Writing about writing – Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline’

In order to alleviate unnecessary head-scratching and present-buying anxiety, a month or so before Christmas and my birthday, I start to leave heavy hints with my husband about the books I’d be eternally grateful to get my paws on come the big day. However, if 2016’s festive book haul was anything to go by I needn’t have worried, as all were good choices and a complete surprise, not least Outline by Rachel Cusk.

Outline (published in 2014) has accrued a nice stack of accolades (longlisted for the Baileys Women’s prize for fiction in 2015, and shortlisted for both the Folio and Goldsmiths prizes). Also, I remember my brother mentioning that he was at university with Rachel Cusk, so I was especially intrigued to read some of her work.

A woman arrives in Athens to teach creative writing. On her journey there and throughout her stay, she meets various people who tell her something about themselves. The novel is set in the roasting peak of summer, and one by one, the storytellers reveal themselves through their narratives as if shedding layers of clothing due to the heat. The first is the neighbouring passenger on her flight.

‘I hope you are staying near water,’ he said. ‘Athens will be very hot.’                                     I said I was afraid that was not the case, and he raised his eyebrows, which were silver and grew unexpectedly coarsely and wildly from his forehead, like grasses in a rocky place. It was this eccentricity that had made me answer him. The unexpected sometimes looks like a prompting of fate.

He begins to tell her of his life; his childhood and later his string of failed marriages.

I remained dissatisfied by the story of his second marriage. It had lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to those extremes were too often incorrect….this was a story in which I sensed the truth was being sacrificed to the narrator’s desire to win.                                                                                        My neighbour laughed, and said that I was probably right.

Confiding usually creates a bond between people, but as each unfolding story is observed and weighed by the narrator as though it were a creative writing exercise, there is only an aching chasm between the teller and listener. There are some wonderful observations in the novel, and lines which made me pause for breath –

Writers need to hide in bourgeois life like ticks need to hide in an animal’s fur: the deeper they’re buried the better.

and this.

It seems success takes you away from what you know, he said, while failure condemns you to it.

While the various stories ring out from the pages, what we know of the travelling teacher remains piecemeal and is only gleaned gradually throughout the text as she converses with those she meets and then towards the end, in the creative writing classes she teaches. On the surface, the novel felt very light and plot-wise, not very much happens. However, more than anything I think the novel plays with notions of narrative structure and of story-telling itself. The question of whether creative writing can be taught, and if so, what? is not far beneath the surface, and if you’ve ever attended a creative writing class there will be moments which make you laugh out loud.

Each member of the group had now spoken, except for one, a woman whose name on my chart was Cassandra and whose expression I had watched grow sourer and sourer as the hour passed, who had made her displeasure known by a series of increasingly indiscreet groans and sighs, and who now sat with her arms implacably folded, shaking her head….She had obviously been mistaken, she said: she had been told this was a class about learning to write….I don’t know who you are, she said to me, getting to her feet and collecting her things, but I’ll tell you one thing, you’re a lousy teacher.

I thought Outline was an unusual and intelligent novel, and it was beautifully written. If I had to find one criticism, it would be that it was a little too clever – a novel about writers for writers, perhaps. I thoroughly enjoyed it on a cerebral level, but ultimately, it didn’t move me.