Book Review: Outline
by Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
The main character in Rachel Cusk’s elegant, slightly diluted new novel Outline is a creative writing teacher named (we eventually learn) Faye who’s taking a flight from England to teach a summer writing course in Athens (this will cause a small shudder in the soul of anyone who’s ever visited Athens in the summer, and indeed, Faye is warned about the rampant, Venusian heat). On board the plane, she meets a dumpy older man, a voluble billionaire in the neighboring seat. He regales her with stories, and in very short order, every other character in the book also regales her with stories.
This is the core laziness at the heart of the novel: Faye is basically an iPad, receiving and even facilitating the narratives of others but possessing barely any narrative herself. Cusk is a marvelous describer, and a pure light shines through the clean prose of her book at all points. When Faye first makes her way to the apartment whose owner has vacated town for the summer for her use, we see that apartment in a perfectly-controlled cascade of vivid imagery and pithy commentary:
Clelia’s kitchen was sufficiently functional to give the clear message that she didn’t spend much time there: one of the cupboards was entirely filled with esoteric whiskies, another with relatively useless things – a fondue set, a fish kettle, a ravioli press – that were still in their boxes, and one or two were completely empty. If you left so much as a crumb on the counter-top, columns of ants would spring out from all directions and descend on it as though starved. The view from the kitchen window was of the backs of other buildings with their pipework and washing lines. The room itself was quite small and dark. Yet there was nothing you really needed that wasn’t there.
Likewise the book is littered with glittering little turns of phrase on almost every page. The burbling billionaire (we’re never told his name, that I noticed) is oblivious to the details of the stories people – including Faye – tell him “for people are at their least aware of others when demonstrating their own power over them,” we’re told, and about an Athens neighborhood at sunset: “The quick hot dusk was falling, and soon the narrow street had filled up with darkness.”
It’s fine writing, and it extends to the dreamy, elaborate dialogue that springs up everywhere throughout the book between Faye and the dozens of people who feel compelled to unload their stories for her listening ears. Occasionally, Faye even talks about herself, like when her friend Elena asks her about what was going through her head when she agreed to accompany the boorish old billionaire on his boat one day:
It was hot, I said. And the terms on which we had left the harbour were strictly – or so I thought – the terms of friendship. I described his attempt to kiss me, when we were anchored far out to sea. I said that he was old, and that though it would be cruel to call him ugly, I had found his physical advances as repellant as they were surprising. It had never occurred to me that he would do such a thing; or more accurately, before she pointed out that I would have to be an imbecile not to have seen it as a possibility, I thought he wouldn’t dare do such a thing. I had thought the differences between us were obvious, but to him they weren’t.
To which Elena responds with equally improbable eloquence:
“If ,” she said presently, “you had told him the truth, if you had said to him, look, you are old and short and fat, and though I like you the only reason I am really here is to get a ride on your boat -” she began to laugh, fanning her face with the menu “- if you had said those things to him, you understand, you would have heard some truths in return. If you had been frank you would have elicited frankness.”
Cusk does almost nothing to connect any of the stories Faye hears to each other, or to their tellers, or to Faye herself, and the result is uncannily similar to the cacophony replaying in your head at night after a day spent on planes and trains: snippets of conversation, odd impressions, perhaps a momentary curiosity about some of those talkers with whom you so briefly intersected, but nothing more. The book remains, as its title (perhaps tauntingly? In interviews, the author always seems so nice…) indicates, only the outline of the novel about Faye’s Athenian interlude that might have moved its readers instead of only diverting them.