Author(s): Rachel Cusk
Outline is a novel in ten conversations. Spare and lucid, it follows a novelist teaching a course in creative writing over an oppressively hot summer in Athens. She leads her student in storytelling exercises. She meets other writers for dinner. She goes swimming in the Ionian Sea with her seatmate from the place. The people she encounters speak volubly about themselves, their fantasies, anxieties, pet theories, regrets, and longings. And through these disclosures, a portrait of the narrator is drawn by contrast, a portrait of a woman learning to face great a great loss.
Outline is the first book in a short and yet epic cycle - a masterful trilogy which will be remembered as one of the most significant achievements of our times.
'Outline succeeds powerfully. Among other things, it gets a great variety of human beings down on the page with both immediacy and depth; an elemental pleasure that makes the book as gripping to read as a thriller... A stellar accomplishment.' James Lasdun, Guardian
It was entirely appropriate, he told me, and when he said those two words, entirely appropriate, he said them in such a way that if they had appeared in written form instead of spoken form they would certainly have been written in italics, if not, perhaps, underlined, it was entirely appropriate to the book he was reading, Outline by Rachel Cusk, that he had begun reading it while flying on an aeroplane to Auckland, as the first of the ten conversations that comprise the book takes place between the narrator, so to call her, and the man in the neighbouring seat in an aeroplane flying to Athens. It was entirely appropriate, he said, because the content of the novel and the context in which it was being read were so similar and so particular that, for much of the flight, the so-called fictional world and the so-called actual world merged seamlessly into one experience, an experience he considered to be appropriately termed ‘reading’, perhaps due to the passivity that is incumbent upon being a passenger, a role that demands an almost complete withdrawal of personal presence, so to call it, except to the extent that one is required, out of politeness, to speak, or at least to smile and make a slight fluttering gesture with a hand, in order to refuse the biscuits, tea, magazines and lollies proffered by the cabin attendant. “Tell me about it! I used to eat ten of these a day, maybe twelve,” the cabin attendant had said, he told me, when the woman across the aisle from him had refused a biscuit because she was “trying to lose weight.” “I was really packing on the kilos,” the cabin attendant had said, “And then I thought, something has to change, this isn’t doing me any good, and so I stopped. I took up smoking again and I stopped the biscuits, I was eating up to thirty of the things a day, between flights. I took up smoking and the kilos just dropped off.” The cabin attendant was looking pretty trim, it was true, he said, in his pin-striped uniform, the pin-striped trousers and the waistcoat made of pin-striped fabric on the front and some sort of baby fabric on the back, a uniform that is serious but not too serious, a uniform in which the wearer could never be mistaken for a pilot, even though he wore a little brass name-badge in the form of a wing, the uniform of someone perhaps pretending to be a pilot, a uniform almost unbearably camp on an adult, a ‘dress-ups’ uniform, a uniform that constantly condescends to its wearer. Cusk, he told me, would undoubtedly notice a detail like that, the lenses of her noticing, of her reading of the world, bitterly acute. The novels of what he called Cusk’s ‘Faye project’, Outline, Transit, and, most recently, Kudos - in all of which the narrator is named Faye, though she could just have easily been named Rachel Cusk, or any other name, the name of the reader perhaps - were all concerned with the withdrawal, so far as it is possible, of the narrator from her context, in order, perhaps, for her to be able to see her context and the persons that it serially contains, more clearly. When reading the books of what he called Cusk’s ‘Faye project’, he felt that he was learning to read, to read both literature and, maybe, even, under Cusk’s tutelage, life. This last he said under his breath, as if embarrassed, lest, he said, it be mistaken for some sort of what he termed, involuntarily turning down the corners of his mouth, corners that were in any case quite naturally rather turned down, spiritual improvement, when the books would in fact relieve the reader of even the undeclared presumptions inherent in the ghastly term spiritual improvement, the books’ equation of bitterness and clarity, he said, would soon disabuse anyone who might have begun to think that what he was describing was a spiritual improvement. He took out a piece of paper and read to me something he had copied from Cusk's book, Outline, and he read it rather haltingly as his handwriting was small and cramped and barely legible even to himself. “I began to feel for the first time that I was seeing what was really there, without asking