It was as if I had lost some special capacity to filter my own perceptions, one that I had only become aware of once it was no longer there … I was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself, was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own.

Following a divorce, Faye turns inward and becomes absent from her exterior life – it hurts less than being present. An English writer, her narrative picks up as she embarks on a journey to Greece, where she will teach a short writing course. Along the way, she encounters many others with stories to tell – stories which are remarkably like her own. Through their words, the outline of Faye’s self becomes more distinct, even as she recedes from the story.

Outline (2014) is a remarkable example of autofiction in which Rachel Cusk creates a story where both she and her narrator are seemingly absent while at the same time constantly present. Cusk has experienced the consequences of writing straight, unflinching autobiography in the past [1] – autofiction feels like a smart response, an opportunity to defy and deflect at once. Faye’s passivity may be a reflection of society’s desire that women go about their lives quietly without upsetting the apple cart, but neither Faye nor Cusk are truly taking a backseat here.

Outline by Rachel Cusk book coverSome may read Outline as a series of conversations that mimic the rhythm of life. I disagree. The rhythm of the book is entirely Faye’s, as she stitches together different stories, bringing out the elements that stick with her. These conversations may have ‘happened’ but their curation and emphasis is all Faye. In this way, Outline is a depiction of the Writer’s mind but also the Individual’s. 

If the conversations relayed are not as ‘natural’ as they may first appear, what does the reader take from the recurring themes each centres on – the failed bids for freedom, illusions being shattered, and the desire for a sense of belonging that no longer exists? Undoubtedly, here is a psychic picture of a person going through a watershed trauma, a divorce from a person and a past that has left them shattered by the experience.

Faye’s most frequent conversational partner is a man she meets on her flight to Athens. She refers to him throughout as ‘my neighbour’ alluding back to their adjacent seats on the plane journey. Her neighbour is an older Greek man (although he has spent much time in England) who has been married and divorced three times. Yet, unlike Faye he is not broken by the experience of separation, not irreparably disenchanted by life. Faye’s response to divorce is to recede from the life of hope:

There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.

His is blindly optimistic:

He has been disillusioned more times than he could count in his relationships with women. Yet part of that feeling—the feeling of excitement that is also a rebirth of identity—has attended all his experiences of falling in love; and in the end, despite everything that has happened, these have been the most compelling moments of his life.

His hope that love, recaptured or fresh, can return him to a blissful state of contentment is Gatsby-esque in its persistence but it is clear that he has not learned from his past failures and thus is doomed to repeat them. 

While in Athens, her neighbour takes Faye out on his boat a number of times. On one of these trips, Faye sees a young family on a boat nearby:

When I looked at the family on the boat, I saw a vision of what I no longer had: I saw something, in other words, that wasn’t there. Those people were living in their moment, and though I could see it I could no more return to that moment than I could walk across the water that separated us.

For Faye, the family – and what they represent – is outside of her existence. She cannot interact with them just as she cannot return to their state of complete, oblivious investment in life. Instead, she is sidelined, an observer.

While on first view her neighbour appears stronger and more resilient than Faye, it becomes clear that blind optimism - a failure to face the truth of things - makes him the weaker person, and one who will increase the sum of suffering in the world as he chases unreachable fantasies of contentment. When Faye rejects his groaningly ham-fisted advances late in the novel, she asserts that she is different from him: she will not go on, trapped in a cycle of repetition.

Faye is at a moment in her life when she is breaking from her past and determining that she must live for herself, whatever that means. Yet, at the same time she undermines the idea of identity and indicates that she does not buy into the idea of an Authentic self:

I thought the whole idea of a ‘real’ self might be illusory: you might feel, in other words, as though there were some separate, autonomous self within you, but perhaps that self didn’t actually exist.

At the same time Faye, ironically given the way her story is told, suggests that identity cannot be formed through the lens of other people, that many of the crutches she had used in the past no longer seem viable: 

As it happened, I was no longer interested in literature as a form of snobbery or even self-definition. I had no desire to prove that one book was better than another; in fact, if I read something I admired, I found myself increasingly disinclined to mention it at all. What I knew personally to be true had come to seem unrelated to the process of persuading others. I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.

However, Faye feels exposed as a woman moving into middle-age, who cannot fall back on the identity of mother and wife in the way that many of her peers can. As one of the other characters at the end of Outline emphasises, a divorced woman is subject to the gaze of many people, who suddenly see her afresh.  

For most of the people she knew, people in their forties, this was a time of softening and expanding, of expectations growing blurred, of running a little to seed or to fat after the exhaustion of the chase: she saw them beginning to relax and make themselves comfortable in their lives. But for her, coming back out into the world again, the lines were still sharp, the expectations undimmed: sometimes she felt as if she’d arrived at a party just as everyone else was leaving, leaving to go home together and sleep.

Outline’s themes are not only reflected in the characters that populate the novel, but the places too. That Faye’s trip is to Greece is significant. Greece, with its great history but which is now “on its knees and dying a slow and agonizing death.” Like Faye – and many of the other characters – Greece as a country is shown to have taken its good days for granted and complacently drifted towards the jolt that has awoken it. 

Advertise with

Greece is not only relevant for its place in the modern world, but for its rich cultural history. Like Homer’s 'Odyssey', Faye’s odyssey makes the idea of homecoming central, but in Outline there is no hope of return for Faye. Thus, Outline is very sharply severed from the literary tradition.

It is not simply the traditions of classical literature that Outline separates itself from, but the idea of the novel – a far more recent invention – too. For there is no plot in Outline, no story arc, and no conflict between characters. It would be easy to label Outline a work of negation, but instead I prefer to call it an experiential piece. Stories do not need to have a beginning, middle, and end to qualify as stories, despite what the neatly packaged tales Faye relays may have you believe. In fact, Faye’s way of narrativising the stories of other characters is an amusing paradox to how her own story is relayed. Cusk is teasing the reader, asking if they will suspend their credulity as one character after another, purportedly, relays a story that encapsulates the essence of their self. It is a knowing wink to the writers and readers of fiction.  

For the most part, Cusk’s style is tight, her prose economical. But occasionally there is a joke that may be superfluous but really hits the spot. Having been asked to write a short story that includes an animal, one of the class that Faye teaches reports the following:

He had got up early to write his story, he said, though he had found it hard to introduce an animal into his chosen subject-matter, which was the hypocrisy of our religious leaders and the failure of public commentators to subject them to the proper scrutiny.

This will tickle anyone who has studied Creative Writing. And that is maybe a statement that applies to Outline more generally. It is a book that requires the reader to work and which will, I suspect, prove more fruitful for those not interested only in the consumption of fiction but the creation of it too. By the novel’s end, Faye remains an “outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.” For the reader who does not wish to do the filling in, I suggest they give Outline a wide berth; for everyone else, this is a book worth grappling with.

Like the sound of this book? Find it at the following places:

Find book at Amazon UKFind book at AudibleFind book at Alibris UKFind book at Alibris US