Sustained, Relentless Insight: Outline: A Novel by Rachel Cusk
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
A year ago, a friend told me he doubted that he’d ever read a meaningful novel. He was then a third-year medical student, and couldn’t invest time in finding one. Judging by his taste, I suggested James Salter’s Light Years — a success. He took other recommendations to mixed results, and throughout the hits and misses I now believe I can clarify his ideal book’s necessary traits: 1) absolute realism and 2) sustained and relentless passages of insight. The best part of reading Light Years in your mid-twenties is that it feels like a crash course in life: you inherit the weight of a full life lived without having done the living. Though we may disagree on the definitions of 1) and 2), we can’t argue that a novel rarely accomplishes both. Rachel Cusk’s Outline: A Novel (FSG, 2015) is one of these books and how she does it is singular.
We begin in the air. The narrator speaks with her seatmate, ostensibly about his life, but what comes is a litany of hard truths. And yet, we’re at ease. If ever there’s harmony between character and writer, this is it. Cusk’s prose matches the frictionless flight; so effortless you believe every line has been lifted straight from her experience. And the narrator, a novelist, has the terrifying calm of a woman sitting comfortably in a devastated life. She listens to her neighbor tell the tale of his ex-wives. Honesty, perspective and fault are all questioned. We can quickly imagine Cusk flying us to the lands of the mutability of memory or no universal truths or even the intimacy of strangers. But she’s not that easy. What takes shape is something far more unsettling.
We land in Athens. From here on out, conversation is aplenty — not just best-souvlaki-in-town chitchat, but a torrent of introspective confessions. It’s a good thing the talk is so rich, given Outline contains nothing else. We go from interlocutor to interlocutor, only returning to a couple of characters — most notably her seatmate in the opening scene, which eventually attempts seduction with all of the gravitas of Snoopy. A structure built only on conversation doesn’t necessarily preclude plot (one recent example would be the film, Locke), but in this case we’re very far from following any three-act structure. Virtually all of the emotionally resonant passage that concern the narrator — a photograph taken years ago of her now dissolved family comes to mind — aren’t given resolution. Instead, we have a series of stories, most short enough to be offhand dinner party fodder: the narrator’s student’s sister’s friend’s house’s glass ceiling crashing down, a poet being silently harassed at every reading she gives, a woman beating her dog after it ruins a cake she made. The universality of these stories, though they are ridiculous, is undeniable. They are time- and place-agnostic. They are also one way Cusk is able to deliver insight after insight without having take a breath for the sake of plot, character development or any of the other tenets of storytelling taught during introductory creative writing classes. (Not without irony, the narrator teaches a writing class which one student finds so unsatisfactory she leaves, explaining, “I don’t know who you are, but I’ll tell you one thing, you’re a lousy teacher.”)
So what is a book built only from glimpses into secondary characters? It’s not a complete story, with purpose, consistent texture, a rise and fall and a lesson. It doesn’t have closure, connective tissue or redeeming growth. In other words, it’s just like an actual life. That is what Cusk is up to: giving us a real person by subverting the very nature of storytelling, that the medium is just and only that; it can tell us story but cannot tell us a person.
On the last day of her stay, the narrator is supplanted by a playwright. She wakes up to find the woman, the apartment’s next occupant, right outside her bedroom, shoveling honey into her mouth. It’s hard to count the layers of meaning folded into the new character (the least important might be how the dialogue-driven story might have fit more comfortably into a play — and be worse off for it). Consistent with the rest of the book, our new converser dives right into the most troubling aspects of her life, describing her inability to write, due to a problem she calls “summing up”. Once she’s able to summarize a work with one word (say jealousy), it becomes pointless to continue with it. The same became true of her life (a friend becomes just that, and can be nothing more). A loss of self (aided by a divorce and a mugging) continues to haunt her until (not insignificantly) a conversation with a seatmate on a flight. This man, she realizes, was her opposite and, being able to understand him, she can understand herself again, as his negative image: “…while he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.” Cusk uses the titular word only twice in the novel. This is the second.
The other mention is on the first page of the novel. A billionaire she meets with before her flight “had been keen to give me the outline of his life story, which had begun unprepossessingly and ended — obviously — with him being the relaxed, well-heeled man who sat across the table from me today.” The ‘outline’ here isn’t Cusk’s type — it’s the type defined by the character himself. The resulting image isn’t of a man but a caricature.
Cusk’s sort of outline doesn’t give us the facts of the narrator’s life. Instead, we get the reflections cast on her from the worlds of others. In doing so, we end up with something too foreign to fictionalize: the self built from the outside, and in that sense, it’s a “first-person novel” more than any. Her big insight, far more real than those given to her fleeting characters, is that, like any shape, a person can be defined by its outline.
by Rachel Cusk