We never, I think, discovered the true nature of the things we saw, any more than we were ever in danger of being affected by them; we peered at them, at people and places, like people on a ship peer at the passing mainland, and should we have seen them in any kind of trouble, or they us, there would have been nothing whatever either one of us could have done about it.

I haven’t read much Rachel Cusk, other than some of her bizarre but interesting take on divorce, Aftermath, before putting it aside. When reading that I admired the fact that Cusk was unabashed about offering up the kind of self-absorbed account that would inevitably (and did: read the pointedly withering reviews) draw an awful lot of reproachful attention, the kind I can’t understand, the type that mocks writers for being “narcissists.” If something is well written and interesting that should surely be paramount, right? And if, as in Cusk’s case, her perceived “self absorption” opens a window onto matters pertaining to obsessive self-examination and so on, shouldn’t what that illuminates be more interesting than any authorial impressions? Would I necessarily want to live with Knausgaard or Cusk? Hell no. Listen to them? Definitely. Ben Lerner has been taken to task for similar reasons. I’m pretty sure it’s all about tone. Cusk’s is undeniably aloof and, if not chilly, certainly no more than room temperature.

OutlineOutline (2014) is a dazzling piece of work. It’s a riposte to the criticism she has previously endured, in that the protagonist and omniscient narrator is completely defaced and is now a mere observer of other people, and is a seriously interesting and unique exploration of how the watched reveal those judging and interpreting them. And, I might add, it recalled many of the reviewers of Aftermath: many of their comments were, of course, really about them, not Cusk. All interpretations of something are always partially self-commentary.

Outline is, to be very concise, an inverted commentary on a protagonist who slowly reveals herself through others. We don’t get a full picture — we get an outline, as promised — but we get, through the choices she makes, a sense of someone vulnerable, partially numb and yet dangerously open. It’s also about the nature of writing, the writer, as anything else, the risky malleability necessary to effectively inhabit the minds and the lives of others. In perceiving and assuming the role of others you define yourself, but not just by comparative means: as Cusk infers periodically, people don’t just mimic others, they are gradually shaped by them.

And, as a writer, she is naturally, transparently receptive (a fact that is misread on more than one occasion as silent advocacy or overt, as opposed to professional, interest) to people, pretty much all of them. She quickly forms relationships with people: her interior unease eroded by her opportunistic, voyeurish enthusiasm, and is easily enmeshed in personal tirades. She’s partly willfully defacing herself, taking on other personas. There is a sense of there being a disquiet in having to remain in her own head for long: when she’s forced to act rather than observe, things get tricky. She’d really rather just watch, record. She’s looking for material: always we have that sense. It’s not an invasive fascination: there is no need for any importunacy. On the plane to Greece, where she will resume her post as a creative writing tutor, she rapidly makes the intimate acquaintance of the man sat adjacent.

I said it surprised me that his first wife, whom my neighbor had seemed rather to idealize in our earlier conversation, should behave with such coldness. It didn’t seem to fit with the impression I had formed of her character. He considered this, and then said that she hadn’t been like that in the time of their marriage: she had changed, had become a different person from the one that he knew. When he spoke of her fondly, it was the earlier version of herself he was speaking of. I said that I didn’t believe people could change so completely, could evolve an unrecognisable morality; it was merely that that part of themselves had lain dormant, waiting to be evoked by circumstance. I said that I thought most of us didn’t know how truly good or truly bad we were, and most of us would never be sufficiently tested to find out. But there must have been moments when he had glimpsed — even if only briefly — what she would become. No, he said, he didn’t think there were: she had always been an excellent mother, devoted above everything else to the children.

As she deliberates over such mini-biographical confessions and the assorted revealing throwaway conversational tidbits she encounters (which comprises the vast majority of the novel), she gradually picks apart, or anticipates, or reaches qualified convictions about her opposite number by either musing privately about them or by digressive, instructive interjection.

I replied that I wasn’t sure it was possible, in marriage, to know what you actually were, or indeed to separate what you were from what you had become through the other person. I thought the whole idea of a “real” self might be illusory: you might feel, in other words, as though there were some separate, autonomous self within you, but perhaps that self didn’t actually exist. My mother once admitted, I said, that she used to be desperate for us to leave the house for school, but that once we’d gone she had no idea what to do with herself and wished that we would come back. And she still, even now that her children were adults, would conclude our visits quite forcefully and usher us all off to our own homes, as though something terrible would have happened if we had stayed. Yet I was quite sure that she experienced that same sense of loss after we’d gone, and wondered what she was looking for and why she had driven us away in order to look for it.

