While little happens in Outline, everything seems to happen. You find yourself pulling the novel closer to your face, as if it were a thriller and the hero were dangling over a snake pit. This is largely because the small conversations and monologues in Outline are, at their best, as condensed and vivid as theater … The narrator is mostly a listener, an asker of questions, an intellectual filter. Posing meaningful questions to others, or even unmeaningful ones, she correctly observes, is a skill that ‘many people never learn’ … Ms. Cusk marshals a lot of gifts in this novel, and they are unconventional ones. With no straightforward narrative to hang onto, no moving in and out of rooms, she’s left with the sound of her own mind, and it’s a mind that is subtle, precise, melancholy. This is a novel with no wasted motion.
While the narrator is rarely alone, reading Outline mimics the sensation of being underwater, of being separated from other people by a substance denser than air. But there is nothing blurry or muted about Cusk’s literary vision or her prose: Spend much time with this novel and you’ll become convinced she is one of the smartest writers alive. Her narrator’s mental clarity can seem so hazardously penetrating, a reader might fear the same risk of invasion and exposure … While we hear almost nothing but her voice, we rarely witness her using it. She is not only disembodied from her life — her children, back in London, do not regularly preoccupy her — she feels to be without a body, neutered…By freeing the narrator of a body, the novel allows readers to accept a more complex portrait of a person — a self instead of a set of gender stereotypes. The result is a heartbreaking portrait of poise, sympathy, regret and rage.
The novel is mesmerizing; it marks a sharp break from the conventional style of Cusk’s previous work…Outline feels different, its world porous and continuous with ours, though not for the reasons we might expect … Faye, for her part, says hardly anything. Almost all of her narration consists of paraphrasing what other people have said to her. We come to feel an intimacy with her that has nothing to do with disclosure; though we know conspicuously little about her, we share with her the experience of listening to others, and, as we do so, it becomes clear that a certain kind of conversation is missing from Faye’s days and nights … Cusk’s insight in Outline is that, instead of trying to show two sides of a marriage, she might do the opposite: focus on the inevitable, treacherous one-sidedness of any single account.
Grief is, in part, the inability to be absorbed by the outside world. In this sense, Outline defines grief without describing it. Withholding details of the fights and tears that accompanied the narrator’s divorce, Cusk prevents the reader from losing herself in the drama … But Cusk’s restraint, while elegant, also comes across as withholding. Although Faye extols the ‘virtues of passivity’ and wanting ‘nothing at all,’ the most compelling part of Outline is its undercurrent of rage...Because the narrator is careful to stay ‘close [to] but separate’ from the sad stories that she encounters again and again, the reader can’t help but maintain her distance as well. We jump from one story to the next, each delivered in the same polished, analytical language. Cusk’s writing is lovely, and some of these stories contain fragments of wisdom, but what is at stake? This is just stuff that happens to people.
Much as the narrator “remained dissatisfied by the story” told on the airplane, I remained dissatisfied by the lack of story told by the narrator about herself. I was tempted to conclude that the title, Outline, refers to the fact that Cusk withholds all but the faintest traces of Faye, the narrator (whose name we learn in the penultimate chapter when her mortgage broker calls her). The reader’s sense of Faye must be gleaned from how she describes what she sees and hears as she moves through each day. We get a portrait of a fascinating brain instead of a portrait of a woman made of flesh, blood, and feeling. I would have liked both.
Cusk is not 'objective' or 'modest' or 'passive' or any of the other humble words reviewers have used to describe her prose...The writer who notices is after a different kind of intimacy with her reader, an intimacy born not of confession—this is my husband, these are my children, this is my confused, unhappy life—but of sensibility and taste. She is not a realist in the impersonal, Flaubertian sense. She commandeers reality, bending colors, sounds, incidents, and people to her subjective truth, seeking the strange beauty in ordinary, even ugly, things. Cusk can often be gentle, but she can also be merciless, and that is where things get interesting ... at once unkind and beautiful. Like Amanda’s and Marielle’s made-up faces, Cusk’s language is layered thick. It is decadent, exaggerated, repetitive ... To read Outline, Transit, and Kudos in succession is to wander through a gallery of metamorphosed characters, never lingering on one long enough to feel attachment or sympathy, revulsion or contempt, only a disinterested appreciation for how they look. This is beauty in the purest and the cruelest sense of the word.
In ten closely observed chapters, Faye relays the surprisingly confiding — and engrossing — stories people tell her about their lives during her short Greek odyssey … Cusk anchors her novel with a recurring character, an older Greek man Faye meets on the flight to Athens, who engages her with the saga of his three failed marriages. His omissions — which she points out as if criticizing a student's work — are as telling as what he chooses to include, highlighting the one-sided nature of stories, and especially divorce stories … Outline explores both the way people present themselves and the act of storytelling. On one level an absorbing series of confessional tales, it is also a deft, multi-layered commentary on the nature of narrative and the effects of a listener's bias and filter.
