Outline by Rachel Cusk was something different. I haven’t read popular fiction in quite a long time, and I was worried when, in the beginning, the main character becomes engaged in a conversation with her “neighbor” on a flight to Athens. Through his line of questioning, we learn a little about the protagonist, which felt like a plot point contrived solely for the purpose of giving the reader information about the main character.
However, I liked the book and found the brilliance in that, as the protagonist meets several different characters, there are interesting and universal insights to be gained about human nature. For the most part, the characters themselves are very self-aware and analytical, sharing meaningful insights with the protagonist. Though, like all people, their assessment is not always accurate. Cusk presents these quirks and character flaws in entirely novel ways, but they resonate as true and important glimpses into the human psyche.
Interestingly, as the protagonist meets the various characters, Cusk’s voice or tone remains consistent throughout. So, there is little sense of the individuality of these characters. In many ways, the novel reads like an outline, a sketch, of the characters and ideas that Cusk is presenting.
The last character to enter the novel speaks about a troubling condition she’s gained, which she calls “summing up.” It prohibits her writing because just as she really gets in to writing a play, she finds the meaning creeping into her brain, words like “tension,” “mother-in-law,” or “meaninglessness.” Once she finds the significance of her work, she loses interest. In the summing up concept, the reader sees the ways in which Cusk has both avoided and indulged a summing up of the various characters and meanings in her own novel.
This section was also meaning to me because I’ve been stricken by the same sense of summing up since my early 20s. I was probably 21 when I realized, with a start, that every story is the same with few uninteresting variations. This is why I have a hard time with popular fiction. I have a longstanding joke, which is likely only amusing to me, that is called “I saw it the first time when it was called…,” wherein I liken every new book or movie to a book or movie that came before and grumpily deduce that it will offer nothing new.
Furthermore, I see the same patterns play out not just in movies, but in real people in real lives. I rarely think anyone is ever having a unique experience, and the result of that is, I suppose, a somewhat jaded view of the world. I’ve never known anyone else to sum things up quite like I do, and so to see it portrayed in a novel was strangely validating.
Here are a few ideas from the novel that I think render further discussion:
- “The bump in the road hadn’t only upset his marriage; it caused him to veer off on to a different road altogether, a road that was but a long, directionless detour, a road he had no real business being on and that sometimes he still felt himself to be travelling even to this day” (15).
- “The memory of suffering had no effect whatever on what they elected to do: on the contrary, it compelled them to repeat it” (18).
- “We are all addicted to it, he said…the story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality” (99).
- “I had friends in Athens I could have called. But I didn’t call them: the feeling of invisibility was too powerful” (248).