Book Review: Outline by Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline is on the six-book shortlist of the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. DWL will be reviewing some of the shortlisted books before the winner is announced on June 3. To read all our coverage of the 2015 prize, click here.

Sometimes all that’s available to us to determine the truth of a situation is a set of different subjective perspectives, and we piece these points of view together to form a shared narrative, something we can all use to understand reality, believe in its nature, and relay it to others.

But often these perspectives fail to create coherence. We are left with doubt, not certainty as originally intended. Skepticism, distance, animosity replace understanding. Our relationships are affected by the conflict created due to this absence of consensus and we often fail to see that we are still related, in such cases, by our disagreements. Sometimes our identities, our reality, our stories are all defined and driven by what we are not. But what do we do with this realisation? Embrace the differences or feel disgusted by them? Reveal more or choose to not talk about them?

This tension — to borrow a word from one of the characters of the novel — appears abundantly in Outline, with subtlety and directness in almost equal measure. At its heart, Rachel Cusk’s eighth novel seems to be a reflection on truth through conversations about relationships, especially marriage and divorce, and the internal self.

The book mostly consists of conversations. It begins with a discussion over lunch and ends with an exchange of text messages. In between, the novel’s narrator, Faye, a recently divorced author who travels to Athens from London to teach part of a short writing course, listens and observes, with few interruptions, as a diverse array of people speak their hearts out to her.

Outline is mostly pushed forward by Faye’s interactions with a thrice-divorced Greek heir of a shipping company, who sits next to her on the flight to Athens. Often referred to by the narrator as “my neighbour” in the book, he also invites Faye to go sailing on his boat and ends up showing a romantic interest in her. Through the neighbour’s character, Rachel Cusk explores perspectives on failed marriages, and the bias, exaggeration and selective filtering of accounts humans might tell to strangers.

The telling is important, because it is the individual’s attempt to create an internally coherent story acceptable to them, but it introduces bias, and with stories within stories in the novel we get a sense of the contradiction that arises from this sort of bias or misrepresentation. Anne, the British playwright who arrives in Athens towards the end of Faye’s visit to teach the next leg of the same writing course, speaks passionately about speaking about personal injustice. But when Faye asks Anne to talk about her experience of a mugging incident, she says she’d rather not.

This exchange also reveals something about Faye’s role as the narrator. Whatever little we discover about Faye – her divorce, children, ideas on marriage and relationships, and writing – is through her limited active participation in the chats with others. For the most part, she lends an impersonal tone to the narrative, as if she is neutral and reporting what is being told to her. But there’s also an almost deceptive quality about the narrator in Outline. When she does add her observations, these challenge or even expose the other party, almost as if she is a skilled investigator who has detected a lie but does not want to brag about it. At one point, she tells the Greek he had cast his second wife in a completely negative light and sacrificed the truth in doing so. At another time, she says:

“…a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.”

It is moments such as these when Cusk’s narrator appears to be extraordinary in her capacity to shape the readers’ view of events and offer commentary on reality separately.

The conversations are not ordinary, either. Cusk’s characters – an Irish writer, a Greek publisher friend, a woman novelist and participants of the writing course, among others – speak in larger-than-life voices, often not just retelling their experiences but dissecting them, laying their lives bare, philosphising about their decisions, trying to understand why they did what they did. The characters are also obsessed with their opinions and life events; they hardly ever care for a two-way talk.

But the conversations are punctuated by comparisons of individuals through their actions and their awareness of the actions of others. This is where Cusk brings in personal conflict in the broader framework of experience of reality and truth. The writing students respond to Faye’s prompts with lengthy, unique stories that often tease out their deeply personal sense of identity in contrast to other participants in their group setting. The comparisons are also driven by the narrator herself, for example, when she tells her publisher friend:

“Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one’s own destiny by what one doesn’t notice or feel compassion for; that what you don’t know and don’t make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.”

Cusk builds this realisation of subjectivity and internal self gradually through the book by getting her characters to spell out their philosophy of truth. Elena, the narrator’s friend, for example, believes that “frankness”, as a tool in a relationship to reach beyond men’s fantasies, is necessary to access reality, even if the result is an ugly truth that may lead to an early end of the relationship. But Elena’s friend, the poet Melete, does not want to compose herself “from other people’s ideas”, and Anne, the British playwright, wants the truth to be represented free of slant, but struggles with expression herself. With the characters’ ideas pitted against the ideas of other characters, the outlines of their ‘self’ begins to emerge, and this happens most distinctly for the narrator, who has stood against all the other characters throughout the novel.

Internal conflicts often lead to decisions. So we see Cusk’s characters choosing their own course of action to deal with the truth of their lives, some choosing to deny their problems, others believing in love to restore their good fortunes and yet others opting to detach or disassociate from an earlier lifestyle so as to redefine themselves against it.

Outline is a captivating novel, with fine language, elegant imagery and outstanding unconventional storytelling. Cusk is a talented writer and she proves her skills with this book. People who are familiar with Cusk will try to read her life into the story, and the novel echoes her thoughts on fiction, if not life choices, but readers new to her writing can expect an intricate and thought-provoking meditation on truth and self-presentation.

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