Rating + Review: Outline

I can’t quite remember why I added this book to my TBR shelf on Goodreads in June of 2018, but I think it might have been because of a segment I heard on NPR. Perhaps Rachel Cusk was promoting the third book in her Outline trilogy? For whatever reason, the book sounded writerly and interesting. Outline earned a lot of awards and I wanted to see if I agreed with the hype.

Goodreads Blurb:

A luminous, powerful novel that establishes Rachel Cusk as one of the finest writers in the English language.

A man and a woman are seated next to each other on a plane. They get to talking—about their destination, their careers, their families. Grievances are aired, family tragedies discussed, marriages and divorces analyzed. An intimacy is established as two strangers contrast their own fictions about their lives.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline is a novel in ten conversations. Spare and stark, it follows a novelist teaching a course in creative writing during one oppressively hot summer in Athens. She leads her students in storytelling exercises. She meets other visiting writers for dinner and discourse. She goes swimming in the Ionian Sea with her neighbor from the plane. The people she encounters speak volubly about themselves: their fantasies, anxieties, pet theories, regrets, and longings. And through these disclosures, a portrait of the narrator is drawn by contrast, a portrait of a woman learning to face a great loss.

Outline takes a hard look at the things that are hardest to speak about. It brilliantly captures conversations, investigates people’s motivations for storytelling, and questions their ability to ever do so honestly or unselfishly. In doing so it bares the deepest impulses behind the craft of fiction writing. This is Rachel Cusk’s finest work yet, and one of the most startling, brilliant, original novels of recent years.

A Finalist for the Folio Prize, the Goldsmiths Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. One of The New York Times’ Top Ten Books of the Year. Named a A New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Best Book of the Year by The New Yorker, Vogue, NPR, The Guardian, The Independent, Glamour, and The Globe and Mail.

As I started reading Outline, I was expecting to go on a literary adventure through some lovely writing. With lines like, “Love restores almost everything, and where it can’t restore, it takes away the pain,” I had high hopes for this book. The prose read quickly and easily, so while it could have been pretentious, it felt precise and effective. Each word felt carefully chosen. The part that I came to dislike was the lack of plot.

The lack of action.

The lack of connection to our narrator.

I followed the narrator around and listened in on her acquaintances’ conversations, but learned next-to-nothing about her. Can the main character really be the protagonist of her own story if she didn’t do anything?

On a flight to Greece, the narrator and her seatmate, whom she calls her “neighbor,” strike up a conversation. She learns that he has been married three times, had several kids, earned money and lost it, and had a tumultuous life overall. We learn that the narrator will be teaching a summer writing course in Greece. Next, the writer has a conversation with another writing teacher, a conversation with a friend she met on a previous trip to Greece, a conversation with a different friend and a published author, some conversations with her neighbor from the plane, we listen in on two of her writing classes, and then the book ends with a conversation with the next writing teacher who will teach the course. Each of these conversations reveals the deepest, darkest secrets and fears of the people the narrator is with. For some reason, all of these people spill intimate details about their lives while the narrator holds herself back. She isn’t prying into their lives or even asking questions – they freely offer up these details (but why? People don’t do this). I just couldn’t imagine this happening in real life, even though much of the book felt real because of its leisurely pace and unremarkable action.

The format of Outline reminded me of The Canterbury Tales. There’s a framework: a “pilgrimage” to Greece, and fellow characters tell personal stories, from which the reader is supposed to gather some sort of insight. It’s a departure from the typical novel and felt very anticlimactic to me. Although the writing is lovely, it felt a bit pointless. I feel like I need a professor to point out what I was missing. Like, is the fact that there’s not a satisfying ending supposed to be a mirror of life, where there’s no real conclusion, just a continuation? What else did I miss?

I don’t want to read the next book in the Outline trilogy; however, I’m also feeling such a lack of resolution that I’m curious to know what happens next to our main character. Will we finally come to know more about her? Or will the next book just offer up more conversations with random people? Cusk’s prose may be worthy of awards, but the absence of a plot left me unimpressed.

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