Cusk’s narrator gets into a near-scrape with her first acquaintance: she accepts his invitation to go out on his boat and ends up in a rather cringeworthy scenario. At the point everything sours she quickly caricatures the man and selectively dismantles him as means of justifying her necessary distancing. In doing so, we judge both parties, and our sympathies become unclear: we’re relieved but we’re now a little more furnished with information about our protagonist, and it isn’t all ingratiating. There’s a level of devil’s advocacy that runs right through Outline: it’s unsettling, and expertly employed. Everyone in the book ultimately eludes us, more so as we learn more about them, particularly the narrator.

The book is set up to engineer a certain type of exchange: information uttered by means of carefully wrought representation; subsequent evaluation and gradual reinterpretation. It leads to a series of subtle duels, and it’s a cleverly playful means of philosophical interrogation, of uncertain social situations and what they mean, of freighted, subjective information exchanges in general, borne out of psychological scrutiny, in that we are put in the position of fellow interrogator forming ‘substantial’ impressions with very little actual substance beyond carefully construed anecdotes.

But as we move through the book, we begin to flesh out our proxy fictional eyes and form an impression of them, an impression that in turn affects the portrayal of the narrator’s opposite. We move, gradually, away from the shoulder of Cusk’s mouthpiece, and hover over both parties, far more objectively than had been the case, and increasingly understand that what we’re left with is selective personas muddied by levels of receptivity and a mutual level of appraisal that mocks our own ill-equipped judgmental facilities. The solidity we invested in at the outset eventually disappears: what we’re left with is recast as entirely mysterious and estranging. Basically, two people inevitably misreading one another, or accurately reading one another but to no end other than fleeting levels of uncertainty and conjecture, eternally unconfirmed, purely functional, skewed recognitions, words thrown up that will always have at least two interpretations, those responsible for them apparently becoming “realer” but in truth simply becoming more complexly fictional.

How much of what anyone says speaks “of” them? What adds to all this meta stuff, from a stylistic point of view, is the fact that Cusk is clearly setting up two of her own voices against each other and asking all kinds of intriguing questions about herself, as a writer and as a person detached or attached to that end. How much conviction should characters in fiction have? Should the omniscient narrator necessarily be considered any authority on anything? Should that same omniscient narrator necessarily be considered the voice of the author, even when distanced by characteristic disparities between the created and the creator? Are we always looking for autobiography under all circumstances? Why? To enumerate all the possible lines of intriguing enquiry would run to several paragraphs. Luckily, this isn’t remotely just an intellectual exercise. The anecdotes tend to be funny, fascinating or both (they have to be, really: it would be far too arch otherwise). And the writing: well, it’s exquisite, and excising chunks as part of a review is a nightmare. It’s uniformly masterful, a carefully sculpted piece, flawless and tautly elegant. It reminded me of no-one more than Joan Didion. It has that otherness, the disquiet that comes from being in the unerring hands of an absolutely exact eye (and what, even, does my saying it’s ‘exact’ mean?). And it’s an unforgiving eye that is not over-enamored of people. We’re just stories being told to each other.

“On the way back up,” Paniotis said, “the sun grew so hot, and our bites began to itch so unbearably, that the three of us tore off our clothes and leaped into one of the deep pools the waterfall had made, despite the fact that it was quite close to the path and that we could have been seen at any minute by passers-by. How cold the water was, and how incredibly deep and refreshing and clear — we drifted around and around, with the sun on our faces and our bodies hanging like three white roots beneath the water. I can see us there still,’ he said, ‘for those were moments so intense that in a way we will be living them always, while other things are completely forgotten. Yet there is no particular story attached to them,” he said, “despite their place in the story I have just told you. That time spent swimming in the pool beneath the waterfall belongs nowhere: it is part of no sequence of events, it is only itself, in a way that nothing in our life before as a family was ever itself, because it was always leading to the next thing and the next, was always contributing to our story of who we were.”

So, it’s not a book that bearhugs you or fizzes with excitement. You’re probably best not reading it all at once; you may need to induce yourself into its cool rigor. It’s an inverse confessional, so to speak, and a brilliant, careful examination of a writerly mindset. Here everyone is deeply odd, particularly if they’re ostensibly not, but authors are the worst, as much trouble to themselves as anyone else. Outline displays the kind of clairvoyant precision of a Didion, Woolf or Updike, and Rachel Cusk isn’t far behind them.

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