Outline by Rachel Cusk

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Reviewed by Shoshi Ish Horowicz

Outline is about a woman teaching on a creative writing course in Greece. That sentence doesn’t do any justice to the novel, but I feel a desperate need to anchor myself because this book is so ambitious, so fluid and so damn hard to pin down. Lets start with the title, because it is a great title. An outline shows boundaries, it defines something or someone, it is sketchy, it gives essential information and it lacks detail. It’s an apt title for a very unusual book.

Let’s move on by outlining the structure of the novel. The main part of the story takes place off British soil, but, introducing the fluidity of boundaries, the novel starts slightly earlier: ‘Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials.’ It’s a wonderful first line, introducing the humour, the importance of perceptions and the theme of wealth (remember, she’s visiting Greece) that will be constants during the rest of the book. It’s an odd place to start though:

the billionaire had been keen to give me the outline of his life story, which had begun unprepossessingly and ended – obviously – with him being the relaxed, well-heeled man who sat across the table from me today. I wondered whether in fact what he wanted now was to be a writer… A lot of people want to be writers.

We learn about the unnamed billionaire’s story over the course of the next page or so. We never meet him again. Instead we move with the narrator to Athens where she will encounter more wealth and more would-be writers. This may sound like the sketchiest outline of a plot but it genuinely is all you’re going to get. While the novel is all about story-telling, Cusk keeps action to a minimum; events take a back seat while the majority of the book is devoted to long monologues as a series of outsiders narrate their own versions of their own lives.

Ironically, the more the novel reveals, the more things become unclear — but after all, the longer someone talks about their own life and relationships the more evident the inconsistencies and lies become. The narrator will sometimes highlight these; after hearing about the marital struggles of the man sitting next to her on the plane she wryly observes ‘the narrative invariable showed certain people – the narrator and his children – in a good light, while the wife was brought in only when it was required of her to damn herself further’. After a little training, the reader is able to take over the position of suspicious listener, scrutinizing each phrase for hidden weakness or unreliability. The self-absorbed monologues of the successful prize-winning author, sharing her feelings about motherhood, poverty, identity and overachievement, are a blackly comic highlight.

The novel as a whole is gently but uncompromisingly brutal in its characterization, its poisonous undermining of identity ambitiously at odds with the cozy setting of a writers’ holiday course. When you hear books being described as experimental it’s tempting to think of fireworks and explicit linguistic or structural games. What Cusk has achieved is more understated but no less dazzling. Her narrator will eventually admit, when asked if she likes someone, that:

I had become so unused to thinking about things in terms of whether I like them or whether I didn’t that I couldn’t answer her question. My neighbor was merely a perfectly good example of something about which I could only feel absolute ambivalence.

This is the narrator who has been guiding us through her encounters and experiences. It goes a long way to explaining the prominence of reported speech and the absence of emotional response in the novel. The background to the novel is filled with incident, from mental illness to broken marriages to street demonstrations and riots. The narrator however seems determinedly detached, keeping a wary distance from those around her. An indication of her distance from the reader is the simple fact that her name, Faye, is not revealed until close to the end of the book, too late for you to remember it, but still enough to prevent her lack of name from becoming a defining characteristic in its own right. In the final, most harrowing, story, Faye hears the narrative of a trauma victim. It seems that, even when faced with her literary alter-ego, she cannot allow herself to empathise with a woman who ‘found, after the incident, that she lacked what might be called a vocabulary, a native language of self: words, as the phrase goes, failed her for the first time in her life. She couldn’t describe what had happened, to herself or to other people’.

Outline is all about the writer’s craft, even though one student storms out of the narrator’s first writing class with the parting words ‘I don’t know who you are…but I’ll tell you one thing, you’re a lousy teacher’. As the novel progresses Cusk challenges the most basic assumptions of the modern novel. How can a writer construct identity when people consistently lie to themselves? How can a present characters when a sense of self is so elusive? How can a writerconvey trauma when such a trauma will inevitably reveal the inadequacies of language? Cusk’s writing style in this novel is incredibly sparse, luxuriating in what is unsaid and demanding careful reading. The outcome is a brave and uncompromising book that battles the conventions of the novel head-on. It is a book that will stay with you; a powerful reminder of how much literature can teach us about others and ourselves. With quiet assurance and uncompromising vision, it outlines an intriguing new way of telling a writer’s story.

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Shoshi blogs at https://shoshibookblog.wordpress.com/ and gets very excited about experimental and ambitious novels.

Rachel Cusk, Outline (Vintage: London, 2015) 978-1784702441, 256pp., paperback.

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