Outline is a novel about writing and writers that seems rather thin on plot and strong on philosophical reflection. It reads more like an extended metaphor than a novel. The main character, Faye, is a writer who has flown from London to Athens to spend a week teaching a writing course. Starting before she even boards the plane and continuing through her last day in Athens, Faye encounters individuals who tell their stories without much provocation. This gives Faye and author Cusk an opportunity to ponder ponderously the nature of writing, point of view, creativity, and writers block.
The first person Faye meets on her trip is her neighbor on the flight to Athens. His name is never given (he is simply called “neighbor”), but we know that the neighbor is an older man, Greek, several times married and divorced, and willing to talk about his wives over the course of the week that Faye is in Greece. We also see that the neighbor is selective with his details about his wives and the reasons for his divorces, which might change the reader’s and Faye’s opinions of him. Faye catches him a few times being inconsistent with his presentation of the story and calls him out on it. Even though the neighbor is not her student, she seems to do more teaching about writing and viewpoint through her conversations with him than with her students.
Point of view is the topic in several of Faye’s dinner conversations with friends. While the topic of discussion is never writing per se, her friends are all involved in writing and publishing, and their ideas about their personal relationships and business ventures all sound like discussions of writing and viewpoint. Faye thinks there are two ways of living: either in the moment as a participant who has experience, or outside it as an observer engaging in speculation. An example of this comes from Paniotis, a friend from the publishing world. When he meets Faye for dinner, he describes their last encounter several years ago in London. They had met for lunch and Faye was with her family. She seemed so happy and successful that Paniotis took a picture of them. Paniotis recalls that his business venture (and dream) from that time was a bust and he had left that encounter with Faye feeling like a failure at life. Faye, in the meantime, has divorced and is clearly depressed. Paniotis is shocked at the turn in her fortunes and demeanor, while Faye admits to being oblivious to Paniotis’ struggles. The day that made such an impression on him is but a dim memory for her. She had no idea of his problems, and Paniotis had no idea of hers. In fact, the reader never gets the full story on what Faye’s problems are and she never reveals them to other characters; we just know that she is divorced now. Perhaps this is an allegory for the author/reader relationship or author/character relationship.
Two characters struggle openly with writers block. Ryan is also a visiting instructor and an Irish writer who had a successful book years back. He hasn’t been able to produce anything since then.
…all he knows is that he doesn’t recognize himself in those stories any more, though he remembers the bursting feeling of writing them, something in himself massing and pushing irresistibly to be born. He hasn’t had that feeling since; he almost thinks that to remain a writer he’d have to become one all over again….
This is an interesting reflection from Ryan because we learn that he has in fact reinvented himself before; the question is whether he has the will to do so again. Anne, a playwright who arrives in Greece as Faye is about to depart, traces her inability to write to a particular incident, a mugging, that has left her quite literally at a loss for words.
She found, after the incident, that she lacked what might be called a vocabulary, a native language of self ….
Anne goes on to describe her problem as the urge to “sum up” her ideas.
As soon as something was summed up, it was to all intents and purposes dead….
Why go to the trouble to write a great long play about jealousy when “jealousy” just about summed it up?
Anne can no longer even enjoy the works of the masters because her summing up problem has rendered them all meaningless. And this gets us to the other theme of Outline which I will “sum up” as the “why bother” factor, best exemplified by Faye. (She reminds me of Better Midler’s character from the hilarious short film “Angst on a Shoestring” that she did for David Letterman in 1985.) Faye is a proponent of passivity. Her disappointments in life, whatever they are, have led her to give up. She tells Paniotis,
Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one’s own destiny by what one doesn’t notice or feel compassion for; that what you don’t know and don’t make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.
Paniotis is disturbed by this way of thinking, but Faye goes on extolling the life of passivity, of “living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible.” If you try to make things happen, you’re just going against nature; it’s better to want nothing, then you can’t be disappointed. What a marvelous dinner topic for when you catch up with a long lost friend!
I didn’t much care for this book. It was a slog even though it’s not very long. I can understand why Cusk receives praise for her skills as a writer. The passages with Faye’s students were especially interesting to read, although I wonder what Faye actually taught any of them. The long boring conversations with colleagues were too much for me though. I’m at a loss as to what the overall point was, so I hope some others might pick up Outline and enlighten me.