The conversation as narrative anchor
Note: This review is an excerpt of an essay titled "Where is the abstract painting trend in fiction?" posted on the Pumpjack Blog.
Outline by Rachel Cusk is about a woman—Faye—traveling to Athens during an oppressively hot summer for a weeklong stay to teach a writing seminar. She has left her husband and son behind in London.
Simple enough, but it’s the structure of the story that sets it apart; it’s told in ten conversations.
Cusk doesn’t rely solely on dialogue; we are transposed into her eyes from time to time. We see the cluttered rental apartment, feel the crowded restaurants, sweat in the heat, and intermittently inhabit her point of view, but this is subservient to the ten conversations.
The prose throughout is spare but with a silky viscosity, flowing without interruption.
The man sitting next to her on the plane, a colleague in the writing seminar, a friend, the friend of a friend, the students—questions are asked and answered, opinions are expressed, life stories are shared, secrets revealed, irritation surfaced. We learn bits and pieces about those with whom the narrator speaks, but largely they are a foil against which Faye gradually gains form, the conversations bringing her into relief.
In this indirect way, we discover her marriage, always considered picture perfect by envious friends, is crumbling, and come to understand the depths of her despair, as she nevertheless goes about the business of life. We see that for her, meaning is lost, except perhaps acknowledging the value of abandoning its pursuit.
At it’s most obvious, Outline’s structure suggests we know another person through an accumulation of interactions with them directly and as we observe them interacting with others, yet we are reminded that one person (one of the ten conversations) only ever sees part of a life.
Outline, published in 2015, is the first of a planned three-books series, according to the author. The second book, Transit, was released in early 2017.