Outline is the first of five Giller-nominated books I’m reviewing before the winner is crowned on November 10th. In it, a woman writer goes to Athens in the height of summer to teach a writing course. Though her own circumstances remain indistinct, she becomes the audience to a chain of narratives, as the people she meets tell her one after another the stories of their lives.
A few times a year I like to read a book chosen by someone other than myself because even if I don’t enjoy it, the characteristics of novels I love will be re-affirmed in their absence. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said,“To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter. To become presence, means accepting the risk of absence.” If nothing else Outline was an interesting learning experience, more for what it wasn’t then for what it was.
Outline consists of a series of conversations between the narrator and the people she meets during a week long writing course in Athens. Each is almost entirely one sided, with the narrator acting mostly as a sounding board. Each person presents an “outline” of their life, and we come to see how differently people present their lives, the lies they tell, the way they shape their realities and delude themselves to make themselves look better. It’s an interesting idea, and one that had me hooked for about 50 or 60 pages, and at that point I quickly became annoyed at this cavalcade of strangers and their boring, colorless lives.
The book delivers on its promise: we get all sorts of outlines from all sorts of people. We see, in broad strokes, how a person’s past shapes who they become. But at a certain point I started to realize that nothing actually happens in Outline; we spend 256 pages hearing about things happening. As a result, I didn’t feel propelled through the story, I didn’t feel like Faye (our narrator, whose named we only learn 4/5ths of the way through the novel) took any action at all. There’s no sense of agency. Sure, she does things–she rides on a boat with a strange man she’s just met, she teaches a class, she spends time with incredibly annoying writers–but these are simply segues into different conversations. And conversations isn’t even the correct word, as they rarely go back and forth.
It’s not like I require a sneaky plot twist or a person held at gunpoint, it’s just that the concept alone wasn’t interesting enough to withstand its utter lack of emotion. I’m simply asking that the narrator feel like a character, that she interact with her own narrative. In truth, it’s not her narrative at all. I’m not even sure why Rachel Cusk even felt the need to name her. I felt like I learned a lot about a dozen strangers and nothing about the one person I spent the entire novel with. In the end, we don’t even get an outline of Faye.
I grew tired of hearing uninteresting and/or pretentious people psychoanalyze themselves for our benefit. One after another after another. How did these people’s lives affect Faye? What did she think about them? How have these stories changed her life? We don’t get answers to any of these questions.
I should say, though, that none of this speaks to Cusk’s ability as a writer. Her prose is wonderful. It’s evocative, yet readable. I simply didn’t jive with the kind of story she wanted to tell. After reading this interview in The Guardian, I start to understand why. While writing Outline, Cusk was going through a period in which writing fiction felt “fake and embarrassing,” and that “the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together [seemed] utterly ridiculous.” If you want to read a novel by that kind of writer, be my guest.
In terms of Cusk’s inclusion by the Giller jury, I find it borderline offensive, and ultimately confusing. Cusk was born in Canada, but her family quickly moved to Los Angeles. By the time she was seven, she’d moved to the UK, where she’s lived for the last 41 years. I know she has a birth certificate from Canada, but how exactly is this book the product of a Canadian? It doesn’t deal with Canada, or Canadians. The author lived here as a baby, only. Yet Cusk is up for the $100,000 grand prize for the best Canadian novel of 2015?
If that’s not an indictment to the quality of the eligible books this year, I don’t know what is.