Seeing yourself in “Outline”


Just finished reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline. What a beautiful, quiet, spare book. It reminded me, in ways, of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. They share a gift for highlighting truths about the human condition that sort of sneak up on you as you’re reading. They both, too, shun traditional plot development in favor of pulling stories out of carefully drawn characters.

In Outline, our narrator is a writing instructor who has traveled from England to Greece to teach a writing course over the summer. The book’s constructed as a series of conversations and experiences she has, with most of the information about her coming out in bits and pieces as these conversations are recounted. We meet an aging Greek man who has been married and divorced multiple times, who has been rich and then poor. We meet her writing students, people of all ages with an itch to express themselves. We meet a newly famous author, basking in the literary limelight but with lingering reservations about her place in the world. We meet people struggling to connect with their kids, their spouses, the purpose they’d originally set for themselves in life. In other words, we meet ourselves, one way or another.

The focus seems to be on the other people in the book, but what’s so brilliant here is the way she, the narrator, is reflected back to herself through her interactions with others. And the way they reflect off of her and off each other, too.

Aren’t we all in this same position? Who are we outside of our relationships? How are we shaped by the people we know or meet along the way? Casual encounters, lifelong friendships, marriages, parents, kids — we are shaped, formed, propped up by all of these things, setting up our identities in opposition to the people around us. Who are we, really, outside of this?

And how do we edit our own stories when we’re sharing them with people? What do we leave out? What do we emphasize? What outlines do we create from our own lives, our own experiences, that we hope make us matter, make us real? How does it shift over time? How does it change depending on who you’re talking to?

Rachel Cusk will make you consider these questions, as you also get swept away reading about summer in Greece, with its blinding heat, its white beaches and blue water, the boats and the cafes, the Greek food and wine. You feel as though you’re there, listening to a friend tell you about her summer and the people she met. You feel yourself, even, being reflected back as you read, feel yourself identifying with certain characters, suddenly sure you’re not so alone after all.