Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Book review: Outline, Rachel Cusk (2014)

This perfectly-formed novel of ideas resembles a Faberge egg in its scope and in the intricacy of its detailing. The narrative takes in a trip made by a writing teacher (whose name is given in the book but I didn’t take the opportunity when I read it to write it down; it only appears at one point in the story and for the rest of the time the narrator is just referred to as “she”) to Athens where she has been hired to run a writing course.

On the way there in the plane, she starts talking with an older man who the narrator identifies throughout the book as “her neighbour” because he sat in the seat next to her during the flight. She has coffee with a man named Ryan, who is also a writer, at one point. She also has dinner with a man who works for a publishing company and a woman who is a writer, and later she has dinner with two women, one of whom is a poet. The narrator’s neighbour twice takes her out on his motorboat, on which occasions she takes the opportunity offered to her to take a swim. Finally, the narrator meets another woman at the end of the story whose intercession is key to helping her resolve a problem she faces.

The book is full of stories. People are always telling the narrator about their lives, and her students tell her stories about animals because she has set that as a task for the class she holds. So there is plenty of material offering Cusk a chance to say important things about life, and she takes the opportunities offered to do just that. There are recurring themes, such as one which is introduced early in the book where you are asked to imagine a mountain climber who stops in his ascent and turns back to survey the route he has taken.

The author whose writing this novel reminded me of most is Helen Garner, the Australian literary journalist. Cusk, like Garner, has a genius that makes her vision appear to be precisely tuned to catch the way most people perceive the world, so that she ideally articulates the aspirations and beliefs of the mainstream. There is something here of the perfection of the very normal.

There has been some discussion as to whether Cusk’s narratives might be nonfiction but I think this is impossible. The interstices between seminal events is too short, the resonances that the author sets up between things that occur in the stories the characters tell each other and in the surrounding machinery of the narrative are too neat. You couldn’t orchestrate the world to behave with such aplomb. That way lies madness (and madness does appear in ‘Outline’ in a very real way). And there’s just too much detail in the recounts that Cusk integrates into the narrative for them to have been transcribed verbatim. Sometimes she has interlocutors who are talking with her hero while telling a story that someone else had told them. You are sometimes very far removed from the source of the story being told, but the texture of the stories is always entirely reliable and you don’t feel as though things are getting lost in the process of conveying details to the reader.

I think that the biggest threat to a novel with this much poise is that it will become mere material for undergraduates writing essays about literature. The book is so deeply self-referential, but nevertheless it retains critical links to the experience of living that let it retain universal relevance.

The refinement that characterises Cusk’s novel is not unlike the image Jane Austen used when she described her own novels to a correspondent: like pictures that are painted on little pieces of ivory with a fine brush. Another point of reference for me are the poems that Emily Dickinson wrote on the backs of old envelopes when she was alive. The use of this kind of material for her poetry is somewhat like Cusk’s use of conversations between people to tell her stories.

I think that the quiet way that Cusk creates meaning is the most important thing about her novel, and it would be a shame if it were to be referred to as a self-indulgent exercise only suitable to form fodder for university students. There is no doubt that Cusk is now a major force in literature globally but some people might turn up their noses at this book’s tendency to intellectualise the world. Again, I think that would be a shame as the book contains worlds of its own, and hints at the unseen depths that surround us in our daily lives where others abide wrapped in layers of stories, some of which are true and some of which are fiction, that they use to sustain and fortify themselves in the process of living their lives.

In fact, there is something about telling stories that is very profoundly human. We tell ourselves stories all the time. And the history of progress in the west is all about the telling of stories, as I described in a blogpost not long ago.

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