Book Review: Outline by Rachel Cusk

outlineOutline begins with one of those awkward, often inevitable, moments of collision: the stuttered small talk that occurs with a stranger in a neighbouring seat. We’re welcomed aboard a Greece-bound plane as our protagonist, the creative writing teacher Faye, chats with her neighbour, an affluent Greek businessman. Their conversation  is typical of the novel, revealing far more about the businessman than our protagonist. This is a book of anecdotes, relishing the irregular tugs of everyday speech and thought, the erratic and often uncertain strains we follow. Its premise is full of amusing meta-theatricality, a portrait of the modern writer — one who flies to Athens to spend a few days teaching at a writing workshop, rather than writing. This writer makes money through shrewd and intriguing observation. How many teachers of creative writing have already criticised and warned against the art of the “workshop”? It’s an interesting concept: even the most simple of exercises, ‘what did you notice on your way in?’ becomes a device to explore the psyche, a deeply revealing question about the manner in which different people perceive the world.

Once in the Athenian heat, we flit into the lives of the various writers on the retreat. At times, the novel’s interweaving narratives — the tales within tales, the tales told and those remembered, and even those actually happening — blend with a cloudy haziness. At times, it’s difficult to distinguish between the stories and their speakers, even as Cusk attempts to assert an independent voice through the glaze that is the reporting of the narrative voice. She seems to invade her own narrator when examining the consciousness of her characters:

So crammed full not just of her own memories, obligations, dreams, knowledge and the plethora of her day-to-day responsibilities, but also of other people’s – gleaned over years of listening, talking, empathising, worrying – that she was frightened most of all of the boundaries separating [the] distinctions between them…

The intriguing emotional bonds between writer and characters in this enthralling portrait of femininity are reflected in this sense of self-awareness. Importantly, Faye’s very name only comes to our attention in an accident of narrative — we realise in such moments of casual revelation how Faye constantly looks outward, rarely interrogating herself and instead relishing her indiscernibility from those around her. Despite the many stories told, we end up learning relatively little directly about our protagonist. Instead she remains a vessel, an outline from which we are able to draw our own conclusions — her own reporting and reactions vital signals that allow us to assemble her character.

The idea that events need to be explored and unwound in the presence of others, particularly strangers, seems to reflect Cusk’s own process of writing. Writing workshops delicately unravel and interrogate and the process of writing is constantly re-examined through different perspectives — the manner in which we create stories interrogated with curious intent. The book, like a class, pronounces clearly and didactically both the danger joy in authorship. Cusk dares to consider “the role of the artist might merely be that of recording sequences, such as a computer could one day be programmed to you”. She examines and questions acutely the purpose and point of creation and writing: in what manner they contribute to society, and how artificial that process is.

Is the perfect story a simple sequence? A code that can be programmed into a machine to produce creativity? By the end this system of interweaving, of outlining and of empty shells comes to the fore. What are we if not the perceptions we collect? What do our empty outlines consist of if not the stories we fix resolutely to ourselves? In this book, there is ultimately a deliberated consideration of the outlines we draw for ourselves, those we draw for other people, and those drawn for us.

The novel’s original serialisation in The Paris Review is a testament to the beauty of Cusk’s prose — she creates characters in the simplest and most revealing terms: blunt, precise and incredibly attentive to detail. The idea of serialisation pervades the book, its form at times suggesting a mass of short stories pulled together by a variety of narrative strings rather than one secure moulded whole. It feels more like a jigsaw, a collection of loose and individual moments that find a rigid ritual of cohesion in their dependence upon one another. Despite the evident wholeness of the novel, there remains a singular joy in these apparent divisions. The fragments that Cusk leaves us with are crafted uniquely and appealingly, each whole and almost – only almost— able to stand completely alone and apart from each other.

Before the book’s initial exploration of Faye’s plane journey it presents us with her short lived meeting with a billionaire keen to give her the “outline of his life story” and it is this sense of ‘outline’ that Cusk perfects, creating the pitch perfect observational descriptions of her characters through vivid and calculated details. Cusk manages deftly to extract tales through these outlines to conversely yield a book of true substance, even if its own formal outline (from serialised fragments to autonomous whole) is itself shown to be one that can easily be redrawn.


Thea Hawlin

About Thea Hawlin

Theodora (Thea) Hawlin is assistant editor and production manager of The London Magazine.

Theodora (Thea) Hawlin is assistant editor and production manager of The London Magazine.

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