I’ve already reviewed Ali Smith’s How To Be Both in the context of a different awards shortlist, but its place on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is just as deserved and its chances, it seems to me, are just as strong as for the Booker (which, er, it rather sadly did not win). Rachel Cusk’s Outline, however, gives it a run for its money: it is just as interested in form as Smith’s novel, and at least as supple in its prose. If its first person singular focus doesn’t quite break the perspectival glass ceiling in the way How To Be Both manages, Outline is perhaps more focused and arguably deeper – at least in so far as that can be taken to mean unfathomable.
This difficulty the reader might find in plumbing Outline‘s depths is appropriate for a novel which begins with the narrator taking a flight over water, and includes a lengthy outing on a boat (indeed, the UK paperback edition foregrounds this motif with a blue cover across which ripples proceed outwards from the title). There is an extent to which the word ‘Outline’ represents very well the paring away of context and characterisation from the narrator, a novelist in the aftermath of a marriage breakdown who flies to Greece to teach a creative writing course: Cusk is engaged in a quite radical novelistic project which seeks to render the narrator a cipher, an almost passionless listener who simply imparts the many stories told to her by her various interlocutors (the novel is more or less a series of conversations) without judgement, comment or conclusion. In a typical exchange, an old friend declaims over a lunch served by a waitress he insists on ogling:
And so I learned, he said, that it is impossible to improve things, and that good people are just as responsible for it as bad, and that improvement itself is perhaps a mere personal fantasy […] We are all addicted to it, he said, removing a single mussel from its shell with his trembling fingers and putting it in his mouth, the story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality. It has even infected the novel, though perhaps now the novel is infecting us back again, so that we expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books; but this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of. [p. 99]
All of this, of course, is intensely metatextual: in not offering judgement, in providing this opinion unadorned, the reader might usually assume the writer was endorsing the point of view, or at least presenting it as a position to be seriously considered; but Outline is also a novel implicitly seeking to prove the narrator’s old friend wrong, and show how the novel might infect be inoculated against the unbeatable virus he describes; by the same token, the novel ends with the disengaged narrator improved, arriving at the classically novelistic epiphany that “if people were silent about the things that had happened to them, was something not being betrayed, even if only the version of themselves that had experienced them?” [p. 245] That is, nothing in Outline is straight-forward or final. It is a tessellation of perspectives, none crowding out the others.
“Without structure,” muses another of the narrators companions, this one a man she meets on the aeroplane to Athens, “events are unreal.” [p. 24] He is talking about the curious ways in which he finds each of his series of failed marriages evaporates when the habits that held them together – shared houses, regular conversations – are taken away. But it goes just as much for the ghost-like way in which the narrator drifts through the lives of others, reporting their words and imparting their lives but not becoming part of them and refusing to allow one to dominate her world. Unlike many novelistic narrators, endlessly and unrealistically curious and prying, this one is tired of being intimately connected with others – she is exhausted by it. At one point, she sits on the edge of a boat and contemplates the sea. “The thread led nowhere, except into ever expanding wastes of anonymity,” she muses of her mooted swim. “Yet this impulse, this desire to be free, was still compelling to me: I still, somehow, believed in it, despite having proved that everything about it was illusory.” [p. 74] There’s despair in that.
Now, look. Cusk has her weaknesses, and they are well discussed; a sort of humourlessness, a tendency to over-dramatise. And you might argue that, in depicting someone looking at the Aegean and musing about the impossibility of disconnect, Cusk again falls into the trap she habitually sets herself. There’s a lot of that in Outline. But it’s a too-easy criticism of an intelligent writer (particularly an intelligent female writer) to say she lacks jokes. Even if, to reprise the comparison with Smith, How To Be Both manages to be both serious and playful, it is not to Outline‘s discredit that it chooses a different tone. Indeed, the at times exhausting effort of reading a novel in which the narrator does not care is part of its point: here is a novel, perhaps, about depression; and here, too, is also a novel, undoubtedly, about the novel. That is, it is serious becomes its questions are existential.
When the narrator first meets her students, she asks each of them to describe something they observed on the way to the class. This results in a series of personalised exchanges – all described in that same, detached way – which provide an awful lot of fictive matter, but which do not read like fiction:
“This morning” he said, “I was crossing the square opposite my apartment building, on my way to the metro, and I saw on one of the low concrete walls around the square a woman’s handbag. […] But I realised, while I was walking, that I should have taken the bag to a police station.” [p. 135]
That ellipsis of mine omits an entire page of further discourse, and yet the story remains the same: it’s a structure and a narrative, but one without consolation. In part, this is pure distilled Knausgaard (“there is no story of life” [p. 137]), and Cusk knows it. On another level, however, it is Cuskian, at least in so far as it speaks to Outline‘s central experiment: at the end of the class, one student stands up and complains. “She had been told that this was a class about learning to write, something that as far as she was aware involved using your imagination.” [p. 158] Like many of Cusk’s readers (and, you assume she hopes, you yourself), the narrator’s student feels she has been punked: by autobiography, by the absence of the traditional consolations of narrative, by the sheer po-facedness of the whole enterprise. In fact, you might imagine a smile on Cusks’ face as she wrote this paragraph. You might imagine it’s a joke.
At the end of the novel, a tutor arriving just as the narrator is leaving describes her own failed relationship: “she had become, through him, someone else.” [p. 237] Perhaps tellingly, by this point the narrator has severed her developing ties with the man from the plane, who has so abandoned the idea of the lasting effects of relationships. In transparent, sometimes glacial, prose, Outline has contrived to go on a journey without appearing to move at all. What Outline does is demonstrate, through a narrator without a perspective, how points of view can shift almost totally and yet almost invisibly, and how they do so in interaction with others. Though it at times presents as an anti-novel, it is in fact a champion of the form, finding a startlingly new way to demonstrate its continuing power to depict and, yes, (over-) dramatise human interaction.