I’m in a phase of rereading books, and I’m really enjoying it. There are still lots of new and unread books I want to read, but they can wait. I first read Outline when it was published in 2014, but it was recently recommended to me by a friend who writes and it received more attention when Rachel Cusk added the second and third volumes to the trilogy: Transit and Kudos. The rereading has led me to appreciate the writerly intelligence of this novel even more.
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The novel is described as ten conversations. It is narrated by a writing tutor who flies to Athens to provide some classes for aspiring writers. Just about everyone she meets tells her a story about themselves, either because they meet her – sitting next to her on the plane, or socially for dinner, for example – or because they are students in her class. The narrator’s own story is not explicitly told, but the reader must divine her responses and her situation from what is not said. The ten conversations create her outline.
Most of the stories are presented in reported speech, with occasional direct speech. Most of the people she meets are concerned with the failure of intimacy and the difficulty of coping with change. We are given details about their physique, clothes, how they interact with waiters, the sea, other students. There appears to be little direct engagement by these people with the narrator. When one of the students complains bitterly about her lack of direction in the lessons, or when a man tries to kiss her, her emotional reactions are only relayed to us later. Everything seems to be mediated.
So the outline of the title is what surrounds Faye, but who Faye is she does not tell us. Even her name is only revealed casually towards the end of the ten chapters. We know she is a writer, has a son and needs money and she is trying to borrow more. We get a sense of great sadness and recent loss. Even to achieve that outline we must pay attention to the text, to what is and to what is not said. The novel, then asks, some important questions about what we call identity and the place of telling our story or stories in the forming of our identity for ourselves and for others.
This form is daring, experimental, challenging to the reader. There is little story here, at least in the usual sense of a narrative beginning, middle and end. Yet the attentive reader is rewarded with a view of the world that is moving and intelligent. I plan to read Transit and Kudos, the next parts of the trilogy, over the next few months.
This review by Shoshi Ish Horowicz on Shiny New Books blog in 2018 extols the novel’s writerly value.
Outline by Rachel Cusk, published in 2014 by Faber & Faber. 249pp
Shortlisted for Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction 2015.
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