Virtual Book Club #1: Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline’

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Welcome to Palatinate’s first book club read! Our selected book was Rachel Cusk’s Outline, which was read by our first three members over the New Year. We’ve got plenty more books and reviews for you over the next few weeks. And we hope some of the books might even be the genesis of your own bookclubs, so enjoy!

Rachel Cusk’s Outline is a novel unlike any other I had read before. Filtered through the consciousness of the novel’s speaker, Cusk’s readers hear about the lives, worries and dreams of a diverse range of people who the speaker encounters during her time in Greece. These people are all at different points in their lives, and yet each one demonstrates the human desire to connect with other people and be truly understood.

The novel considers the difference between the interior self and the self that is expressed to others; Cusk makes us consider the gap between these two parts of the self, and how individuals try to overcome this separation by forming meaningful connections with others.

Thus, Outline considers how the act of writing fiction is one of the only ways of sharing our innermost torments and thus somewhat alleviating the loneliness of living. The novel’s many characters demonstrate their desire to be remembered and truly acknowledged by someone else, thereby avoiding the ‘ever expanding wastes of anonymity’ which the speaker also fears. Throughout the novel, what emerges is a sense of the humanity shared by its many characters, despite their economic, social and national differences. Outline is a great meditation on the nature of living and relationships, which I cannot recommend enough.

Outline is the first of a trilogy by Rachel Cusk. Our narrator, Faye, is a writer teaching a summer course in Athens; however, we know so little about her that we can only gather that she is recently divorced with two children. What Cusk manages to do is reinvent the novel genre with a book that essentially has no narrative arc.

Instead, the story is centred around the individual memories and confessions that the narrator seems to be able to draw out from all the people she meets. The narrator herself fades into the background and allows for a kaleidoscope of memories and reflections on loss and separation to emerge. And so it is through this self-effacement that the narrator towards the end is able to regain a sense of self: “she began to see herself as a shape, an outline”. 

The book is filled with maxims on relationships and communication but what struck me most is Cusk’s subtle wit and humour that is peppered throughout. Perhaps the most amusing being the predictable advances made on her by the man she meets on the plane early on, his failed seduction described as similar to “a prehistoric creature issuing its cave”.

There are indeed quite bizarre moments and often Cusk’s scrutinising observations of her characters prevents us from feeling sympathy or attachment towards them, but it is this perspective that makes Outline all the more refreshing to read. Through the lively dialogues, we see that it is not merely a collection of individual anecdotes but a critique of our very behaviour, of how we self-censor when we speak and how we filter our self-presentation through the daily act of storytelling in conversations. 

 

Rachel Cusk’s Outline came to me at an incredibly pertinent time. So many of us have spent a term in curious semi-connection with those around us. To turn to a novel that explores the nuances of fragmented connection was a huge tonic. Cusk doesn’t shy away from the feelings of isolation or loneliness that seem to have shaped our last year, but what really permeates the novel is the redemption found in tiny moments; in the plunge into the Mediterranean on a summer’s afternoon, in the colour of the light coming through the windows.

She doesn’t paint these moments with rose-tinted colour, but her portrayal of how they can shape and stay with us is stunning. It’s a reminder, also, that there is so much private pain; that everyone we meet has something to say that can stay with us forever. 

Cusk’s novel is not a novel shaped by isolation in the newer, ‘proper noun’ sense. It doesn’t come from the weird March of 2020, when the intricacies of isolation were new to a lot of us. But it is a refreshing reminder that being alone isn’t new; that standing on your own can be terrifying, but that there are wonderful currents of experience that connect everyone.

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