There's no conventional narrative arc – indeed, there are so many stories-within-stories that you frequently forget who is speaking. There's no one you can root for or even believe in very strongly, and the novel offers few of the standard expected rewards of fiction. It doesn't matter – every single word is earned, precisely tuned, enthralling. Outline is a triumph of attitude and daring, a masterclass in tone … Most of all though – and here's why the novel has a kind of cumulative empathetic power which ultimately moves so deeply – you gradually begin to grasp what Cusk is doing. This is no wry comedy of conversations but a cool-headed meditation on the doomed nature of relationships, on the perennial and devastating distance that exists between people or, as one of the narrator's Greek friends remarks, ‘the disgust that exists indelibly between men and women and that you are always trying to purge with what you call frankness.’
What happens when a writer loses his or her faith in fiction? In Cusk’s case, she renounced her usual painstaking fictional worlds in favor of something messier, and the result, ironically, may be her finest novel. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Outline flouts the usual boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. (Cusk has cited Knausgaard as an inspiration, although the novels feel very different.) It’s looser and more ironic than her earlier novels, which, whatever their real strengths, often felt willed and a bit airless, as if Cusk had a thesis about the dreariness of married life she was out to prove … All these set pieces form a kind of prismatic view of marriage and divorce, as through conversation the characters find themselves untangling the skein of knowledge that has come with loss and aging.
Although Faye is central, her own story is almost completely excised from the book, which is made up of the stories told to her by people she meets on her trip: a billionaire lunch companion; her neighbor on the flight, a middle-aged Greek shipping heir; another teacher, Ryan; several Greek writers and poets and people working in publishing; a varied group of students ranging from street protesters to housewives; and finally, Anne, a British playwright … If Faye is the negative space, then the novel’s quasi-Socratic dialogues construct a very particular outline. Certain themes return again and again: the illusions created by love, whether honesty is possible between men and women, the dizzying shift in perspective that occurs when a relationship ends … Cusk almost can’t help what a good storyteller she is, even if she’s attempting something less conventionally ‘told.’ Many of the conversations in Outline form brilliant tiny narratives.
Outline is an exploration of the ‘secret pain’ of existence, as one of Faye’s writing students puts it. From the first page – a lunch meeting with a billionaire hoping to start a literary magazine (though the conversation never reaches that subject) – our narrator records her encounters with a varied cast. Character after character swerves into view, tells her their tale, and then disappears … As in all her writing, Cusk’s uncompromising, often brutal intelligence is at full power. So is her technique. The novel is written in a voice so supremely controlled, sometimes to the point of coldness, that its speaker’s profound pain is almost entirely masked. Precise, lyrical writing (the ‘baked, broken angles’ of rooftops) rubs against mundanity. And throughout, destabilising everything, there are moments of sudden and violent honesty.
In the 10 conversational sections, we learn far more about Faye through inference than through dramatic action or confessional revelation. The tone is an intriguing blend of intimate and remote; we discover Faye through the ways she listens and interprets … Is Faye wearing magnifying glasses? Her meticulous depictions shift from the exquisite to the grotesque, and she excels at the latter … She presents herself as an objective observer, yet from her preoccupation with human frailties, we sense haunting if nebulous fears. Her days morph from ennui to melancholy. She tells her ‘neighbor,’ ‘I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. … I had decided to want nothing at all.’
This not-quite-a-novel consists entirely of conversations between the narrator — an English writer teaching a writing course in Athens — and friends, colleagues, students and her airplane seatmate, about the possibility of talking truthfully about reality, and what is gained and lost when it is turned into fiction … There is no plot here, no sequence of events, no relationships forming or failing, no character study or development. Even the setting feels arbitrary … Obviously, this novel is not a page-turner, but is more a philosophical inquiry into what can be jettisoned from fiction and still maintain our interest. In that, it succeeds.
Through the course of the narrator's conversations with various people, most of them writers or students of writing, we come to know her innermost thoughts and preoccupations, though we have no idea what she looks like, nor do we glean other minutiae authors usually employ to define their protagonists … For many of her conversation partners, and for the narrator herself, the craft of writing and the art of living are deeply intertwined. Life is art, art is life. Life is also fiction, as we spin our own histories for public consumption, withholding some details, embellishing others; we are authors of our own life narratives. And much like life, Outline does not have a discernible plot.
Within this spare plot...just about everything happens, at least in a philosophical sense. Structured around a series of 10 conversations, the novel investigates the act of storytelling itself — how we use narrative to create meaning and seem meaningful, how we look to stories for a truth that often remains elusive. If it sounds heady, that’s because it is. Yet Cusk spares us from pontification or lofty theorizing, instead couching each conversation in sharp and incisive anecdote. Characters off-stage are palpable, memories unfold with care and precision, and each interlocutor brims with self-reflection … The dialogues in Outline, stripped of their fictional context, are entirely implausible, but their artifice is what makes them so engrossing. Not a word feels wasted, and small talk has been annihilated. That doesn’t matter either.