Sunday, July 5, 2015

Outline by Rachel Cusk

A story told by a woman’s reactions to the stories of others

The unnamed narrator (unnamed for the most part, that is) travels to Athens to teach a two day creative writing seminar, encountering various people on her journey who tell her their stories. The stories of friends and acquaintances are lengthy, concerning unhappy marriages and heartbreak; the Greek students in the class tell her their writing exercises which are surreal snippets. Meanwhile, as the narrator awaits an important communication about a loan approval, she looks upon seemingly happy families with grief, and her children back in England rely on her as a distant factotum. The novel ends with a sentence about spending the day in solicitude. Or do you mean solitude?

I was completely gripped while reading this spare beautiful book. Out of seemingly nothing, Cusk created a moving story about human beings – human beings and their ignorance maybe. The amazing voice holds everything together, a detached ironic gaze as the narrator encounters one self-absorbed person after the next. Chilly is also the adjective that comes to mind, chilly in grief, although there are some very funny moments. (Not that the narrator would care to notice the absurdity). In some places I laughed out loud at the shocking juxtapositions. The people the writer meets tell their egocentric stories; the narrator typically has a philosophical analytical response. In some ways, this almost seems a religious novel. There is a lot of talk of love and hate, pride and knowledge by suffering.

The word “outline” shows up at the beginning of the book and at the end of the book. Both in relation to men talking. I’m not sure what that means, but men, especially an older sophisticated Greek man, do an awful lot of talking in this book. This novel is about depicting something where it is not. It reminded me of WG Sebald, writing about a thing by never mentioning the thing but making the thing very apparent to the reader. In Sebald’s case, the Holocaust, an entire community gone; in Cusk’s case, a happy family and the assumption of happiness. The reader feels like something big is going to happen, something really huge, but all that happens is that the final person the author encounters (another writer) consumes an entire jar of honey, spoonful after spoonful.

I suppose this is the dreaded writing workshop novel. The workshop itself, however, is laughably short, two classes. Could the students even learn anything? The reader, however, does.

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