A Novel (Outline Trilogy #1)
A Finalist for the Folio Prize, the Goldsmiths Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction
One of The New York Times' Top Ten Books of the Year. Named a A New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Best Book of the Year by The New Yorker, Vogue, NPR, The Guardian, The Independent, Glamour, and The Globe and Mail
Chosen as one of fifteen remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write in the 21st century by the book critics of The New York Times
Rachel Cusk's Outline is a novel in ten conversations. Spare and lucid, it follows a novelist teaching a course in creative writing over an oppressively hot summer in Athens. She leads her students in storytelling exercises. She meets other visiting writers for dinner. She goes swimming in the Ionian Sea with her neighbor from the plane. The people she encounters speak volubly about themselves: their fantasies, anxieties, pet theories, regrets, and longings. And through these disclosures, a portrait of the narrator is drawn by contrast, a portrait of a woman learning to face a great loss.
Praise For Outline: A Novel (Outline Trilogy #1)…
“[A] lethally intelligent novel . . . 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 that she is one of the smartest writers alive.” —Heidi Julavits, The New York Times Book Review
“Outline is a poised and cerebral novel that has little in the way of straightforward plot yet is transfixing in its unruffled awareness of the ways we love and leave each other, and of what it means to listen to other people . . . 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.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“[Outline] is mesmerizing; it makes 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.” —Elaine Blair, The New Yorker
“[A] quietly radical new novel . . . The result, which recalls Karl Ove Knausgaard in its effort to melt away the comforting artifice of fiction, is a kind of photonegative portrait of a women who resists concessions in life and art.” —Megan O'Grady, Vogue
“There are dozens of observations in Outline unexpected enough to stop you on the page . . . Outline has a terribly charged atmosphere, the kind very few novels achieve.” —Charles Finch, The Chicago Tribune
“[A] remarkably original novel . . . [which] offers a bracing indictment of the sentimentality that surrounds the making of art and artistic identity.” —Emily Rapp, Boston Globe
“[Outline] teems with provoking, fascinating ideas expressed in fine, apothegmatic prose.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Cusk's restrained, almost experimental prose is really not so much a novel as a meditation on identity, illusion, and the erausre of self that can occur during a marriage.” —Isabella Bledenharn, Entertainment Weekly (A-)
“Outline, in the most seemingly effortless way imaginable, winds up being completely captivating: the conversations are autobiographies in miniature, with all the holes, lies and self-deceptions lurking in that wily form . . . As you'd expect in a novel so obsessed with language, Cusk's own writing is a pleasure to read -- unfailingly precise and surprising . . . The ultimate and undeniably cerebral pleasure of Outline is it nudges you into being a more attentive reader and listener, more alert to the cracks in sentences and the messier realities that words can only try to contain.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air
“Intriguing, unsettling.” —People
“Intense, engrossing . . . Outline feels like a significant achievement.” —Meghan O'Rourke, Slate
“Cusk has crafted another captivating vessel for her thoughts on gender, power and storytelling.” —Boris Kachka, New York Magazine
“Interesting and beautifully written . . . The narrator's emotions about her divorce are evinced only by stories about other people's marriages and relationships. The melancholy and dignity of this approach are, by the end, quite profound.” —Marion Wink, Newsday
“A highly sophisticated and deeply affecting look at modern womanhood; but for all its introspection, there's no shortage of wordly, self-deprecating wit, making this read equal parts intellectually challenging and distinctly pleasurable.” —Caroline Goldstein, Bustle
“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 . . . Faye's perception, her deft attention, and her exquisite intereference and interpretation make each conversation an arresting and piercing experience for the reader.” —Cecily Sailer, Dallas Morning News
“[An] audacious narrative experiment.” —Valerie Miner, San Francisco Chronicle
“Outline succeeds powerfully. Among other things, it gets a great variety of human beings down on to the page with both immediacy and depth; an elemental pleasure that makes the book as gripping to read as a thriller . . . a stellar accomplishment.” —James Lasdun, The Guardian
“[T]his has to be one of the oddest, most breathtakingly original and unsettling novels I've read in a long time ... [E]very single word is earned, precisely tuned, enthralling. Outline is a triumph of attitude and daring, a masterclass in tone.” —Julie Myerson, The Observer
“Outline. It defies ordinary categorisation. It is about authorial invisibility, it involves writing without showing your face. The narrator is a writer who goes to teach creative writing in Greece and becomes enmeshed in other peoples' narratives which Cusk stitches, with fastidious brilliance, into a single fabric.” —Kate Kellaway, The Guardian