myself whether or not I was expecting to see it. It seems as though we looked out of the world through a long lens of preconception, by which we held ourselves at some unbreachable distance from what was around us, a distance that constituted a kind of safety but also created a space for illusion. We never, I think, discerned the true nature of the things we saw, any more than we were ever in danger of being affected by them,” he read. “Life is a series of punishments for moments of unawareness.” When I remarked that what he had read resembled what I thought of as spiritual improvement, he grimaced, and perhaps would have spat if he had been a person who spat, and said that what he was describing was merely what he termed, and what surely anyone would term, learning to read. If “context is a kind of imprisonment”, and here he quoted, presumably, Cusk, from his notes, then the only useful response is to withdraw oneself, if not physically then at least in terms of what he called mental positioning - and here I had to assert that the term held no meaning, but my assertion went I think unnoticed by him - for, he said, this withdrawal in terms of mental positioning, exemplified in the novels of Cusk’s ‘Faye project’, placed a writer in a new position with regard to the text she produces, places a narrator in a new position with regard to the text in which she appears, places a reader in a new position with regard to the text which he is reading, and, he contested, could place a reader in a new position with regard to the context in which he finds himself in, so to call it, real life. It is the height of foolishness, he contested, to think that we can have any idea of who we are, ideas of who we are can be formed only by other people, and are always, in any case, inevitably wrong, or, rather always of, at best, only limited truth, revealing, as they do, more about those who have the ideas than about the subject to whom those ideas refer. Only by removing, as far as if possible, everything that we imagine to lie within the outline of ourselves can we truly begin to read that part of the world that is not not-us, and here he not only said the term not not-us in the way that I have previously compared to text in italics but made an incomprehensible and rather silly gesture with both hands as well, as if this would incline me to take his theory any more seriously than the look on my face perhaps was conveying that I currently did. He read again aloud from his notes, explaining that the passage he was quoting was quoted by the narrator from the story of another woman telling her, the narrator, about her conversation with the man in the neighbouring seat to her during a flight on an aeroplane to Athens, where, obviously, the two women have met. “In everything he said about himself, she found in her own nature a corresponding negative. This antidescription 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 she herself remained blank. Yes, this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her for the first time a sense of who she now was.” It was quite possible, he said, that, as well as providing a method of what he called learning to read, the novels of Cusk’s 'Faye project' could also constitute a method of learning to write, in other words, they demonstrated a way of generating texts from ordinary life, not perhaps of making writing easier so much as of making it easier to reach the level of writing that is difficult, the level of writing at which - and here the compounding of his italic talk was becoming preposterous - subject and object wrestle openly with each other for control. I smirked at the thought of this wrestling, and asked him if he would be likely to be generating any texts himself by this Faye method. No, he said, he was far too busy to do anything like that. All he wrote these days were brief weekly reviews of the books he had been reading, written in urgency before their deadlines. He never had a chance to do what he termed considered writing, not that he saw any point, really, for him, in doing what he termed considered writing, even if he had had the time in which to do it. His point was, he said, that each week he had a constrained slot of time on a Saturday in which to write his review for the weekly newsletter of the bookshop to which he was attached, an exercise of writing that he had to perform regardless of inclination or mood or headaches, and without what he termed the self-indulgence of waiting for the muse – waiting for the muse was an avoidance of labour, he said, which was in fact implied, now that he thought about it, in the very term considered writing - and certainly without the luxury of any protracted review of his text. This was writing, he said, as a performance art, writing in real time, whatever that meant, writing, he stressed, thankfully without romance. At this point he looked at the clock and I knew from the expression on his face, an expression of both horror and relief, that, on account of the length of our conversation, this week he would not have time to produce the review of which he spoke.