In her career to date, Cusk has been loved and loathed in equal measure, as much for her forthright opinions as the quality of her writing. Outline is her eleventh work and, read in the light of her controversial memoirs about motherhood and divorce, blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. With a female novelist narrator who is hardly more than a passive receptacle for other people’s stories, Cusk seems to be asking, “Is this how you prefer me/women artists to be?”
At the opening of the novel, the narrator, Faye, is on her way to Greece to facilitate a creative writing workshop. A billionaire who takes her to lunch at his club prior to her flight is eager to tell her the outline of his life story. From then on, the book is largely Faye’s re-telling of a series of very one-sided “conversations” with people she encounters on the plane, in the cafes and restaurants of Athens and in her creative writing class. She soaks up all the messy information about their lives – their failed marriages, their disappointments, their children, their pets.
Along the way, we glean very little about Faye herself. We don’t even learn her name until about two-thirds of the way through the book. No one bothers to ask her about her life. Ryan, her co-tutor, asks “What about yourself…are you working on something?” and there the chapter ends. One of the few questions directed at her is from her son, who texts to ask where his tennis racket is.
Many women readers may recognise the men in this novel who can talk for hours about themselves without drawing breath. However, women tell their lengthy stories too. And it’s not that the narrator is particularly bored or angered by the apparent self-absorption of her acquaintances, colleagues and students. On the contrary, she actively colludes with and encourages them, asking questions and inviting them to elaborate on what they’ve told her. This raises questions of culpability, or at least responsibility.
Faye admits that she has come to believe, “more and more in the values of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible.” Nonetheless, such passivity comes at a price. Faye “began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank”.
The flat, reflective tone is well sustained – surreal stories of a dog gorging on chocolate cake and a room filled with “great-winged scarab-cased creatures” are told in the same matter-of-fact tone as considerations of the nature of love and marriage.
There are moments of wry humour throughout the novel too. For example, the billionaire, “was expecting his eleventh child, which wasn’t as bad as it sounded when you considered that he and his wife had once adopted quadruplets from Guatemala.”
I predict that more people will warm to Cusk with this novel, in part because it’s more palatable than the candour of her memoirs and because it’s fictionalised. There may be some who dislike the lack of plot in Outline but my interest was maintained by Faye’s psychological and philosophical reflections.
The book explores the nature of self, relationship and marriage, Faye concluding, “among other things a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.”
In places, I found the writing rather clichéd – for example, Cusk’s description of the billionaire who was “easily distracted, like a child with too many Christmas presents.”, or her narrator’s reflection that, “The intangible became solid, the visionary was embodied, the private became public: when peace becomes war, when love turns to hatred, something is born into the world, a force of pure mortality.”
Overall, however, I found this a surprisingly fascinating and engaging read which might just unite critics, book prize judges and the wider readership whilst defying conventions.