Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

"Outline" by Rachel Cusk (Vintage, 2014)

The main character's on her way to Athens to teach story writing for a week. Each chapter comprises direct/reported speech about a dialogue the main character has. The reported speech can drift towards essay -

My neighbour turned to me again, and asked me what work it was that was taking me to Athens. For the second time I felt the conscious effect of his enquiry, as though he had trained himself in the recovery of objects that were falling from his grasp. I remembered the way, when each of my sons was a baby, they would deliberately drop things from their high chair in order to watch them fall to the floor, an activity as delightful to them as its consequences were appalling. They would stare down at the fallen thing - a half-eaten rusk, or a plastic ball - and become increasingly agitated by its failure to return. Eventually they would begin to cry, and usually found that the fallen object came back to them by that route. It always surprised me that their response to this chain of events was to repeat it: as soon as the object was in their hands they would drop it again, leaning over to watch it fall. Their delight never lessened, and nor did their distress. I always expected that at some point they would realise the distress was unnecessary and would choose to avoid it, but they never did. The memory of suffering had no effect whatever on what they elected to do: on the contrary, it compelled them to repeat it, for the suffering was the magic that caused the object to come back and allowed the delight in dropping it to become possible again. Had I refused to return it the very first time they dropped it, I suppose they would have learned something very different, though what that might have been I wasn't sure (p.17)

The main topic of the long monologues is marriage breakdown and how to deal with the children. She sometimes comments on people's contributions as if they were stories. Questions of what constitutes a story, and the relationship between story-telling, autobiography and self-development arise naturally from such discussion -

  • "a story might merely be a series of events we believe ourselves to be involved in, but on which we have absolutely no influence at all" (p.137)
  • "Very often I have felt that my relationships have had no story, and the reason is because I have jumped ahead of myself, the way I used to turn the pages of a book to find out what happens in the final chapter" (p.191)
  • "the role of the artist might merely be that of recording sequences" (p.206)
  • "I would like to be a D.H. Lawrence character, living in one of his novels" (p.209)
  • "while he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her for the first time since the incident a sense of who she now was" (p.239)
  • "drama became something real to me that day, she said. It ceased to be theoretical, was no longer an internal structure in which she could hide and look out at the world. In a sense, her work had jumped out of a bush and attacked her.
    I said it seemed to me that at a certain point a lot of people felt that, not about work but about life itself
    " (p.246)
  • "Whenever she conceived of a new piece of work, before she had got very far she would find herself summing up ... As soon as something was summed up, it was to all intents and purposes dead, a sitting duck, and she could go no further with it ... And not just books either, it was starting to happen with people " (p.232)

Other minor themes include the influence of language choice on thought, and what animals might symbolise. We piece together the main character's persona gradually, but I'm not sure that it's a character-based piece. It's a montage of case-histories with a bit of light theory thrown in. Some sections (e.g. the description of what it's like being in a plane; the take-off procedures, etc) achieve little. Ben Marcus' "I can say many nice things" fits as many ideas into a short story.

Other reviews

  • Julie Myerson (this has to be one of the oddest, most breathtakingly original and unsettling novels I've read in a long time.)
  • Elena Seymenliyska (Cusk confounds expectations by letting her heroine find power in invisibility. By rising quietly like a spirit from the chalk outline of her former self, she is no longer part of anyone’s narrative. She can finally become unchained from whatever might once have defined her. ... Outline is full of such wonderful surprises: subtle shifts in power and unexpectedly witty interludes.)
  • Elaine Blair
  • Britt Peterson (When Cusk first blew onto the scene in the early ’90s with the publication of Saving Agnes, she was a photogenic and brilliant Oxford grad who always sounded a bit depressive in interviews. ... About a decade later, the merciless reception of Cusk’s 2001 memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother, was perhaps inevitable. ... Hatred of Cusk really peaked in 2012 with Aftermath: On Marriage And Separation)
  • Heidi Julavits (That Cusk struggles with emotional versus intellectual (and private versus public) gender pressures and desires is what makes her work both incendiary and divisive. She is willing to say what is true for some — ergo true — and complicated but is often neither politic nor pretty.)
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