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.