“Winter bouquets should be offered to the clever and stylish Rachel Cusk: her novel Outline is smoothly accomplished, and fascinating both on the surface and in its depths.” —Hilary Mantel, The Guardian's Writers Pick the Best Books of 2014
“[Outline is] a piece of work of great beauty and ambition. Narratives are smoothed, as if by translation and retranslation, into their simplest, barest elements: parents, children, divorces, cakes, dresses, dogs. These elements then build, layer on layer, to form the most complex and exquisitely detailed patterns, swirling and whirling, wheels within wheels.” —Jenny Turner, London Review of Books
“[T]he most compelling part of Outline is its undercurrent of rage . . . [With] polished, analytical language. Cusk's writing is lovely . . . Outline is a smart ascetic exercise.” —Hannah Tennant-Moore, Bookforum
“Each sentence of Cusk's prose is a revelation about the truths that remain unknowable.” —Brigit Katz, Flavorwire
“[A] uniquely graceful and innovative piece of artistic self-possession, which achieves the rare feat of seamlessly amalgamating form and substance.” —Lucy Scholes, The Independent
“Cusk's uncompromising, often brutal intelligence is at full power. So is her technique . . . I can't think of a book that so powerfully resists summary or review . . . Inevitably, the only way to get close to the fascinating and elusive core of Outline is to read it.” —Sophie Elmhirst, Financial Times
“Never less than compelling . . . material that might have been ponderous in other hands is, here, magnetic, thanks to the mystery at the heart of Cusk's book, her exquisite lightness of touch and her glinting wit.” —Stephanie Cross, Daily Mail
“A brilliant, perceptive novel, Outline was serialised in its entirety by the Paris Review, which is probably a lot cooler than making the Man Booker shortlist.” —Paddy Kehoe, RTÉ
“Rachel Cusk breaks all the rules of creative writing . . . [Outline] captivates.” —Arifa Akbar, The Independent
“Outline is an expertly crafted portrait that asks readers to look deeply into the text for discovery. Those who accept that challenge will be rewarded for the effort.” —Booklist (Starred review)
“This brilliant novel from Cusk . . . shuns fictional convention and frills in favor of a solid structure around a seris of dialogues . . . These 10 remarkable conversations, told with immense control, focus a sharp eye on how we discuss family and our lives.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred review)
“A book whose almost dream-like quality has razor-sharp edges.” —Sofka Zinovieff, Spectator
“Cool but compelling, narrow in focus perhaps, but deep in thought.” —Lesley McDowell, The Scotsman
“An utterly engaging examination of human relationships . . . a compelling read that never once flags.” —The Crack
“Described as a 'novel in ten conversations' . . . it turns out to be a clever, fresh device that dispenses with the need for much of a plot and presents instead more of a lush human collage . . . a rich, thoughtful read.” —Carol Midgley, The Times
“Sharply observed . . . everyone the narrator meets has a vivid presence.” —Suzi Feay, Literary Review
“The writing is brilliant . . . Cusk is always cerebral but I've never noticed her drollery before . . . absorbing, thought-provoking.” —Claire Harman, London Evening Standard
“Cusk confounds expectations . . . Outline is full of such wonderful surprises: subtle shifts in power and unexpectedly witty interludes.” —Elena Seymenliyska, The Telegraph
“This book about love, loss, memory, and the lies we tell ourselves and others exudes a contemplative, melancholy atmosphere tempered by Britsh author Cusk's wonderfully astute observations of people and the visual impressions created by her exquisitely strucutred sentences.” —Sally Bissell, Library Journal
“Outline is a quiet, profound book about the problems of living with a sense of purpose.” —Johanna Thomas-Corr, Metro
“A tapestry of different voices, its shape emerging as if by happy accident . . . [Outline] is a clever thought experiment that's far too readable ever to feel like one.” —Lidija Haas, The Independent on Sunday
“Cusk returns to fiction and top form in a novel about the stories we tell ourselves and others . . . rich in human variety and unsentimental empathy.” —Kirkus
“Like the Higgs boson, which appears only when bombarded by electrons, Rachel Cusk's nearly nameless narrator flickers into visibility only through her encounters with a series of amazingly eloquent and fascinating interlocutors. Writing at the highest level and with the greatest technical restraint, Cusk manages to describe the painful realities of women's lives by a process of erasure that is itself responsible for that suffering. This is a novel where form and content meld so perfectly as to collapse into each other. I am so much the better for having read it. As if someone finally told me the truth by telling me everything, and nothing.” —Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Marriage Plot
