Book Review: Outline by Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk

What happens when a novelist travels from Britain to Greece to teach a week-long summer course on writing? Not a whole hell of a lot, yet this is the breadth of Rachel Cusk's Outline, the first part of a prospective a trilogy of introspective novels. Fear not, there is a quite a lot packed in these pages. The narrator, Faye, is a very good listener and we are treated to all she takes in: from her neighbor, an older gentleman, on the plane; from fellow workers, friends, students in her class. All have interesting stories to tell. A chorus of sorts.

As far as the narrator's own story goes we only superficially learn that something has befallen her (divorce?, horrible accident?). Her children are mentioned, a husband, but it's all clouded in so much London fog. Not until we begin to see Faye's experience revealed through other peoples stories - perspectives - and her reactions to them does the reader get the sense that Faye is lost; not so much holding back as not knowing how to portray herself any longer.

One night, she dines out with a colleague and one of his clients, a newly successful novelist named Angeliki. Faye soon gets an earful on the subject of women's identities in the family structure:

  "‘For many women,’ she said, ‘having a child is their central experience of creativity, and yet the child will never remain a created object; unless,’ she said, ‘the mother’s sacrifice of herself is absolute, which mine never could have been, and which no woman’s ought to be these days. My own mother lived through me in a way that was completely uncritical,’ she said, ‘and the consequence was that I came into adulthood unprepared for life, because nobody saw me as important in the way she did, which was the way I was used to being seen. And then you meet a man who thinks you’re important enough to marry you, so it seems right that you should say yes. But it is when you have a baby that the feeling of importance really returns,’ she said, with growing passion, ‘except that one day you realise that all this –the house, the husband, the child –isn’t importance after all, in fact it is the exact opposite: you have become a slave, obliterated!'"

 We start to get the idea, a hint, of the shape of Faye's life as she tentatively befriends the older gentleman, her neighbor on the plane trip over. He invites her out for an excursion on his small motor boat (downsized from a yacht, post divorce). While swimming she spies a family on another nearby vessel; children diving into the water, the mother in a sunhat reading a book, the husband pacing on the deck speaking into his cell. Faye reflects:

  "I was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself, was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own. When I looked at the family on the boat, I saw a vision of what I no longer had: I saw something, in other words, that wasn’t there. Those people were living in their moment, and though I could see it I could no more return to that moment than I could walk across the water that separated us. And of those two ways of living – living in the moment and living outside it – which was the more real?"

Though part of a cycle, Cusk does not leave Outline open-ended, rather she pulls it together, closes gaps and circles back. Faye meets the woman who will replace her at the summer school and will be staying in the same time-shared apartment: Anne. Anne relates an incident of her own, and in so doing reveals an experience similar to Faye's in which she strikes up a conversation with her neighbor, a diplomat stationed in Athens, on the flight to Greece:

  "He was describing, she realised, a distinction that seemed to grow clearer and clearer the more he talked, a distinction he stood on one side of while she, it became increasingly apparent, stood on the other. He was describing, in other words, what she herself was not: in everything he said about himself, she found in her own nature a corresponding negative. This anti-description, for want of a better way of putting it, had made something clear to her by a reverse kind of exposition: while 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 for the first time since the incident a sense of who she now was."

Thus the author forces Faye to blatantly confront her own malaise, that which can only be revealed through other's stories, borne vicariously through other's lives; mirrored by how other's see the world, leaving an outline to be completed.