English writer Rachel Cusk’s new novel, titled Outline, is one of the most unusual novels around, and if you give it what’s now called slow time to read it, you’re in for a special treat. Cusk, who has written admirably and even painfully in the past about the breakup of her own marriage, creates a female character who has agreed to teach English writing to a group of students in Athens, Greece, for a summer. The novel really consists of series of stories that the narrator either hears on the flight to Athens from America, overhears in cafes, or solicits from her students as if they are class exercises in learning how to tell stories, which could, in theory become published writings. Most of the strongest pieces are long, one way conversations, at which she is simply the listener, told to her by a variety of men she meets in the course of the summer. Cusk is dead on the mark, as she observes while listening, men who love to talk about themselves, and act as if she is barely there. These scenarios are like postmodern tropes on the old idea that women should be good listeners, in order to land a man. In Outline, however, we know that the narrator has written off men after a painful divorce, and the men who talk to her have no idea that she is tuning them out, or that her mind is elsewhere (we the readers know that she is listening intently, if she represents the author herself, which she probably does).
Her students represent a very wide range of ages, genders, and life experiences, and we can say that the narrator is an excellent teacher, well able to teach by example, and encourages story telling in her classes. Every story in this novel, a kind of outline for life as well as teaching, writing as well as thinking, is, in its way, riveting. Cusk is a phenomenal stylist, her writing remarkably restrained: one can see the novel as a primer on writing itself, which it also is.
She sits next to an older Greek man on the plane to Athens, and he will continue to invite her onto his boat for day pleasure trips around some Greek islands near Athens, and although Cusk makes the reader aware of his interest in her, her interest in him is mainly limited to deconstructing his often conflicting stories about his different marriages and his mentally ill son. When he asks her questions, her answers often pop his bubbles, or his fantasies, as she is likely to take the point of view of the ex-wife, or stumble upon truths that he is hiding. So these non-conversations, or inability to communicate, run through the novel, and have the effect of making us want to listen differently as we hear our friends out. Having rented an apartment in Athens for the summer, which is her safe haven, she is fascinated by the belongings of the apartment’s regular tenant, and although not a snoop, we witness her in the act of creating narratives about this woman whom she never has met, and never will meet. She is most fascinated by cardboard cutouts, slightly oversized, at the opening of a café across the street, which shows a male/female couple in the act of conversing. So the simulacrum of conversation is what she most prefers, understanding that communication between and amongst real people is not possible for her at this particular time in her life. The novel thus raises all sorts of questions about language itself, about the psychology of interactions between any two people, and how her appearance of normalcy ongoingly misleads all who choose to talk to her. The feminist undertone of Cusk’s writing is very strong, and brilliantly affective.
The day before her seeming departure for New York, she finds a woman in her apartment who will be the next tenant, who is also there to teach these same classes. Their conversation is full of surrealism, a sense of shared experience deep within each woman, and a highlight of the novel, possibly because two women can connect in ways that men and women cannot. Some of the outlines of stories in Outline are unfinished, as stories often are, and life itself often is, but for anyone interested in style, what writing is, and how language is used, Outline is a novel of both brilliance and beauty, and I recommend it whole heartedly. It’s a very smart book.