Rachel Cusk is a British author I'd never heard of until I began reading rave reviews her new novel, Transit, so I immediately picked up a copy of her novel Outline. Reportedly, Transit is the second novel in a trilogy; Outline is the first. They join Cusk's seven other works of fiction and three works of nonfiction. How have I managed to miss her all this time?
While I am skeptical that I can convey what makes the book so powerful (to start with, I cannot write as well as Cusk, nor can I think as deeply), let me say a little bit about it.
Outline is narrated by a writer who has been invited to teach a week-long workshop in Athens. She is divorced, has two young sons back in London. On the flight to Greece, she falls into conversation with her seatmate, a much older, much divorced man; in Greece she twice goes out on his boat with him; she leads her writing class; she spends an afternoon with a friend and a lesbian Greek writer; she talks the woman who is taking over the apartment in which she's been staying. That's it.
Cusk violates many of the "rules" of fiction. It is not clear what the narrator wants—and if we don't know what a character is trying to accomplish, how can we root for her? (If an author is as good as Cusk, we—or I—will follow her anywhere.) There is no story arc except that the narrator, whose name is used only once in the 249 pages, flies to Athens, spends a week there, and is about to return to London when the book ends. On the other hand, the book is full of stories; the people the narrator meets and her writing students tell her stories. Self-serving, sad, charming, off-putting and on-putting stories.
Meanwhile, the pages are studded with comments like this: "Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forgets one's own destiny by what one doesn't notice or feel compassion for; that what you don't know and don't make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of." Think about that for a few minutes and see where it takes you.
At the same time, Cusk is brilliant at description: "The woman who said this was of a glorious though eccentric appearance, somewhere in her fifties, with a demolished beauty she bore quite regally. The bones of her face were so impressively structured as to verge on the grotesque, an impression she had chosen to accentuate—in a way that struck me as distinctly and intentionally humorous—by surrounding her already enormous blue eyes in oceans of exotic blue and green shadow and then drawing, not carefully, around the lids with an even brighter blue; her sharp cheekbones wore slashes of pink blusher, and her mouth, which was unusually fleshy and pouting, was richly and inaccurately slathered in red lipstick."
One last quote and then I'll stop before I begin to flirt dangerously with the 'fair use' exception of the copyright law: "There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all." Something else to think on for a while.
As a writer, I am dazzled by Cusk's use of language. Consider what would happen to her second quote above if an idiot editor insisted—as idiot writing teachers have insisted—she excise all adverbs.
As a reader I waiting to immerse myself in Transit when my copy arrives. But start with Outline.