Outline by Rachel Cusk • read by Kate Reading for 7 hours 17 minutes • published by Blackstone Audio, Inc. on December 18, 2014 • classified as literary fiction, postmodern literature, psychological fiction, adult fiction • obtained through Overdrive • read as audiobook • • shelve on Goodreads
A man and a woman are seated next to each other on a plane. They get to talking — about their destination, their careers, their families. Grievances are aired, family tragedies discussed, marriages and divorces analyzed. An intimacy is established as two strangers contrast their own fictions about their lives.
Outline is a novel in ten conversations. Spare and stark, it follows a novelist teaching a course in creative writing during one oppressively hot summer in Athens. She leads her students in storytelling exercises. She meets other visiting writers for dinner and discourse. She goes swimming in the Ionian Sea with her neighbor from the plane. 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 a great loss.
Outline takes a hard look at the things that are hardest to speak about. It brilliantly captures conversations, investigates people’s motivations for storytelling, and questions their ability to ever do so honestly or unselfishly. In doing so it bares the deepest impulses behind the craft of fiction writing. This is Rachel Cusk’s finest work yet and one of the most startling, brilliant, original novels of recent years.
A Postmodern Novel
Outline serves to portray a collection of stories, observations and ideas more than anything else. The overarching plot is so incredibly linear, it’s banal. We hardly get to know the characters either, except through the curated snapshots of their lives. You could say Outline deconstructs the format of a novel. In the pursuit of stories, the overarching story of the protagonist fades away. In fact, her name only surfaces towards the end of the book.
The metafictional approach and fragmentation of stories makes Outline a distinctly postmodern book. I wish I had known this before picking up the audiobook. Yes, the synopsis sort of clues us in but isn’t explicit about it. Personally, I much rather read postmodern literature on the page. That way I can annotate the text with my own thoughts as I try to make sense of everything.
A Little Overambitious
While I did enjoy Outline on an intellectual level, I thought that it offered too little and yet attempted to achieve too much. In presenting all these snippets from various characters’ lives, I didn’t get to know any of them. Not even the protagonist stands out. She often is a passive listener.
This can work out brilliantly, as the reader is forced to engage on a deeper level. The reader must assess the stories from the secondary characters for themselves. There are sparks of that brilliance but they don’t reach their full potential. None of the characters and stories particularly captured my interest nor touched me emotionally, I felt little connection to Outline as a novel.
Still, Worth Reading
Stripped of the narratives, however, Outline does offer intriguing insight on life, love, truth, and more. It also puts into question reliability of narrators — what they share and what they choose to withhold, especially as the protagonist teaches a writing class in Athens. For the philosophical musings I do intend to reread it. Next time in print and a pen in hand.
Keywords: adultery, adventure, books, cheating, divorce, family problems, love, relationships, teaching, travel, truth, work life, writing