23 March 2015

Novel as OUTLINE of a life

Rachel Cusk
I was hesitant to write this review because, as a rule, I only review books I love. The point is to establish a recommended reading list, mostly new works, although on occasion I return to a great read of the past. 

More to the point, it’s not that I didn’t like Rachel Cusk’s latest novel, OUTLINE, quite the contrary. I’m fascinated by it. In part, or in spite of the fact that the novel stretches the boundary of the form, but in this way, not for everyone.

Cusk delights in language and is known in her native England for plot-limited, episodic fiction. She might soon be anointed one of the queens of post-modern literature, joining her country-persons Julian Barnes and Kate Atkinson, among others. IN OUTLINE, she has, in effect, outlined the narrator’s life through her connections, or lack of, and everything is filtered through the narrator’s eyes, very little direct action or even dialogue. Fascinating.

OUTLINE follows a writing teacher on a summer assignment in Athens and through her interactions with fellow travelers, students, and ultimately her replacement, across ten distinct moments in time, she constructs a portrait of a lonely woman drifting through time and space, even as she tries to facilitate others’ personal aspirations. She seems to have lost her anchor, and no compass, although she never says as much. She observes, she wonders, she engages without engagement... A lesson in writing as well.

In some ways, the book reminded me of Jenny Offill’s brilliant DEPT OF SPECULATION, reviewed here recently, as the telling may be more impressive than the tale, and Offill too creates a portrait of a woman dealing in turmoil – loss of self most notably. Offill also filled the novel with commentary and ruminations, although she spoke from the narrator’s heart.

Like Offill, Cusk’s descriptive prose is exceptional. Setting is the focus in each narrative. People and landscape, as if a lesson in detail. Exquisite descriptions. However, in truth, half way through the slim volume [248 pages] I found myself sighing. Sometimes, no matter the beauty of the language or the profoundness of thought, I long for story. And when I need elegant philosophical ramblings, I turn to Anais Nin or Rebecca Solnit. Or poetry. But reading is a matter of place and time in the reader’s life and perhaps I just wasn’t of a mind for this sort of narration, even though I admired the novel immensely, and I kept going. Difficult to stop reading passages like these:

“The apartment belonged to a woman called Clelia, who was out of Athens for the summer. It stood in a narrow street like a shady chasm, with the buildings rising to either side. On the corner opposite the entrance to Clelia’s building was a café with a large awning and tables underneath, where there were always a few people sitting. The café had a long side-window giving on to the narrow pavement, which was entirely obscured by a photograph of more people sitting outside at tables, so that a very convincing optical illusion was created. There was a woman with her head thrown back, laughing, as she raised her coffee cup to her lipsticked mouth, and a man leaning towards her across the table, tanned and handsome, his fingers resting lightly on her wrist, wearing the abashed smile of someone who has just said something amusing. This photograph was the first thing you saw when you came out of Clelia’s building. The people in it were slightly largely than life-size, and always, for a moment, exiting the apartment, they seemed terrifyingly real. The sight of them momentarily overpowered one’s own sense of reality, so that for a few disturbing seconds, you believed that people were bigger and happier and more beautiful than you remembered them to be.”

Want to stimulate the senses with dazzling prose and fascinating observations? Read OUTLINE. Available in hardcover or for your e-reader.  I promise next to review a more old-fashioned tale, I need one.

03 March 2015

Learning to Look in Oaxaca, MX

I am making my way down cobblestone streets from my daughter's sweet casita on a hill overlooking the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, to the center of town. Centro. I am watching for the markers I made note of when we walked together so I won't get lost. 

Turn left at the metal gate, right at the playground, left at the mural, and so on, one turn after another until I reach the main square. And, this square too is a marker, the anchor for my travels around the city.

I often make note of directional cues. Colors of posts in parking garages. The location of landmarks in proximity to a cafe. Unusual architectural detail. In this way, I find my way, and familiarize myself with my surrounds. 

Once I have arrived the first time, I rarely lose my way again. True for driving as well, which was a particular challenge in Orange County, where roads curve and cross each other, nothing like the NYC grid where I first learned to navigate. 

My version of breadcrumbs in the forest.

What comes to mind is learning to look. The title of an after-school class that taught my young children about the nature and meaning of art. Learning to look is hardly confined to art, nor to navigation for that matter. Yes, it is a grounding exercise. Yes, it serves as center-point for thought and interpretation. Sometimes it is a matter of life or death: crossing the street at the green, avoiding snakes in open space or jelly fish at sea. Learning to look underscores just about everything. They call it mindfulness these days.

In San Miguel de Allende, another wonderful city where I sojourned before Oaxaca, one must always look downward while walking to avoid uneven surfaces, ruts or hidden obstacles that have taken down many a visitor, even as the eye drifts upward to carved doors and overflowing flower boxes. Mindfulness in that city is equal measure safety and delight.

So as I walk, I remember the first time I took my young grandson into the backyard to examine the landscape. I do this each week. Even just a few months old, he looked at every leaf and flower with reverence, learning to look. Imprinting, in effect: the natural byproduct of innocence and the root of curiosity. Soon I will teach him street names, point out particular trees or the colors of houses in his neighborhood, so he will always find his way home. And always appreciate his surrounds.

However, being lost also has value. And charm. The joy of discovery. One must never allow the grounding to inhibit forging new territory. A different path offers new vistas. And another way of looking.

My firstborn daughter, even as an adolescent found every possible alternate driving route to avoid highways and main roads, and I do the same. Is it no wonder that in the many cities she has lived she has always found her way around quickly and always on a more interesting path. I happily follow her lead.

Sadly, too many these days rely on GPS systems for direction. A focus on speed and reassurance. Antithetical to mindfulness, or the joy of exploration. Maps are no longer in our hands or minds and the art of looking may soon be lost. 

Until then, I pay close attention. Not only to sights but sounds, scents. And the impressions the senses inspire. All the very essence of living that begins with learning to look.