‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk

‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk    (2014) – 249 pages   Grade: B+

rachelcuskoutline

After a certain age, each of our lives can be told as a collection of stories.  We may not know the full truth of all these stories, and our view of them may be limited or one-sided, but the stories together make up who we are.

There are two chapters in ‘Outline’ where our main character Faye is teaching a writing class in Athens, Greece.  She asks each of the students to tell her something that they had noticed on their way to class.  Each student has their own story some of which go on for several pages.  We get each student’s story until there is only one student left who has said nothing.  This woman says to the teacher as the class breaks up that she doesn’t know who the teacher is, but “I’ll tell you one thing, you’re a lousy teacher.”

The rest of ‘Outline’ is much like the students’ chapters with various people Faye meets up with in Greece relating their life experiences and lessons learned or not learned from them.  This is a philosophical novel and also an unconventional one.  Faye herself has not much of a story here.  She is constantly listening to other people.  This novel consists almost entirely of conversations in restaurants, on airplane flights, on boats, and in classrooms.

Perhaps the dialogue is not realistic in that usually when we talk, especially to strangers, there is a lot of back and forth.  In ‘Outline’ one person relating an incident may go on for several pages.  The conversations are like long monologues with short interruptions.

Rachel Cusk has expressed her dissatisfaction with the traditional forms of fiction before, calling them “fake and embarrassing”:

“Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.”

 In ‘Outline’ Cusk is attempting something new and different.  Instead of an omniscient all-knowing voice, she has the people in the novel tell their own stories through conversations. This new way of storytelling might have been disorienting except that Rachel Cusk is such a graceful and intelligent writer that it all seems quite natural.

Each sentence in ‘Outline’ feels like it was polished and crafted to achieve the maximum perceptivity and precision.  Here are two examples :

“He began to ask me questions, as though he had learned to remind himself to do so, and I wondered what or who had taught him that lesson, which many people never learn.”  

“I replied that I wasn’t sure it was possible, in marriage, to know what you actually were, or indeed to separate what you were from what you had become through the other person.” 

41orC4b88kL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Some readers may prefer a little less measured approach, but I found the sentences to be a strong positive making the novel a joy to read at the sentence level.  Rachel Cush has a distinctive style of writing, and I find that a huge plus for any novelist.

As I’ve mentioned before, ‘Outline’ was short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize.  I believe that both the actual winner, ‘How to Be Both’ by Ali Smith, and ‘Outline’ would have been worthy winners.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. A most helpful review Tony, thanks. This book has received some divided responses but it is always good for writers to continue to explore the way language is used and for astute readers to take a risk. Sounds interesting.

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    • Hi roughghosts,
      I’ve read a couple of other novels by Rachel Cusk besides ‘Outline’. What impresses me most about her writing are her individual sentences which give her a distinctive style. I know her previous memoirs caused some annoyance among critics and readers. I see her somewhat in the same group as Anita Brookner whose sentences are always superb even if her plots are not that exciting.

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  2. Tony, I am very interested in reading Outline: I have always enjoyed Cusk. The creative writing class stories sound stories sound fascinating.Am very glad to hear this one is good, because I have it LITERALLY on my “nightstand.” And The New Yorker gave it a stellar review. I cannot trust all book reviewers, but New Yorker critics seldom send me wrong.

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    • Hi Kat,
      I feel exactly the same as you about the New Yorker. The ‘Briefly Noted’ column is a quick guide to the best fiction. I’ve just renewed my subscription for another year. The Borowitz Reports from the New Yorker which I receive in my email just about make my day every time. He is a wonderful humorist for our time.

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