“On a flight to Greece where she is going to be teaching a creative writing class, the narrator begins talking to her neighbour. More accurately, initiating a pattern that will be repeated throughout the encounters and ‘conversations' that make up this hypnotic, funny and unsettling novel, he talks at her. Gradually her own identity emerges in response to--is given shape by--what is said to her. As one of her students puts it, the story constitutes a series of events she finds herself involved in, but on which she seems to have ‘absolutely no influence at all.' The irony, of course, is that all of these tales--the author's tale--hold our attention because of Cusk's unerring command of pace and tone.” —Geoff Dyer
“Outline, in outline, tells the story of a British novelist newly arrived in Athens, who has been enlisted to teach a weeklong writing seminar. Upon this provocatively slight premise, Cusk has constructed a restrained, incisive narrative of high stylistic polish and stealthy emotional power. Formally inventive, astringently intellectual, and linguistically assured, Outline poses the question of where stories come from; it shows, with glittering clarity, why they matter.” —Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch
“I opened this book, and read a page, and then a few more pages, and I finished Outline before a day and a half had passed, and I am the slowest reader I know, and I have never felt guilty about not finishing a book. Outline is amazing. It changes the lighting on the charismatic, mad, maddening monologues so beloved in literature; here we are, on the previously invisible other side of it, seeing something brilliant and irremediably true.” —Rivka Galchen, author of American Innovations
“Rachel Cusk's Outline is full of baking light and quiet melancholy and bodies brushing past one another in the heat; it's a subtle and utterly engrossing exploration of the ways we make ourselves known to one another--in stories and anecdotes, through seductions and disputes--and yet remain opaque; how we sketch ourselves as outlines and find these outlines interrogated. Its conversations echo each other deftly, their acute insights gracefully pulling apart the seams of its carefully composed characters to show glimpses of much messier selves within: a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light.” —Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams
Picador, 9781250081544, 256pp.
Publication Date: February 9, 2016
About the Author
Rachel Cusk was born in Canada in 1967 and spent much of her childhood in Los Angeles before finishing her education at St Mary's Convent, Cambridge. She read English at New College, Oxford, and has travelled extensively in Spain and Central America. She is the author of six novels. The first, Saving Agnes (1993), won the Whitbread First Novel Award. A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother (2001) is a personal exploration of motherhood. In The Lucky Ones (2003) she uses a series of five narratives, loosely linked by the experience of parenthood, to write of life's transformations, of what separates us from those we love and what binds us to those we no longer understand. In 2003, Rachel Cusk was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 'Best of Young British Novelists'. Her latest novel is Outline (2014).
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Outline unfolds through a series of conversations between the narrator, an unnamed woman, and the friends and people she meets during her time teaching a writing course in Athens, Greece. While she speaks little about herself throughout the novel, in what ways is this structure effective in its ability to reveal information about her? What do you know about her by the novel’s end?
2. During the narrator’s discussion with her neighbor on her flight to Athens, she briefly discusses her former marriage and offers some observations on the nature of marriage. She describes it as “ a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in many things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.” What do you think she is suggesting with this statement? Do you agree with her observation?
3. The narrator tells her neighbor on the plane about her small son’s habit of leaving a meeting place immediately if the person meant to meet him is not there when he arrives. The narrator disagrees with his behavior and believes that “the only hope of finding anything is to stay exactly where you are, at the agreed place. It’s just a question of how long you can hold out.” This statement seems to have a double meaning. What else do you think the narrator is alluding to here?
4. As the narrator talks to her neighbor, she recalls a memory of her two sons. When both of them were very young they would repeatedly drop things from their high chair. Inevitably, her sons would cry for the fallen object, and at that point, she would place it back on the highchair only to see them immediately drop the object again. She muses that “The memory of the suffering had no effect whatever on what they elected to do: on the contrary, it compelled them to repeat it, for the suffering was the magic that caused the object to come back and allowed the delight in dropping it to become possible again.” Why do you think her sons took such delight in this activity? What do you think, as the narrator wonders, would the boys have learned if she had refused to return the object the first time they dropped it?
