Outline: Sometimes you have to be bored by a novel


People seem excited about Rachel Cusk’s Outline because it’s some sort of experiment in form and characterization: the ‘novel’ follows a writer/writing instructor while she is in Greece teaching a writing seminar.  The novel narrates her conversations with those she encounters – from airplane seat mates to long time friends – over the course of her trip. There is something to be said for the way her character is revealed in relief – what she doesn’t say, how she lets the conversation be focused on the other person, by the questions she asks and the settings in which these conversations unfold (e.g. on a boat with a person she met on the plan the day before). 

I was pretty bored by the novel. I appreciated the initial chapters for the way our narrator let us see – and not see – herself revealed. But after getting the formal experimentation established and appreciated, there wasn’t much left to sustain focus. The conversations themselves, while circling interesting subjects, are largely platforms for declarations of pseduo-philosophy on topics of love, gender, self-other relations. These topics should be worthy of exploration, but the so-called dialogues are really one character pontificating on a topic and stating – in entirely non-conversational terms – their views on any one of these topics.

So with nary a plot thread to cling to, an (albeit purposefully) absent narrator and these quasi-philosophical-largely-declarative-opining about this and that – I could have readily stopped reading after the first forty pages. That said – it is worth reading a few chapters if only to take in the form and the way our character is revealed through others and the interaction with these others. And then feel entirely welcome to abandon the outline and go look for a novel with a full form.


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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction, New York Times Notable

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