Wednesday, May 27, 2015

With ‘Outline,’ Rachel Cusk redefines the “rules” of the novel

Rachel Cusk’s Outline is one of the strangest books I have read in a long time.

It plainly says on the cover that it is a novel and yet it doesn’t have the properties we expect from a novel:

…[I]n an interview with The Guardian last August, Cusk said that she had recently come to a dead end with the modes of storytelling that she had relied on in her earlier novels. She had trouble reading and writing, and found fiction “fake and embarrassing.” The creation of plot and character, “making up John and Jane and having them do things together,” had come to seem “utterly ridiculous.” (Elaine Blair, The New Yorker, 1/5/15)

Certainly, that is evident in this novel. Outline’s protagonist is almost invisible. All that we know about her is that she is a writer, that she has
agreed to teach a two-day writing course in Greece, that she is divorced, and that she has children who are back in England.

During a two day period, people talk to her. They relate incidents from their pasts, tell her of their marriages and divorces, their disappointments and goals, their beliefs, their loneliness. Their unsustainable, unsatisfying relationships. The majority of these speakers never appear again. Sometimes the narrator asks pointed questions but mostly she listens.

Additionally, the novel has virtually no plot: the narrator flies from Heathrow to Greece. Her “neighbor” on the plane tells her about his three marriages; she has coffee with Ryan, a fellow teacher, who has published a novel but has been unable to produce a second one; she goes for a swim with her “plane neighbor;” she has dinner with Paniotis, an old friend, and Angeliki, a novelist and feminist just back from a trip to Poland where she has met women who insist that their husbands share equally in housework and childrearing. All of them talk, talk, talk to (I am tempted to say “at”) her.

She meets with her students for the first time and asks them to each say what they observed on the way to class; in a later chapter, she meets with them again. Their assignment was to write a story involving an animal. She asks them to describe their stories. She goes swimming with her “plane neighbor” again whereupon he makes a clumsy pass which she rejects; she has dinner with two women, one of whom is being stalked by a former student who shows up at all her readings and makes faces.

Many of these conversations are interesting. Some sad, some funny, but disconcertingly episodic and ephemeral. But, then, in the very last chapter, I finally understood what Cusk was doing, what she had, in fact, done. The woman who will next use the apartment arrives early and relates the conversation she has had with her own “plane neighbor:”

[A]s he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown gave her the first time since the incident a sense of who she now was.

Our narrator has been, throughout the novel, “a shape, an outline…and blank” while all the random conversations fill in detail around her. And yet, we have somehow, without noticing, begun to sense the narrator as she really is. This realization is unsettling, oddly compelling, and, of course, fascinating from a purely technical point of view. It takes more than one reading to begin to understand the novel’s structural underpinnings, to see that nothing in it is random or purposeless.

Rachel Cusk is better known in England than here and is said to be a somewhat polarizing figure as a result of her feminist views. She has written two memoirs: A Life’s Work, about the “cult” of motherhood, and Aftermath, about the disintegration of her marriage and her divorce. She has written of the difficulty of “self-definition” within the confines of marriage and motherhood. After a decade of marriage, Cusk and her husband swapped roles. He left his job to stay home and raise the children while she wrote. Their union did not survive.

So, yes, there do appear to be autobiographical details in the book:

…[T]his novel joins the ranks of recent novels by writers whose portrayals of the self skew the boundary between autobiography and fiction. (Heidi Julavits, The New York Times, 1/7/15)

But it’s much more than that. As Julie Myerson wrote in The Guardian (9/6/14):

…There’s no conventional narrative arc…and the novel offers few of the standard expected rewards of fiction.

It doesn’t matter – every single word is earned, precisely tuned, enthralling. Outline is a triumph of attitude and daring, a masterclass in tone.

Photo by Eva Vermandel
In addition to her memoirs, Rachel Cusk has written eight novels. The first, Saving Agnes, won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1993 and a subsequent novel, The Country Life won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1997. In 2003, she was nominated by Granta as one of 20 “Best of Young British Novelists,” and, that same year, The Lucky Ones was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award.

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