Rachel Cusk's Outline

I found Part IV, the final section of Rachel Cusk’s serialized novel the least interesting of the four published in the Paris Review. There is scarcely any word from the unknown narrator who, when she does speak, sounds in many ways like the very Rachel Cusk herself.

You may remember in the first installment, an English writer travels to Greece in the summer to teach a month-long writing course. Seated next to her on the flight is an older Greek man who describes the failure of his two marriages and other family misfortunes. He invites her to take a boating excursion with him the next day.

Part II begins as they drive to a small boat harbor outside Athens. They continue their dialogue that, at times, is both amusing and stimulating. She swims far out to sea, all the while ruminating.

She notes that people can never change completely. Rather she believes whatever changes occur are latent, “had lain dormant, waiting to be evoked by circumstance.”

In the evening, after their boating trip, they meet for dinner in Athens with another writer. The talk is lively, serious, interesting. They talk about the meaning of the self, a person’s identity. And Cusk has the narrator say to my delight: “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 with you, but perhaps that self didn’t actually exist.”

In the third segment of, Outline, Cusk writes about how often we are deceived in judging another person on the basis of their appearance. Knowing about the pitfalls of this bias does not prevent us from succumbing to it. But perhaps Cusk’s descriptions will keep us from falling prey to it as often as we usually do. It isn’t easy, except perhaps by ignoring physical appearance completely or learning to pause for a moment or two before you judge another person.

She also dwells at length on how individuals react to the same experience quite differently. Each person views the experience in the light of their own history and because each person’s history is unique, they are bound to attach a different meaning to the same experience. She describes the reactions of a woman, who had hoped to become a professional musician, as she was passing by an open window and recognized a piece of music she had always loved.

And instead of appreciating the beauty of the Bach piece, she felt an extraordinary sense of loss. The music she once loved no longer belonged to her and instead was possessed by someone else or so she felt.

Cusk gives generalities like this a life, she places them in concrete situations, situations that we may find ourselves experiencing. By doing this, I think she makes them far more memorable, with much greater impact than reading about a research study of the same phenomena.

Part IV opens with the students in her class commenting on an assignment she had given them. Each student speaks about how difficult it was to follow the teacher’s instructions to place an animal in his or her story. And as they do so, we come to learn about the emotional life of the student’s life.

The account shifts to a story told by the fellow writer who has come to replace the narrator at the end of her one-month teaching stint. Her replacement describes what her neighbor said on the plane flying to Athens. Again, Cusk resorts to the unknown person sitting next to someone on a flight to engage in a dialogue on a serious issue

As he unfolded his story, the replacement realizes he was describing what she herself was not: in everything he said about himself, she found in her own nature a corresponding negative…Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown gave her, for the first time since the incident [rape] a sense of who she was now.

While the novel is difficult to summarize, certain themes seem to be evident in the encounters the narrator has with the people she meets – marriage and separation, the ties of parenthood, the struggles of reconciling them with one's identity and freedom. Each one of them draws upon Cusk’s personal experiences as reflected in her most recent novels.

The complete version of Outline will be published in this country on January 13, 2015. It was nominated for this year’s Goldsmith Prize which is designed “to reward a book that is deemed genuinely novel and which embodies the spirit of invention that characterizes the genre at its best”