5. During the narrator’s conversation with Ryan, he tells her about his time in America as a young adult. He found this time to be a time of self-transformation, which he describes as “an article of faith” for Americans. What is it about America that might allow one to feel as if he or she has the ability to self-transform, even if they come from a culture, like Ryan, which might not encourage this type of behavior?
6. While Ryan felt free to transform himself during his time in America, he also says he felt “more Irish in America than he’d ever been at home.” Why would living abroad have this effect on him?
7. As the narrator looks around the small flat she stays in, several boat models that are mounted to the wall intrigue her. From afar, the sails on these boats seem to be filled with the wind, but when she looks at them closely she notices that there are dozens of tiny cords fixing them in their shapes, and that they are not made of cloth but of paper. After she finishes investigating the apartment, unable to unearth “a layer of mystery or chaos or shame,” she returns to the boats with their “brittle sails.” What is it about these boats that intrigues the narrator? What do the sails say about the relationship between illusion and reality?
8. The narrator’s physical descriptions of her companions are often unflattering. She describes the back of her neighbor from the plane as “very broad and fleshy, leathery with sun and age, and marked with numerous moles and scars and outcrops of coarse grey hair.” The fellow writer, who arrives to stay in the flat on the day of her departure, is described as “an attenuated, whey-faced, corkscrew-haired person somewhere in her forties, with an unusually long neck and a rather small head, like that of a goose.” What do these painfully honest portraits add to the novel?
9. The narrator sees her neighbor on the plane two additional times throughout the novel. We gather through her descriptions of him that she is not attracted to him. Why then, do you think she chose to take two boat trips with him? Do you believe, as she tells her friend Elena, that it is simply because “it was hot”?
10. Throughout the novel the narrator and her companions speak of the idea of two people—either a romantic couple or siblings—creating a shared, imaginary world whose order is comprehensible to only the two of them. The narrator describes this as one definition of love, “the belief in something that only the two of you can see.” What do you make of this idea, and why does the narrator reflect on this idea throughout the novel? Have you ever experienced this phenomenon?
11. For her first class, the narrator asks her students to tell her about something they noticed on their way to class. While most of the class responds positively to this exercise, one student does not. This student, who waits until the end of class to share her thoughts, is angry and feels that the class has been a waste of her time and money. She goes so far as to call the narrator a “lousy teacher.” Do you agree? Why would an exercise like this be helpful for writers?
12. Angeliki has very particular views regarding the traditional roles of women. She describes the women she met in Berlin as women who had it all—successful careers, seemingly happy families, important roles in the community, and elegance. Upon her return, she experiences a period of exhaustion that she postulates could be the “collective exhaustion of these women.” These women, she explains, always wore practical, flat shoes, “the shoes of a woman without vanity,” and she sees these shoes as the key to their success. After she returned, she took to wearing delicate shoes, like the silver high-heeled sandals she wears to dinner. Why do you think she made this choice? Do you find her choice to be in conflict with the other feminist ideas she champions?
13. Paniotis brings the narrator a photo of her with her family that he took before her divorce. The narrator expresses much reluctance to look at the photo and by the end of the novel, the envelope he has given her, we presume, remains unopened. Why do you think she chooses not to look at the photo?
14. Silence is a major theme throughout the novel. Ryan tells the narrator that the word ellipsis can literally be translated to mean, “to hide behind silence,” and near the end of the novel, the writer who comes to stay in the flat after the narrator departs reflects on the power of silence and its ability to put people out of one another’s reach. Is the narrator hiding behind silence? In what ways do she and Cusk use silence as a tool throughout the novel?
15. The novel ends with a conversation between the narrator and her neighbor from the plane. She tells him she cannot meet him today as she has plans to go sightseeing. He tells her, “I will spend the day in solicitude,” and she corrects him by saying “You mean solitude,” and he agrees with her correction. While these two words are very close in spelling, they have different meanings. Why do you think Cusk chose to end the novel in this way? And what do you make of the difference between spending the day in solicitude or solitude?