, the endless new methods and tricks and tips, the apps. I don’t really try much of it, but I love that it’s there. If my methods fail me some day, I find it comforting that there will be other things to try.

In the months (years if you count them another way) that it takes me to complete a book, of course I end up breaking the chain many times and starting again. The most important part of chainmaking is to understand that the breaks are part of the work. The gaps between the links are not dead air: they are living breath.