Saturday, February 21, 2015

Outline, by Rachel Cusk

Outline is not a novel in the traditional sense of a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nor does the narrator narrate; rather she listens the stories of others. Faye is a writer who is traveling from London to Athens to teach at a summer writing program. The stories she hears are those of the people she encounters over a few days--the man sitting next to her on the plane, with whom she goes sailing twice, each time having more of his story revealed; friends and friends of friends in Athens; other writers teaching in the program; and her students. Like the man on the plane, always referred to as "her neighbour," her students have the opportunity to speak twice--once when they introduce themselves to the class by telling about something they observed on the way to class (one student storms out after this exercise, enraged that Faye is not teaching them) and once when they share their first assignment--a story with an animal in it.

The stories tend toward the confessional; many feature failed relationships and divorces. One student describes how she came to abuse her children's dog; another writer reflects on having published only one well-received book of stories; a former music student experiences ineffable sadness as a familiar piece of music wafts through the air as she walks to the writing class. Faye comments on some of the stories (for example, she finds her neighbour's accounts of his three marriages so clearly one-sided that they lack any credibility); others she hears with no apparent response. While some reviewers have commented that Faye becomes three-dimensional as she listens to the stories of others, to me she remains a cipher. She does not, in fact, matter; what matters is story.

Outline is a novel without an overarching story--and yet it is all about story: The power of story, who tells it, who hears it, and what the telling means to both. While I have recently commented on books that might better have been read than listened to, the audio version of this book benefited by being read by Kate Reading. While some reviewers found the stories too similar in terms of voice or style, Reading gives them different colorations, making the story-tellers distinct.

Outline stimulates thought about what a novel is or can be. For a traditionalist, it may not be as satisfying as a book with the expected narrative arc, but it has its own rewards.

Favorite passages:
The story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality, it has even infected the novel, though perhaps now the novel is infecting us back again so that we expect of our lives what we have come to expect of our books. But this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of.

The polarization of man and woman was a structure, a form. She had only felt it once it was gone and it almost seemed as though the collapse of that structure, that equipoise, was responsible for the extremity that followed it.

Yet if people were silent that had happened to them, was something not being betrayed, even if only the version of themselves that had experienced them? It was never said of history, for instance, that it shouldn't be talked about. On the contrary, in terms of history, silence was forgetting and it was the thing people feared most of all when it was their own history that was at risk of being forgotten.

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