By Angelina Eimannsberger
Outline (2014) is the first novel of Rachel Cusk’s critically acclaimed trilogy on female experience, followed by Transit (2016) and a forthcoming third installment, Kudos. The cis hetero female narrator, like Cusk, is a writer, divorced, a mother (in real life of two daughters, in the novel of two sons, so clearly gender difference matters here), and undermines patriarchy through narrative. Outline reads like a collection of short stories loosely connected by the narrator’s continued presence. She is a white British middle-class writer who is visiting Athens to teach a mediocre writing class, and each chapter details encounters with old and new acquaintances from similar backgrounds to the narrator and similarly mired in questions of marriage, loneliness, and the ephemeral reality of the world and one’s life.
We are not invited into the narrator’s interiority and thoughts, so all we have to go by is dialogue as filtered through the narrator. What is most noticeable about this is that discourses with male characters, such as her neighbor on the flight from London to Athens and a fellow writing teacher, are markedly different from encounters with women, settings that allow the reader to hear the narrator talk about herself. This is how we learn that undermining patriarchy is Cusk’s goal, and that narrative innovation is how she gets there: the narrator can speak much more freely and productively with other women. The male characters don’t create much potential for growth or release for the narrator, whose only moments of happiness come from sisterhood with female acquaintances.
The narrator’s first encounter is with the male seat neighbor on her way to Athens. After the previous five pages have been dedicated to the man’s telling her his story, “He began to ask me questions, as though he had learned to remind himself to do so, and I wondered what or who had taught him that lesson, which many people never learn” (11). The narrator appreciates the attempt at showing interest in her, even though she doesn’t much want to talk to her neighbor about her inner life. She also notices this politeness not as a genuine connectedness but rather a learned behavior, and thus does not open up to him in a deep or meaningful way.
The novel’s, and by extension, the reader’s’, doubts about male characters’ abilities to offer generative conversation to the narrator are further strengthened in the encounter with her male friend Paniotis. When they remember their previous last meeting in London, which the narrator’s husband and children had been present for, the narrator reports that Paniotis tells her: “I went away from that lunch, he said, feeling that my own life had been a failure. You seemed so happy with your family, so complete, it was an image of how things ought to be” (92). Since that lunch, her life has come apart, she has moved back to London and is divorced. Paniotis doesn’t think to ask, let alone notice, how she felt then or what has happened since.
When Paniotis’s friend Angeliki injects much needed femininity to the encounter, the conversation, and the narrator’s contribution to it, changes markedly (103). Paniotis describes the development of Angeliki since her success as an author: “Her sufferings – whatever they were – being over she has elected herself a sort of spokesperson for suffering womanhood generally, not just in Greece but in other territories that have demonstrated an interest in her work.” (96) Instead of acknowledging Angeliki’s growing importance as a contemporary voice of culture, Paniotis introduces her as a self-important speaker. This might be true, until we hear Angeliki report to the narrator about the book tour she just came back from while their mutual friend is in the bathroom: “Poland was the tour that affected me the most, because it made me see my books not just as entertainments for the middle classes but as something vital, a lifeline in many cases, for people – largely women, it has to be admitted – who feel very much alone in their daily lives” (104). If she’s self-important it’s partly because she’s important: a relevant voice in European countries, who resonates with and inspires women. This might give an idea of what Cusk aims for with her own novels, providing ‘entertainments for the middle class’ that is still valuable feminist work, much like Angeliki’s fictional body of work.
The narrator opens up in response to Angeliki’s musing, which happens only rarely in this novel and only when prompted by encounters with other women. Instead of simply reporting the state of her marriage, her previous default response, the narrator makes an effort towards complex, even painful, conversation with Angeliki: “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” (105). As the narrator is sharing this, “Angeliki began to rummage in her elegant silver bag and presently pulled out a notepad and pencil. ‘Please excuse me,’ she said. ‘I just need to write that down” (105). As the narrator talks with Angeliki, they produce new knowledge about each other that inspires them to be creative and emotionally connected. This brief encounter is more generative and more sustaining than most of the conversation had so far, and similar scenes are repeated when the narrator has dinner with Elena and Melete (186-200) and a conversation very much like the one with Angeliki ensues. The novel ends with the narrator meeting the next woman to stay in the apartment she spent her time in Greece in. Thus, the future is foreshadowed as one in which sisterhood is an important place of speaking, and where woman claims her voice through storytelling.
Outline is created almost entirely as a transcription of oral storytelling, and it is productive by speaking from a point of view where being woman is at the center. The experience of the writer Angeliki in the book performs the hope behind Cusk’s writing, vibrant middle class entertainment that also offers real emotional nurture to its reader. I look forward to seeing how exploring differences in how men and women talk with her continues to be a measurement of the narrator’s ability to share profound thoughts from the inside of her mind as the trilogy wraps up.