Tuesday, November 23, 2021

the last book I read

Outline by Rachel Cusk.

Our narrator is on a plane, from London to Athens. It emerges that she is a writer, and is going to Athens for a few weeks to teach a creative writing course. It also emerges, more obliquely, that she is fleeing some sort of disaster in her personal life involving the break-up of her marriage. On the plane she is sat next to a middle-aged Greek businessman with whom she gets into a lengthy conversation, mostly involving him telling her about his life, three marriages, triumph and disaster in business and his boat, which he invites her to join him on later in her trip if she has time.

And so the basic scaffolding of the novel is set up. All ten of the chapters basically comprise conversations with other people where they do most of the talking and our narrator imperceptibly reveals a few slivers of information about herself. So we meet Ryan, an Irishman also doing a summer-school teaching gig, who tells her about his Irish childhood, his brother, now living back at home after a stint in the US Marines and a brutal case of PTSD (or something similar), and his wife, at home looking after the kids while he hangs out at bars in the sunshine.

We meet, or rather don't meet, Clelia, the owner of the apartment where our narrator is staying - instead we attempt to extract some sense of her life and personality from the stuff she has left lying around in the apartment: books, ornaments, music. 

We meet the narrator's Greek friend Paniotis, and his friend Angeliki, a novelist. 

We meet the various members of the creative writing group, and we hear them tell stories of things they'd noticed on their way to the meeting, as part of an exercise.

We go to a restaurant and meet another of the narrator's friends, Elena, and her friend Melete, a poet, and they have a lengthy conversation exploring their views on, and (generally unsatisfactory) experience of, intimate relationships.

We make a couple of trips on the boat owned by the Greek businessman (and our narrator's neighbour on the plane over), including some swimming in the sea, much talk of wives and children and then eventually, and inevitably, a clumsy pass being made which our narrator shrugs off, while reflecting on her own wisdom in agreeing to a boat trip to secluded locations with a man she barely knows.

We re-acquaint ourselves with the writing group, this time delivering their responses to a request to write something explicitly fictional involving an animal of their choice. 

Finally we meet - slightly unexpectedly as she just arrives at the apartment first thing in the morning - the next occupant of the flat and of the creative writing slot at the summer school, who relates a tale of a conversation she had with the guy in the next seat on the flight over.

So imagine you've got some art materials, and a piece of paper, and you want to portray a person. You can just draw a person-shape on the paper and fill in eyes, mouth, clothes etc., or you can take some unrelated materials and stick them on the paper in such a way that the area of paper that remains un-decorated forms the shape of a person. So you've never explicitly set out to portray a person, but through doing seemingly unrelated things, you have. So the idea is that through all the story-telling here, some of it non-fictional (within the novel's own entirely fictional world) and some fictional (i.e. made-up people telling made-up made-up stories) a picture of the narrator will emerge, even though very little is ever explicitly stated. We know that there's been a marriage break-up, and that children were involved, and that it's all been a bit acrimonious - we even find out the narrator's name, although you have to keep your wits about you as it's mentioned exactly once (page 211 in my copy - it's Faye).

Of course what this partly is is a novel telling a story, that story being at least partly about story-telling itself - writing about writing, in other words, a phrase I see I used when describing The History Of Love back in 2013. I was reminded somewhat of Paul Auster's Invisible here as well, not so much because of any similarities plot-wise but because of its use of fiction within fiction, of characters in a story telling stories to each other, like the layers of an onion. One key difference is that Auster's novel is much more archly explicit about the whole thing being made up, whereas Cusk's book is well-documented as reflecting some of the circumstances of the break-up of her marriage, something she described considerably more directly in her book Aftermath. The central character is in some ways reminiscent of the title character in Alan Warner's Morvern Callar, in that a traumatic event happens right at the start of the book (some time before the start in Outline's case) and the main character then takes the initiative and decides to go off on her travels but thereafter takes an oddly passive attitude and just sort of drifts along with events.

It's an unusually-structured book, though certainly not unprecedentedly so, despite the breathless nature of some of the review blurb reproduced on the covers, presumably from people who don't generally read novels. It's quite short (249 widely-spaced largish-font pages) but it's one of those books written in intimidatingly long, unbroken paragraphs that makes it easy to lose the thread of what you're reading, especially if you're reading in bed and a bit tired. Not in the same league as The Autumn Of The Patriarch, but you do find yourself occasionally tracking back up to the start of the particular story you're in the middle of to remind yourself who's telling it.

I don't want that to make it sound like it's a difficult read, because it isn't, and I enjoyed it very much. It is, it turns out, part one of a loose trilogy all featuring the same central character, the subsequent parts being called Transit and Kudos

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