Is literature a conversation or a monologue? Is it possible that the majority of all conversations are just twinned monologues, skating by the ears of their intended targets and firing off into the void in opposite directions? Nearly everyone has been seated in a restaurant near an awkward first date where the conversation, despite both participants’ best efforts, ranges more toward masturbation than copulation. But what if that scenario is the norm, rather than an awkward rarity?
The jacket copy for Rachel Cusk’s new novel Outline promises “a novel in ten conversations.” And it is that; no truth-in-advertising laws were brutalized in the printing of the book. But the conversations don’t often take the form of a give-and-take, tit-for-tat dialogue. The second conversation in the book, in fact, is between our protagonist — a writer heading to Greece to teach a writing class — and a man who absolutely steamrolls his seat-mate, dominating the discourse with his flagrant mansplaining. It’s exhausting just reading the chapter as the man talks about his exes and sprays his opinions all over the cabin of the plane.
...she’s a canvas on which other people paint their experiences, perspectives, and expectations.
Our narrator, though, does not seem to consider her neighbor a boor. In fact, she aligns her tastes and experiences with his. When she explains why she’s traveling to Athens:
A writer, my neighbour said, inclining his head in a gesture that could have conveyed either respect for the profession or a total ignorance of it. I had noticed when I first sat down beside him, that he was reading a well-thumbed Wilbur Smith: this, he now said, was not entirely representative of his reading tastes, though it was true he lacked discrimination where fiction was concerned.
One imagines a writer being quietly mortified to find herself in close proximity to someone like that for a long-distance flight. But our protagonist shakes it off:
As it happened I was no longer interested in literature as a form of snobbery or even of self-definition — I had no desire to prove that one book was better than another: in fact, if I read something I admired I found myself increasingly disinclined to mention it at all. What I knew personally to be true had come to seem unrelated to the process of persuading others. I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.
Our protagonist, in fact, barely shows up for much of Outline. She’s on every page, narrating, but for most of those pages, she’s simply a canvas on which other people paint their experiences, perspectives, and expectations. This will likely make Outline a difficult reading experience for some — it certainly was for me, as I’ve recently written about my distaste for passive narrators. But those who tough it out through the pages of recounted (mostly one-sided) conversations will be rewarded in the end; what Cusk is doing here is investigating the meaning of what a conversation can be, and the impact we have on others simply by speaking, or listening.
Not every conversation in Outline is verbal. The third chapter finds the protagonist walking around the Athens apartment she’s sublet, interacting with the owner’s artwork and furnishings and kitchen implements. It’s a conversation between a woman and someone else’s living space, and though our protagonist is similarly steamrolled by the space as she was by her neighbor on the plane— her body is indifferently swallowed by the experiences and emotion in the apartment — we can see her being changed (and more importantly, allowing herself to be changed) by the conversation.
Outline accumulates these changes in a quiet, studious way. It’s a novel in which not much happens, except the course of an entire life. But even the way our protagonist allows herself to be changed is subtle; you get the sense that in five years, she won’t recall exactly why she started out in a new direction. The arc of a life is long, and is bent subtly by everyone we meet, by chance or by design. Outline is a gorgeous testament to that fact.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant