A writer, Faye, flies to Athens. There, she teaches a writing course, goes on two boat trips with an older Greek man she met on the plane and spends time with old friends in the city. These are the facts of Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Outline, but they tell you nothing of its reality. For a start, you only know your narrator is called Faye because on page 212 she has a brief phone conversation with an estate agent who happens to use her name. But then a name tells you as little about a person as a plot tells you about a book, or at least a book like this one.
Outline is an exploration of the “secret pain” of existence, as one of Faye’s writing students puts it. From the first page – a lunch meeting with a billionaire hoping to start a literary magazine (though the conversation never reaches that subject) – our narrator records her encounters with a varied cast. Character after character swerves into view, tells her their tale, and then disappears. Sometimes, as with her neighbour on the plane, she questions their account: “I remained dissatisfied by the story of his second marriage. It had lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to those extremes were often incorrect.” In Outline, the unreliable narrator is everywhere.
As Faye ingests these various narratives, she gradually allows fragments of her own life to emerge. You learn, piecemeal, that she has separated from her husband, has two sons, and has recently moved to London from the family house in the country. But again, these are merely facts. In one encounter, Faye meets with a Greek friend, Paniotis, who has brought with him a photograph that he took a few years ago of Faye with her husband and children. She remembered him taking the picture, and finding it unusual: “It marked some difference between him and me, in that he was observing something while I, evidently, was entirely immersed in being it.” Faye didn’t notice at the time that Paniotis was consumed by his own failure and she goes on to wonder if the way things unfold is a punishment for such moments of unawareness. Paniotis is horrified by such an idea, and at the end of their meeting gives her the picture: “‘It remains your truth,’ he said, ‘whatever has happened.’”
Outline is full of moments like this: where image and reality chafe, where one person’s sense of a situation diverges from another’s, where the facts are clouded by our interpretations of them. Faye’s writing class debates this very point. One student, Georgeou, sees “the tendency to fictionalise our own experiences as positively dangerous” because it exaggerates our own significance. Another, Clio, disagrees, convinced that existence has “a distinct form that has begun and will one day end”. Faye remains aloof; she never fully asserts or concludes, but allows this river of stories, attitudes and effects to wash over her. As the cast of characters come and go, her own preoccupations crystallise: marriage, self, womanhood, motherhood, creativity, sacrifice – subjects that Cusk has already broached in her best known works of non-fiction, A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother (2001) and Aftermath (2012), her provocative, exposing memoir about the breakdown of her marriage.
As in all her writing, Cusk’s uncompromising, often brutal intelligence is at full power. So is her technique. The novel is written in a voice so supremely controlled, sometimes to the point of coldness, that its speaker’s profound pain is almost entirely masked. Precise, lyrical writing (the “baked, broken angles” of rooftops) rubs against mundanity. And throughout, destabilising everything, there are moments of sudden and violent honesty: “I could swim out into the sea as far as I liked, if what I wanted was to drown.”
I can’t think of a book that so powerfully resists summary or review, that resists these things not only by being complex – for Outline is deceptive and artful in its simplicity – but also by its founding principle, that we are only what we say we are from moment to ephemeral moment. To offer a definitive response to such a book is to make the same mistake as many of her characters, creating a version of events that cheats truth. Inevitably, the only way to get anywhere close to the elusive and fascinating core of Outline is to read it.
Outline, by Rachel Cusk, Faber, RRP£16.99, 256 pages