Outline, by Rachel Cusk

And Rachel Cusk's writing on Natalia Ginzburg

I’ve now read two authors from my “Authors It’s Practically a Crime I Haven’t Read Yet” list; the first, Natalia Ginzburg, was a smashing success, but the second, Rachel Cusk, I’m still not sure about. Her novel Outline is exactly the sort of book I should like. I like autofiction, which Cusk is known for. I also like books where not much happens, which is true of Outline. The novel is mostly people talking, a structure that intrigues me.

But when I think of this book, I keep coming back to the idea of coolness or coldness. It left me cold. The novel’s basic idea is that a woman named Faye travels to Athens to teach a creative writing class. She meets a man on the plane and then goes swimming with him. She has dinners with friends. She teaches her class. We learn that she is recently divorced, although we don’t get many details. Mostly what happens is that people talk to her. The man on the plane, her friends, her students all talk for pages and pages, telling stories from their lives. They talk in a way no one does in real life — realism of that sort isn’t the point.

And that’s it! I’ll admit I didn’t do a great job of seeing how the various stories fit together, and thinking back, I don’t remember many of them clearly. It seems highly likely that paying more attention to those details and looking for connections would have paid off in helping me understand the book. But I didn’t feel invested enough in it to read it more carefully.

I can see some of what Cusk may be doing: for one, she’s taking away the traditional first-person narrator who focuses on their own story. In its place, we get the experience of being the narrator, someone who doesn’t need to tell her story to herself. Instead, she, and the reader with her, look out at the world and report the stories she/we hear. We see the world through Faye’s eyes instead of being Faye’s audience. Also, the presence of all those stories calls attention to the lack of Faye’s own, which makes her seem to stand in for loss itself. She’s sort of a gaping hole in the center of the book. The novel is also about the way people present themselves, how they tell their stories and how those stories change as those people keep talking. This is especially true for the man from the plane who gradually reveals details that alter what we think about him and what he’s said before. It’s about self-representation and self-justification.

All of the above is interesting, but I missed the presence of a first-person narrator telling me her story! Maybe I just don’t like Cusk’s project, or I like it in the abstract, but don’t like the experience of reading the results of that project. One of the joys of reading for me is spending time with an interesting narrator or voice, someone who explains themselves and the world to me, or, even better, struggles to explain themselves and the world to me and puts that struggle on the page. I wanted something more to hold Cusk’s book together. Generally speaking, plot can do this, or character, voice, style, or some combination of these things, and I am drawn to character and voice in particular. I like books that are chaotic and messy, but usually there’s something that gives them a sense of unity. And, yes, there are things that unify Outline, but little that feel meaningful to me.

I don’t know how my experience of reading Outline would have been different if I hadn’t read her right after Natalia Ginzburg. Ginzburg’s is exactly the kind of writing I like best, and it feels diametrically opposed to what Cusk is doing. Ginzburg is extremely present as a writer — she tells us about her life and what she thinks and feels. She talks to us as though she’s in the room. She’s alive (metaphorically speaking) and vibrant. Faye is elusive. She disappears and her voice gets drowned out by others. She’s also a fictional character, but I wonder how much that matters in this case, if at all. They are both fictional constructs.

Of course, Ginzburg and Cusk do have things in common, which is presumably why Cusk wrote the introduction to my edition of Natalia Ginzburg’s essay collection The Little Virtues (a UK edition that I wrote about last week). Cusk’s introduction to Ginzburg is very good, particularly her observations on Ginzburg’s form and style. Of Ginzburg’s technical advancements, Cusk writes:

Chief among these is her grasp of the self and of its moral function in narrative; second — a consequence of the first — is her liberation from conventional literary form and from the structures of thought and expression that Virginia Woolf likewise conjectured would have to be swept away if an authentic female literature were to be born. Yet this liberation is entirely towards naturalness and simplicity; it is an advance made without the propulsive force of ego, and so it is not easy to recognize it as an advance at all.

