“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote. In Rachel Cusk’s inventive novel, Outline, a parade of characters tell the sketchily drawn narrator their stories, and as these conversations or episodes unfold they weigh in on all manner of life’s issues, large and small—love and marriage, parenthood, aspirations and failures, even the age-old debate of dog vs. cat.
Through it all, the narrator, a writer who has come to Athens (not incidentally, the cradle of our Western narrative tradition) to teach a week-long class, remains largely an enigma. We glean that she has left two sons in England, and there are hints of some tragedy of love, but she tells us virtually nothing about herself, reserving her observations for those she encounters. Among these are an aging, thrice-divorced Greek whose romantic advances take her by surprise; a renowned lesbian poet; a fellow writing teacher seeking his own means of escape; and a diverse cluster of students, who tap the wellspring of storytelling in a stuffy summer classroom.
In each conversation, the narrator, who we ultimately discover is called Faye, remains on the edges, or as the title suggests, outside the lines of experience. As she considers the “outlines” of the life stories she is invited to consider, she only occasionally interjects her views.
Cusk, an intelligent and elegant writer, has set for herself a cunning task. By writing an essentially plot-free novel about our visceral need for telling stories, she is doing nothing less than subverting the central nature of narrative itself. What is remarkable about Outline is that, despite its nebulous form, it picks up momentum with a steady persuasiveness, even if it, quite intentionally, never arrives at a resolution. As we come to know those with whom she interacts, and bear witness to the ways in which their stories betray their hidden truths, we somehow come to know Faye, too. No matter how calculated her self-concealment or how hard she tries to remain emotionally detached, Faye cannot run from the personal narrative she is trying to escape.