At one point in Rachel Cusk’s Outline Ryan, who like the novel’s narrator, Faye, is in Greece teaching writing, tells her:

“He didn’t realise how many English words came from Greek compounds. For instance the word ellipsis, he’d been told, could literally be translated as ‘to hide behind silence’.”

‘Hiding behind silence’ is very much the methodology of the novel: it is filled with many voices, but rarely with Faye’s. Instead she recounts what others have said to her, beginning with her neighbour on the flight to Greece, who tells her of his childhood and his failed marriages. Her own reluctance to voice her thoughts is suggested by her disinterest in discussing her taste in literature, “a form of snobbery or self-definition:”

“What I knew personally to be true had come to seem unrelated to persuading others. I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.”

However she cannot help but view her neighbour’s story with a writer’s eye:

“I remained dissatisfied by the story of his second marriage. It lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to these extremes were incorrect.”

Faye – and by extension Cusk – is less interested in what happened than in a version of what happened. As the novel progresses, in lieu of a plot, a series of characters will relates events from their lives to Faye. Not only is this, by implication, how we see things rather than what we see, but that very realisation is central to many of the stories she is told. Her Greek friend Paniotis, for example, talks about the moment he saw his dream of becoming a publisher for what it was:

“I realised that my little dream of a publishing house was destined to remain just that, a fantasy, and in fact what that realisation caused me to feel was not so much disappointment at the situation as astonishment at the fantasy itself.”

Later he will mention another memory, when he is travelling with his children, where his way of seeing is similarly and unexpectedly unique:

“I kept waiting for the children to ask to go home… but in fact it was I who wanted to go home. I began to realise, in the car, that as far as they were concerned they were home, at least partly, because they were with me.”

Similarly, Angeliki talks about the difference she feels in travelling alone as a writer compared to travelling with her husband; the difference is not a practical one but entirely in her perception:

“…we lived in Berlin for six years, but even going there alone, as a writer, it seemed somehow alien.”

Faye herself is not immune to this subjectivity. When her neighbour from the first chapter attempts to kiss her while they are out on his boat she proclaims herself surprised: “I had thought the differences between us were obvious, but to him they weren’t.” This is perhaps why she describes love as “the belief in something that only the two of you can see.” She is very aware that her own divorce has changed her perceptions:

“It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.”

Subjective versions of events exist between reality and illusion just as the novel exists between autobiography and fiction. Cusk has said:

“I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character – these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

Outline is autobiographical not only in the sense that we can regard Faye as a representation of Cusk (what little we discover about her coincides with Cusk’s biography) but also as the novel itself is woven from a series of autobiographical sketches. Discarding plot and character (in the sense of something more than self-image) as the driving forces of the novel, Cusk presents a reality created from a patchwork of illusions. Prior to writing Outline, Cusk spoke of “heading into total silence.” Of course, no writer can be a silent presence in their work, but Cusk’s approach makes her voice difficult to locate. When, for example, Ryan tells her,

“I don’t know about you… but I actually don’t have the time to write, what with the family and the teaching job,”

Faye’s reaction is hidden from us, Cusk refusing to sign-post her intentions. Should we sympathise? Or are Ryan’s excuses laughable? Should we regard it as a barbed portrayal by Cusk of authors who live of past glories? This is exactly what makes Outline such a fascinating novel, the openness of its characters obscuring as much as it reveals.


Tags: ,

2 Responses to “Outline”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    I just loved this book as well. You are right, it is fascinating. The final book in the trilogy is due out in June. I’m really looking forward to it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: