“A Life with No Story”: Rachel Cusk, Outline


I said to you, when we first met, that I regard love – the love between man and woman – as the great regenerator of happiness, but it is also the regenerator of interest. It is what you perhaps would call the storyline – he smiled – and so, he said, for all the virtues of my third wife, I discovered that a life with no story was not, in the end, a life that I could live.

At times I wondered, while reading Outline, if a novel with no story was one that I could read. It’s true that there are stories in Outline: each chapter, in fact, tells a different one, in a different voice, which actually made me wonder why the book is considered a novel and not an interlinked story collection, as they don’t exactly add up to any one singular thing. But’s also clear from the beginning of the book that wondering about genre, frustrating expectations of form, is what Outline itself is about–if it is about anything in particular.

For me, someone who loves the kind of fiction Outline refuses to be, it was (predictably) a frustrating book. It has a cool lucidity that made it uncomfortably easy to read. The words slip along, elegantly placed, aphoristically quotable, conspicuously artificial: nobody talks like the people in this book, in monologues interrupted occasionally by oracular observations from the narrator whose paradoxically passive intensity is the novel’s only real through-line. The ease is uncomfortable because it lets you slide along passively yourself, except that at the same time it is hard to miss the overhanging weight of the author’s metafictional preoccupations, which we inevitably also perceive lurking in the narrator’s comments about reading and writing, and which we thus are constantly aware we should be thinking about. “As it happened,” Faye says early on, as her neighbor on the plane to Athens hides his bestseller in his briefcase on learning she’s a writer, cusk-outline-cover-2

I was no longer interested in literature as a form of snobbery or even of self-definition – I had no desire to prove that one book was better than another: in fact, if I read something I admired I found myself increasingly disinclined to mention it at all. What I knew personally to be true had come to seem unrelated to the process of persuading others. I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.

That’s clearly not true of Cusk, who wants to persuade her readers that they do not need the conventional apparatus of fiction (most conspicuously plot, but also character arcs), or at any rate that the novel (in general, and also her novel in particular) does not need these things, and in fact is better without them. “We expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books,” says one of Faye’s dialogists; “But this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of.” Outline reads like the narrative rejection of that perceived expectation: in fact, it has almost no forward momentum at all. “There was no longer a shared vision, a shared reality, even,” Faye says later, reflecting on her children’s development; “Each of them saw things now solely from his own perspective: there was only point of view.”

“There was only point of view” sums up Outline, an observation about the novel that, according to one of Cusk’s characters, could be a condemnation: “As soon as something was summed up,” she says, “it was to all intents and purposes dead, a sitting duck, and she could go no further with it.” Yet Outline doesn’t feel dead, though I wouldn’t necessarily say it feels alive either. To me reading it was like being in a strange kind of limbo, intellectually engaged but emotionally suspended, entranced by the almost hypnotic flow of Cusk’s words but never genuinely caught up in them. I didn’t dislike the experience. I even relished some parts of it: the novel is full of lines and images and suggestions (about life, about love, about family, about writing) that made me pause to appreciate them, or to think about them. Overall, though, Outline seems more a provocation about form and genre–a kind of literary performance art–than anything else: it gives us little else to hold on to as we read. Is that what I want most from a novel? I don’t think so, but there’s something about Outline that shakes my confidence just a bit.


11 thoughts on ““A Life with No Story”: Rachel Cusk, Outline

  1. Melissa Beck September 17, 2018 / 12:05 pm

    I felt the same way about all three books in the series. But by the time I had gotten to the third book I was sick of this style and had had enough. I don’t think this kind of writing holds up well for a trilogy. Or at least it didn’t hold my attention through the end of a third book.


    • Rohan Maitzen September 17, 2018 / 2:42 pm

      I am curious about whether it seems to go anywhere. One thing that puzzled me about this first one is that the selection of stories and speakers felt fairly random: I couldn’t discern a pattern or unifying logic to them, except sequential. How committed is she to that lack of progression? If she’s really committed, then I can imagine having had enough by the end of another couple of books! I would like to feel as if things are adding up in some way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Melissa Beck September 17, 2018 / 3:33 pm

        No, they don’t lead to anything at all, really. It was just more of the same. By the last book the stories she relates are from authors at a book festival.


  2. lawless September 17, 2018 / 1:29 pm

    If I wanted to read essays about life in quasi-story form, which is what this sounds like, I would read memoir or general non-fiction.


    • Rohan Maitzen September 17, 2018 / 2:40 pm

      It doesn’t really feel like memoir or non-fiction, but the narratives do have an essayistic quality. It’s very odd, really.


  3. Robert Minto September 17, 2018 / 2:17 pm

    I’ve been eagerly awaiting your take on this book. Do you think you will read the other two and consider the whole, or was the one more than enough? Themes and images are repeated and varied across the triptych in a way that gives the set more of an arc than any individual book, I thought.


    • Rohan Maitzen September 17, 2018 / 2:31 pm

      I definitely want to read on at this point. I did enjoy and admire the writing and even what often seemed like real wisdom (about marriage, for instance, or about identity), and I was surprised how easily I was carried along in each chapter without any larger unifying plot to give it momentum. I can see how I might end up impatient with the approach, as Melissa says she did, but I liked being provoked in this way more than I expected.


      • Robert Minto September 17, 2018 / 3:44 pm

        I actually really liked the books for the reason you mention: how easily one is carried along in the absence of a traditional narrative arc. Most experiments in dispensing with plot become tedious to me after the novelty has worn off of whatever (if anything) is meant to replace it as guide and focus of attention, but I felt as if Cusk had found something else to do the same work that didn’t ultimately prove tedious. That’s just me though. I look forward to hearing what you say about the rest. Cusk had a pretty interesting discussion of what she was up to with Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm.


        • Rohan Maitzen September 17, 2018 / 7:17 pm

          I have seen other mentions of that interview but I am kind of avoiding reading more from Cusk in propria persona until I work my way further into the novels–a perverse desire to see if (or how) they work for me on their own!


  4. Kate September 17, 2018 / 10:05 pm

    I loved this trilogy – not because of the individual stories, which I often found tiresome (sorry if this is a spoiler, but why so many unhappy dog anecdotes, Rachel Cusk? One would have sufficed!), but because the effect of the sum of them mirrors something I’ve been experiencing lately in various caregiving capacities: listener exhaustion. Being the recipient of other people’s most meaningful stories is increasingly an unwanted role for me, despite having become pretty good at it, and of course there is a kind of valour in being brave enough to tell one’s story, to live to tell the tale, etc. that compels the listener (or reader) to hear things out even when she would really rather not. Transit in particular picks away at the moral centre of the storytelling impulse, putting the publishing industry literally in the spotlight, showing how physically uncomfortable listening can be. If/when you finish all three books, Patricia Lockwood had a great take on them in the LRB last spring…perhaps unconventional, but it made me laugh a lot.


    • Rohan Maitzen September 18, 2018 / 3:51 pm

      What an interesting perspective on this! It will give me a different way to think about the next book as I read it. I will definitely look up the LRB piece, too–and go back to the NYRB one which was one of the factors that tipped the scale for me in favor of giving the trilogy a try.


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