My previous experience of Rachel Cusk is restricted to her travel book on Italy, The Last Supper, which was withdrawn in Britain because of objections from individuals who found themselves featured, unflatteringly, within its pages. It's very difficult not to write a book about Italy without being smug.
Then I read reviews (especially hatchet jobs) about her controversial divorce memoir, Aftermath. I confess I’m suspicious when a writer writes memoir after memoir, as if his own life is the only field of interest. I read memoirs – I am moved by the familiar voice – but I’m wary of their cultural predominance. Self-knowledge is a good springboard for knowledge of others. Orbiting one’s own life without ever calling into question the limitation of it seems myopic. (This, however, is not to say that personal writing can be divorced from art, or that it should be.)
But Outline is an expose of how fascinating and selfish and dreary and inescapable monologues on the self can be. The plot is slender: a writer goes to Athens to teach a writing course. The novel is structured as ten monologues, given by people the writer meets who can’t help disclosing themselves, speaking at length about their thoughts and lives, their shortcomings, and the shortcomings of others. The wealthy man who sits next to her on the plane. The students at her writing course. A fellow writer. A friend. They are driven to anatomise themselves in public, stamping themselves on the writer’s blank page. Despite being in the middle of some muted crisis, the writer allows her companions to speak with very little interruption or contradiction. What starts in the novel as speech, given in the figure of dialogue – that is, between quotation marks – quickly becomes the substance of the text itself. I’ve looked through the novel again to find a quotation, something to chew over, but I find I can’t take it from the continuing whole, which is so sleek and effortlessly integrated, without diminishing the part I’ve removed.
In any case, the writer’s silence cannot be explained easily as saying that women are reduced to silence by the volubility of men, even though she is female, and her male friends are voluble. Rather, the novel features explicitly feminist characters which are just as boring and long-winded about their own oppression. Outline suggests that people can’t help telling stories to each other. Narration, especially self-narration, is ongoing. The listener (or reader) is hypnotized by the voice which continues to talk, which in turn is so self-enthralled by his own life that he can’t doubt the value of his expression.
While the novel could be read as being about the act of writing, the novel is more interested in human instinct and social relations. It’s interested in a variety of voices, all self-involved. It just so happens that writers try to fix down those human instincts and social relations: for entertainment, for consolation, for exposure. It’s a fine-boned book and has tripled my regard for its author. I suspect it’ll make this year’s Man-Booker longlist.