It’s become a book review cliché to describe plain but effective prose as “deceptively spare,” the implication being that some form of legerdemain has been used to conjure deep thoughts from simple words. The bromide could be applied to Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Outline, about a UK writer who comes to Athens to teach a summer writing course; Cusk’s placid, measured writing certainly seems at odds with the sense of exhilaration we get reading it.
But are compelling ideas necessarily complex ones? Is a writing style ever a form of trickery? Personally, I find the opposite to be true: fussy, word-laden sentences can divert attention from a lack of substance (to wit, no one says “deceptively elaborate”). In Outline—whose economy and intensity often makes it feel like a short story that just happens to be long—Cusk uses unostentatious but immaculately chosen language to convey graspable ideas about marriage, divorce and personal identity that are no less impactful for being so.
The novel is structured around a series of encounters between a rotating cast of characters—a ruined shipping fortune scion, a flamboyant novelist, a preeminent lesbian poet—and Faye, our writer-protagonist. The dustjacket calls Outline “a novel in ten conversations,” but that feels slightly inaccurate given that Faye often acts more like a confessor than a participant. In fact, despite narrating in the first-person, she reveals virtually nothing about herself at all. (Cusk has been more voluble about her own life: her eleven books include three memoirs, one of which created a kafuffle overseas for its unromantic views about motherhood.)
It gradually becomes clear that the source of Faye’s diffidence is a recent, and possibly unexpected, divorce: over lunch, her friend Paniotis remembers how, on a London visit three years previously, her happiness with her husband and two kids had left him feeling despondent and dissatisfied with his own life.
Faye’s thoughts and utterances suggest someone benumbed, hollowed out: “I found appearances more bewildering and tormenting now than at any previous point in my life. It was as if I had lost some special capacity to filter my own perceptions.” This inability is apparent in Faye’s dealings with the elderly Greek businessman who self-pityingly shares his riches-to-rags life story with her on the flight from London. In Athens, the man—whom she only ever refers to as “my neighbour”—invites her out in his boat and, on their second excursion, awkwardly and unwelcomingly tries to kiss her. “I would not have thought it likely you would go off on a boat with a complete stranger,” her friend Elena remarks, referring, it would seem, to a Faye who no longer exists.
Though each of Faye’s conversational partners is a distinct character, their monologues have a uniformity of style that gives them, collectively, the feeling of a Greek chorus. Many, like Faye, are not only divorced but share her tendency to speak of marriage less as a relationship than as a “structure” or “story.” Several describe incidents in which they reached out to their ex-spouse shortly after breaking-up and were coldly rebuffed.
Marriage, it is suggested, forces us to surrender a version of ourselves that we can never return to. When Faye’s neighbour’s first wife left him he felt “absolutely unreal. It was with her, after all, that his identity had been forged: if she no longer recognized him, then who was he?”
The last character we meet is Anne, a just-arrived playwright who tells Faye how a conversation on the plane made her feel, for the first time since the trauma that led to her own divorce, like an “outline” of something, but something nonetheless. It’s an odd overlapping of experience makes us wonder if Anne isn’t some kind of manifestation of Faye; if all these characters aren’t.
Cusk is Canadian by birth but grew up in the UK, where she still lives (she has the accent to prove it). That’s a technicality, however, that shouldn’t stop us from trying to lay claim to some part of this beautiful, desolate novel.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor