Outline by Rachel Cusk
November 2, 2015 § 2 Comments
I’ve often thought I should read—would enjoy reading—Rachel Cusk. She’s one of those writers whose books are in the library, so I don’t buy them, but then they’re not on my shelves reminding me to read them, so I don’t. I’ve been aware of all the controversy over her, her books and her relationship with the press—which is quite baffling and would almost certainly be different if she was a man. I read reviews of Outline last year, but it sounded the least interesting of all her work—why would I want to read a book about “a novelist teaching a course in creative writing during an oppressively hot summer in Athens”? But Outline’s nomination for two Canadian literary awards (and for some reason I did actually know she was born in Canada), the Giller Prize and the Governor Generals’ Award, brought it back to my attention.
And I’m glad it did. It’s not really about someone teaching a creative writing course at all; the course is the thinnest of frames by which the novelist is brought to Greece and into the company of the people she meets. There’s no real plot, no conflict, no intrigue. The narrative arc consists of our meeting the narrator as she gets on the plane at Heathrow to fly to Athens, and leaving her as she says her goodbyes just before returning home. We never see her at home in her natural setting but we do learn something of her past and present through her thoughts and conversations.
As she travels to Greece and takes up her brief teaching job on the course, the narrator reports on her long conversations with various interesting people she meets. Saying it like this makes it sound about as exciting as “As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives…” but you’ll just have to trust me. Mostly the characters talk at her, but in great detail, so that what we learn about the narrator is just as much from her thought responses and reactions as it is from what she actually says. She only mentions this fact once, when somebody does ask her a question, and it strikes her as though this person has had to teach themselves to ask their interlocutor the occasional thing about themselves. Her students also have the chance to speak, and tend to speak in long soliloquies; they interrupt each other occasionally but mainly to talk about themselves rather than clarify something with the original speaker or draw out their point.
There are two chief features of the novel that are so well, and so consistently and repeatedly, well done that they start to wash over you, almost wasted, if you don’t take a moment to put the book down. The first is the sheer quality of the insights and observations. The conversationalists aren’t necessarily people we are supposed to like, and some are to varying degrees outright irritating in their self-absorption or their “cold-shower”ness (this is a concept from Milan Kundera, no idea which book, that I use as a shorthand with my nearest and dearest to indicate a person who goes on at interminable length about some little quirk about themselves that they have decided defines them and must be proclaimed to the world whenever possible. If you know which book I’m talking about do let me know). I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say that Cusk treats them with empathy, because I think that’s not the point, but what she does is make sure that we understand that actually we are all people, we all share some of these anxieties and insecurities and tendencies to self-aggrandise.
The other feature is the tone, the sentence construction, the absolute care that has gone into the choice of each and every word. This might be, I suspect, the reason Outline appears on two prize lists this year—because this kind of writerly attention is not something that has been all that common in Canada of late, so its difference might have felt like something of a novelty. I don’t mean to imply that Canadian writers don’t weigh each and every word—far from it. But things other than sentences and their rhythm and music have been given higher priority: creating a deep emotional response in the reader, conveying often hidden but surprisingly universal feelings and reactions, evoking a sense of time and place. With Cusk, it’s all about the sentences.
To end, here’s a nice little quote from a conversation the narrator (whose name we only learn very near the end, when someone phones her, and it feels almost intrusive, as if we have found out by accident) has with her fellow teacher, Ryan, a writer who recently was given a six-month sabbatical to write but found himself instead embroiled in—and in fact seeking out—mundane domestic tasks like taking the baby to the park. He had a short story collection published a while before, but now
it’s like looking at old photographs of yourself. There comes a point at which the record needs to be updated, because you’ve shed too many links with what you were. He doesn’t quite know how it happened; all he knows is that he doesn’t recognise himself in those stories any more, though he remembers the bursting feeling of writing them, something in himself massing and pushing irresistibly to be born. He hasn’t had that feeling since; he almost thinks that to remain a writer he’d have to become one all over again, when he might just as easily have become an astronaut, or a farmer.
This reminded me of listening to the CBC the other day where someone, possibly one of the guest presenters on the classical part, was talking about the concept of inspiration as a Romantic invention—before that, inspiration was irrelevant. You had the technical skill, you knew the form, you had the practice behind you: off to work you went to produce what was expected of you.
Will it win the Giller? Who knows. It’s a strong shortlist, and one that is well worth reading in its entirety. I imagine it has a better shot at the Governor General’s Award, simply because I think that race is—to my taste—between three (Cusk, Cayley, Vanderhaeghe) rather than all five.