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.

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