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Wednesday, October 05, 2016


Outline, by Rachel Cusk, puts the literary in literary fiction. It's precisely written, almost too much so, at times feeling as if it were a house of cards. Nothing really happens in the book--it's one woman's observation of the people she meets while teaching a writing class in Athens, Greece. While reading it I felt like it was more like homework than enjoyable.

A woman flies from England to Greece (I think she is called Faye, but I'm not sure because she narrates and that name is only mentioned once). The first chapter is a chat with a man sitting next to her on the plane. I hardly ever talk to people on a plane--in fact, I think there are two types of people in the world, those who talk to people on planes and those who don't.

Anyway, our narrator reveals very little about herself. She has children, she is divorced. Instead she relates the information of whom she talks. Her "neighbor" on the plane ends up inviting her out on his boat and eventually makes a clumsy pass at her. Everyone reading the book can see it coming except the narrator, who is surprised.

She meets with other writer types in Athens, such as a fellow teacher from Dublin and a few Greek writers. They're all kind of blending into one right now, although one woman is described as the pre-eminent Lesbian poet in Athens, an interesting title to own.

Cusk makes many pronouncements, some right on the nose: "The human capacity for self-delusion is apparently infinite – and if that is the case, how are we ever meant to know, except by existing in a state of absolute pessimism, that once again we are fooling ourselves?" Others are a bit head-scratching: "The memory of suffering had no effect whatever on what they elected to do: on the contrary, it compelled them to repeat it, for the suffering was the magic that caused the object to come back and allowed the delight in dropping it to become possible again."

There is very little humor in the book, something that might have made the book more lively. Occasionally Cusk can get a little droll: "The longing was easy enough to understand: it was what the Greeks called nostos, a word we translated as ‘homesickness’, though she had never liked that word. It seemed very English to try to pass off an emotional state as a sort of stomach bug."

For those who like their fiction genteel and without excitement, Outline may be for you. I require a little more conflict. It is short, though.

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