It’s unsettling and frustrating at first. Rachel Cusk’s novel “Outline” begins with a narrator (who remains nameless throughout most of the novel) taking a plane to Athens in order to teach a writing course. She strikes up a conversation with an older semi-wealthy man in the seat next to hers. Despite a long monologue where he divulges the most intimate details of his failed marriages, family strife and financial struggles, he is only referred to as her neighbour and continues being labelled as such throughout this novel even after several lunches and boat trips she takes with the man. The narrator also has a series of meetings with other teachers, writers and the students of her class where she prompts them to outline possible stories they could write. All the while personal details about the narrator remain largely unknown.
Why the aversion to giving her central characters names or filling in plot details about these characters’ lives in the present? Maybe it’s because the narrator senses that there is something inauthentic about this thing we call identity. When she plunges off a boat into the water she “felt that I could swim for miles, out into the ocean… it was an impulse I knew well, and I had learned that it was not the summons from a larger world I used to believe it to be. It was simply a desire to escape from what I had. The thread led nowhere, except into ever expanding wastes of anonymity.” So she is trying to lose herself. As fervently as she wishes to remain a mere sketch, the more ardently I wanted concrete details about her identity. We know she’s divorced and has estranged children. There are occasional flashes of personal memories like a beautiful description of being a child dozing in the back seat of her parents’ car while being driven home from the seaside. Larger issues in the narrator’s life remain unclear. She checks her phone as she’s tense about receiving approval on a loan, but we don’t know what it’s for exactly. The need for physical escape, money and anonymity are what she wants. The awareness of this is the tantalizing thing about her which will alternately frustrate and intrigue the reader throughout the experience of this novel.
There is a lot of pleasure to be had in this book. There is light and dark humour. For instance, in a scene where the narrator imagines falling off the boat driven by her neighbour she imagines becoming part of just another anecdote that he relates to his new neighbour on his next plane ride. She imagines him referring to the incident as “the full disaster” - the turn of phrase he uses to describe monumental tragedies in his life. The exchanges between her writing students are particularly funny and well observed. Potent symbols are scattered throughout the novel such as a photograph of a couple in a cafe outside the comfortable apartment she’s allowed to stay in while teaching. The couple are suspended in a pose of intimate conversation where a joke or anecdote is being shared and seems “terrifyingly real.” This couple suspended in a moment of exchange is repeated in different forms throughout many of the narrator’s experiences in the novel where people’s stories are told over drinks and meals of Greek food. The ceaseless, searching, self-justified speeches accumulate into a kind of yearning people have to give structure and meaning to their lives. Yet, once they’ve defined their personal histories into a certain shape they become frozen as in a photograph.
I found myself highlighting many passages throughout the book as there are so many intriguing thoughts and clever observations to ponder. They range from thoughts about the writing process to the meaning of identity. “Outline” is predominantly a novel about ideas, but unlike Tom McCarthy’s recent “Satin Island” (which I somewhat harshly critiqued) I was mesmerized by it because of the way these thoughts are framed within the distinct identities of a revolving set of characters. The chorus of voices builds to a moving understanding of the tension between living one’s life in the moment and maintaining a frame around it like a constantly running narrative where you’re the protagonist in your own movie. The neighbour follows his passions through one disaster after another, steadily building the story of his life that he can relate to strangers he meets on airplanes. He remarks at one point that “I discovered that a life with no story was not, in the end, a life that I could live.” Yet this is the only kind of life that the narrator seems to want. She’s desperate to avoid the crisis the next teacher who comes to replace her in Athens experiences where a man made her into “a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.” Through an immolation of the self the narrator (eventually referred to as Faye) achieves a defiant freedom to define her life as she pleases. The outline of who she is cannot be filled in by the interpretation of any listener within the story or reader of this novel.