Readers Write In #341: ‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk: a delineation through dialogue

Posted on February 28, 2021


(by Kannan Baskar)

Outline, a 2014 novel by Canadian born British writer Rachel Cusk, is the first book in The Outline trilogy. The story, set in Athens, is a series of conversations that the narrator has with friends, strangers, and students. The narrator Faye, a British writer visiting Greece to teach in a writing seminar, remains unnamed until we know her name late in the book. She initially feels like a nonentity, invisible and cipher-like, but we later realize that the book is indeed about her. Each conversation (there are ten of them in total) is a story in itself, some, stories within stories; the narrator’s passivity miraculously elicits rich, detailed accounts of each person she encounters. The primary function of Cusk’s book is not to tell a story but to delineate and outline the narrator’s opaqueness: a “reverse kind of exposition” or “anti-description”(Cusk 239).

Home or its sense is a recurring idea—the characters use it to represent relationships and family in the conversations. The narrator remarks that after her divorce, their home in the countryside had turned into a grave. The conversation that the narrator has with a fellow writer Anne is the most telling and pellucid of all the ten. While describing her reactions to her husband’s eating after their divorce, Anne says that she feels both Nostos (a sense of homecoming/ longing/ homesickness) and disgust. Faye’s other acquaintance, the neighbor, says that talking to his first wife feels like walking past his old house. The sense of home in Outline seems to allude to the homecoming or the motivation to return experienced by Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. However, “home” also represents a familiar pattern, which includes family and its subsets, the absence of which causes anxiety—a common malaise.

Faye’s observations seem mostly objective. She hardly parts with any information of her own. It is difficult to believe that people would give so many telling details of themselves to a stranger. Did the narrator fill in some details on her own? Is the narrator unreliable? Would it then mean that we can glean a collage of her personality from these submerged, tampered bits? However, the author reveals her design through Anne: that particular conversations is an illustration of what Faye is not; they collectively outline her rather than informing her substance. The author/ narrator (this is a good example of autofiction) reveals herself indirectly through these meetings. The exposition is indirect, yet, at the end, Faye feels like a fully formed, fleshed out character. This particular achievement is remarkable.

Differences leading to disgust is represented symbolically in quite a few instances. Melete, a poet, relates the haunting imagery of women standing outside an opera house menstruating profusely, unable to get in. The neatly dressed men in bow ties look at them and their bloodied towels in disgust. This image could be interpreted as patriarchy, but it predominantly indicates difference leading to disgust. The women are bleeding, and the men are not; this difference causes disgust. This mutual disgust is depicted in Anne’s relationships. Towards the end, however, the narrative draws attention to the futility of such representations. The author creates and subverts assumptions: she never allows herself or the work to be objectified. This should’ve been important as it was autofiction. A kind of self-preservation when she is trying to expose a part of herself.

Animals get introduced as symbols by the characters: cats destroying the professor’s books, Penelope’s experience with the dog Mimi, the birdsong-like composition of a composer. In some cases, such as the Mimi incident, the symbols are prominent, and in other situations, they are not. However, the student Aris points out, “we use animals as pure reflections of human consciousness, while at the same time their existence exerts a sort of moral force by which human beings feel objectified and therefore safely contained?”(Cusk 224-225). Is this a self-referential remark by the author through Aris? I interpreted these suggestions and symbolisms thus: Animals act as passive vehicles; we fill them with our meditations; they act like mortal mirrors reflecting our state of mind. Or is the author trying to ridicule our habit of seeing symbols in everything? I feel the author wants us to assume an ambivalence towards these animals and hence dwell on them.

Cusk makes the text self-referential and objective. Arial’s remark is one such instance; it modifies the significance of previous animal references. Anne’s remarks directly point to the title Outline. By itself, the story could be an example of autofiction: Cusk herself is a writer, teacher, and divorcee. The narrator’s vision remains mostly objective, though there is a mood of alienation and disenchantment. Faye’s student Georgeou is a shrewd pragmatist; he is religiously objective and reminds the other students and the narrator of subjectivity’s pitfalls. It is no coincidence that the philosopher Habermas gets a mention. Habermas deals with the public sphere concept and argues against representational culture in his text The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere; in Outline, this book gets devoured by Marielle’s cats(Habermas). This mention introduces intertextuality and also references the Outline’s own sense of objectivity or lack thereof. It also makes us wonder if the prior symbols and other representations were mere touches of sarcasm or verbal ironies.

Ms. Cusk uses a distinct style; the sentence structure, in particular, gives a sense of pattern within patterns. This style of multiple clauses layered over one another resonates with the story within a story structure of the conversations. In other words,the author has tried to create a fractal-like, recursion pattern in the story: sentences and ideas recurring as units placed one over another, explaining the whole. On reading theseheavily intricatedetails, one experiences the conveyed thoughtspeeling off one over another with a hesitation, finally, like an onion a well delineated void stares at us: the narrator’s character.

Cusk’s novel’s success is not in its intelligence; instead, it is in the absolute honesty of the depictions and the non-depictions. The author guards the contents of the narrator’s story religiously,repels us from reducing Faye to a generic pattern; her character remains an uncharted yet well-delineated territory. We are unaware of the place’s contours, nor are we allowed to assume and imagine. Faye’s character is a private abode: a hollow no man’s land that we appreciate from the outside for its exquisite outline.

Works Cited

Cusk, Rachel. Outline: A Novel. New York: Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition, 2015.

Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Polity Press, 1992.