Thursday, February 27, 2020

Book 222: Outline

"It is interesting how keen people are for you to do something they would never dream of doing themselves, how enthusiastically they drive you to your own destruction: even the kindest ones, the ones that are most loving, can rarely have your interests truly at heart, because they are usually advising you from within lives of greater security and greater confinement, where escape is not a reality but simply something they dream of sometimes. Perhaps, he said, we all are like animals in the zoo, and once we see that one of us has got out of the enclosure we shout at him to run like mad, even though it will only result in him becoming lost." 

Dates read: April 6-8, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Every so often, I wake up and am confused about where I am. Why is the sun coming through the windows in that way? Why am I not in my childhood room, in the bed I slept in until I graduated high school? Or the one from my third year of law school, to this day my favorite apartment I've ever lived in? It doesn't happen regularly, but on the occasions it does I have to remind myself that I'm not 17 and needing to get into the shower so I won't be late for school, or that I'm not in Tuscaloosa anymore, that was literally a decade ago now. That I'm me, the me that exists right now, and I'm exactly where I was when I went to sleep last night.

That feeling of poignant unreality permeates Rachel Cusk's Outline, which follows Faye, a British woman recently divorced and in Greece to teach a week-long writing course over the summer. The book consists of ten conversations that she has with other people, starting with her seat neighbor on the flight over (with whom she continues to interact during the week) and ending with the next person staying in the apartment she's been put up in. In between, she talks to old friends, new friends, and her class about subjects ranging from animals to marriage and divorce. Well, more like gets talked at rather than talks to. Faye is not a big participant in these conversations, and so what we get about her is...wait for it...mostly an outline, defined more by what's going on around her than anything we see of her interiority.

This isn't an easy book to write about, because there's not a lot of "there" there. Virtually nothing happens, and since Faye is such a cipher and only her airplane seat neighbor makes more than one appearance, there's nothing to speak of in terms of character building or development. Instead, we're left with admittedly lovely writing and a lot of meditation on themes. Dislocation/unreality, processing trauma, illusions, and an unexpectedly heavy emphasis on marital relationships are explored throughout the book, and at the end, Faye heads home and back to her life in the UK without any sense that this week in her life has meant anything.

I can appreciate a book with an unconventional narrative structure, but this one never quite came together for me. Cusk uses language beautifully, you can feel while you read it that each word, each phrase was chosen with care. But the way she sacrificed plot and character development to focus exclusively on theme makes this feel like a writing exercise more than a book. There's not a story here, really. There are just words.

This isn't to say there's nothing of value here. The first section of the book, the first conversation, in which Faye and her seat neighbor discuss his personal life and children and divorces, is by itself a masterful short story. And there are moments of brilliance in her descriptions...Faye finding herself thrown off-balance at the acceleration of a motor boat captured a sensation I've personally experienced many times before in a way that resonated powerfully. And some of the people in my book club, for which I read this one, really connected with it. But all I can offer here are my personal reactions and review, and for me, this didn't work. I can't recommend it, but if it's something that intrigues you, I won't warn you away from it either.

One year ago, I was reading: Going Clear

Two years ago, I was reading: Henry and Cato

Three years ago, I was reading: A Leg To Stand On

Four years ago, I was reading: The Guest Room

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