One would be hard- pressed to consider Outline by Rachel Cusk a novel in the traditional sense. There is no plot and very little happens. It consists of a series of conversations, many of them more akin to soliloquies than actual dialogue.
The novel is in the first-person point of view of a female writer who is on her way to Athens to teach a brief summer writing course. Seated next to her on the plane is an elderly gentleman who proceeds to disclose personal details about his failed marriages. The narrator mostly listens with an occasional prompt or question. What makes it confusing is Cusk frequently omits the use of quotation marks so one is never sure if the narrator is articulating her perceptions aloud or if they are internal. It is only after her neighbor responds we realize she has actually spoken.
Her arrival in the smoldering heat of Athens is punctuated with a series of conversations with an assorted group—a fellow teacher, her friends, her students, her neighbor on the plane, an author, and her replacement at the writing school. The conversations feel more like monologues or soliloquies than dialogues. The speakers reveal intimate, detailed stories about their lives and their loves. In each case, they disclose a pivotal incident long since passed that has had a lasting impact on their life or changed its trajectory. Cusk occasionally puts their disclosures in quotation marks, but more often they are reported through the filter of our narrator in the form of indirect dialogue.
The narrator says very little to interrupt the flow of the monologues. Details about her life surface through snatches or through her occasional commentary. Her portrait is sketchy, an outline at best. We don’t even learn her name until we are almost at the end of the novel. But she is an attentive listener and an astute observer of behavior. She asks probing questions which prompt the revelations. Her eye is trained to catch seemingly insignificant details. Her tone is resigned with a tinge of sadness. Her perceptions reinforce the thread that ties the conversations together—the sense of having lost something that can never be regained, whether it is one’s family, a former lover, an identity, a meaningful purpose, or a philosophy of life.
This is a very different type of novel, one that stretches the genre to its limits. It is both frustrating and brilliant. The frustration lies in the expectation that something is about to happen, some stunning revelation or epiphany. It never does. The brilliance lies in Cusk’s exquisite prose and in the manner in which the narrator somehow manages to erase her presence while mediating the monologues of those around her. What emerges from these monologues is stunning observations about human nature, loneliness, regret, loss, the desire to connect, gender stratification, fractured relationships, parenthood, failed marriages, and the amorphous nature of selfhood. These observations resonate forcefully as nuggets of truth. They creep up on us slowly, almost incidentally, attesting to Cusk’s consummate skill as a writer.
Highly recommended for those willing to plunge into an innovative novel where very little happens.