In this passage, I can see pieces of what Cusk may be doing in Outline: she is also contemplating “the self and its moral function in narrative,” and she created a character in Faye who also seems to operate “without the propulsive force of ego.” I can see why Cusk is drawn to Ginzburg when she says The Little Virtues is “a work of great restraint and courage.” Outline seems restrained as well, and maybe even courageous. But the effect of reading these two books is so different!

This makes me think perhaps I should read Cusk’s essays next, or maybe one of the novels not in the Outline trilogy (which includes Transit and Kudos). I’ve heard that her most recent novel Second Place is very different from Outline, and also that her essays are very good. I’m not ready to give up on her entirely.

Don’t Forget About

The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015): Yes, this was only published six years ago and lots of people know about it and have read it, but I want to suggest you consider reading it if you haven’t yet and if you like brilliant, hilarious, biting satire. What stands out in my memory about this book is, first, the amazing sentences, and, second, the opening section where the main character appears before the Supreme Court. This was jaw-dropping and jaw-droppingly good. The story is complicated and involves the narrator’s relationship with his father who was killed in a police shoot-out and the fact that the narrator’s California town was removed from the map and he wants it back. His solution to this problem is … well, there’s a reason he has to appear before the Supreme Court. This book is wild in the best way.

Publishing This Week

New books out this week that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR (quotations from the publisher):

  • Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki, translated by Daniel Joseph, Sam Bett, and Polly Barton (Verso Fiction): what a title! This is a book of short stories of the speculative fiction variety. I’m not sure when they were written, but the author lived from 1949-1986 and was a model and actress as well as a writer and was known as a countercultural icon.

  • Permafrost by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories): a debut novel by a Catalan poet. It’s a novel about breaking out of expected social roles and is “a call for women's freedom to embrace both pleasure and solitude, and speaks boldly of the body, of sex, and of the self.”

  • We Are Bridges by Cassandra Lane (Feminist Press): a memoir about motherhood and family. “This debut traces the strange fruit borne from the roots of personal loss in one Black family--and considers how to take back one's American story.”

  • Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins (Open Letter): a debut novel by a French Korean author. It’s the story of a woman in a border town between South and North Korea and what happens when a French cartoonist arrives looking for inspiration.

New on the TBR

New books acquired:

Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own):

  • No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai, translated by Donald Keene (New Directions, 1973): this is a recommendation from Akin Akinwumi, who suggested it after I finished Territory of Light, which was written by Osamu Dazai’s daughter. No Longer Human is another example of the Japanese “I-novel,” a form I’m currently a little obsessed with.

  • I added almost every book from this list over at Lit Hub on “Six Latin American Novels That Changed How We Think of Fiction.”

Currently Reading

  • Begin by Telling by Meg Remy (Book*hug Press, 2021): a book of memoir/essays with illustrations about Remy’s experiences and observations on the American culture of violence, capitalism, sexism, and a lot more.

  • To Write as if Already Dead by Kate Zambreno (University of Columbia Press, publishing June 8th): Zambreno’s book about/meditation on/homage to Herve Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life.

The Cormac Report

I wrote a couple months ago about how we are reading an illustrated edition of the Lord of the Rings books to Cormac at night before he goes to bed, a few pages a day. We are now up to the third and final one! We may be reading it for another month, but we’re still thinking ahead to what book we might like to read next. We’ve floated the idea of reading the Silmarillion, but given how the Lord of the Rings books sometimes barely hold Cormac’s attention, that probably won’t work. He’s content to be reading Tolkien — I think because he loves the idea of having read the whole series — but he does get restless now and then.

He’s dealt with the restlessness lately by listening for words he doesn’t know and asking what they mean. So he constantly interrupts Rick’s reading to ask for definitions, and since it’s J.R.R. Tolkien, there are a lot of words to define. What does “thither” mean? Hillock? Brigand? And on and on. It’s kind of fun to come up with good definitions of words, even if it does slow us down considerably. But, obviously, speed is not the point. It’s Tolkien we’re talking about here!

Have a good week everyone!