Book Review: Outline, by Rachel Cusk
Posted on August 2, 2015
Here is the book blurb from Goodreads, for those wondering what it’s about: “A woman writer goes to Athens in the height of summer to teach a writing course. Though her own circumstances remain indistinct, she becomes the audience to a chain of narratives, as the people she meets tell her one after another the stories of their lives … Outline is a novel about writing and talking, about self-effacement and self-expression, about the desire to create and the human art of self-portraiture in which that desire finds its universal form.”
It says something about Rachel Cusk’s extraordinary talent that despite most of her characters in Outline being, at best, tedious and vain, and at worst, rage-fueled and self-pitying, the book is still utterly engaging. These characters inhabit a world of extraordinary privilege which they are as blind to as fish are to the water in which they swim. As a reader, you have to sit with that through the entire book, as it is the foundation upon which it rests.
Nearly all of these people seem incapable of grasping the part they’ve played in their personal calamities, despite their astonishing clarity in describing their experiences. I did not find any of them especially warm or lovable, except for the times when their tenderness for their children shone through. Nor are they particularly interesting people, despite their intellectual and artistic endeavors; yet, Cusk’s attention to the details of their lives, and the delicacy with which she reveals them, a line at a time, is captivating.
It occurred to me about two-thirds of the way through that none of the characters have their own voice. Cusk did not create individual voices. In fact, though each of the life stories is told to our narrator in first person so that every character becomes an “I”, they all share our narrator’s calm, cool, somewhat detached style. They are not different enough in expression to be picked out, except by content. Stylistically, this worked well and created a coherence and unity that prevents the novel from reading as a series of separate pieces.
Although this is a feminist novel, I did not find the women any less obnoxious or more morally “in the right” than the men. In fact, they are no different from the men, in their self-obsession and their vanity. They are chronically unable to appreciate what they’ve got when they’ve got it. They exhibit an utter lack of consideration for what they might be like to live with themselves while harboring resentment towards their intimate partners whom they feel either wronged by or too good for. All seem to believe they deserve better and more. Always more.
(Having said that, I genuinely liked the honey-guzzling playwright who makes an appearance in the final few pages, and who had been brutalised. I wondered if Cusk added her in by way of contrast.) I am not sure if Cusk meant us to be left with these feelings of disgust for her characters, but no matter. I appreciate Outline because it’s beautifully written and utterly engaging.