“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.