Nonstop Oracle: Everlastingness in Rachel Cusk’s OUTLINE
By Mark Gozonsky •
My favorite books explore the contours of the narrator’s brain, and I’ve never read anything that does this so well as Rachel Cusk’s Outline. I first encountered the striking cover image on the windowsill of my daughter’s apartment on Chicago’s South Side. A nautilus shell stuck bolt upright in the sand. This one book, displayed apart from all the others: The Book.
I was hooked from the start, where at a Heathrow airport lounge the narrator blows off a billionaire who wants her to help him start a literary magazine. You tell ’em, unnamed narrator! Who has time for these stupid billionaires and their dumb literary magazines, anyway? Not us! She flies to Athens for a week to teach a course boldly entitled “How to Write,” a fabulous promise the novel fabulously delivers on, assuming you like books that explore the contours of the narrator’s brain.
In Outline, unlike most brain-centric books which typically dig in, in, in to the narrator’s sad-mad-generally-not-glad thoughts, we read from inside-out. Our narrator tells us what her name is only once, and reveals little else of her private life. She’s divorced, with two school-age children, prefers classical music to pop, has been to Greece before, and has been around money enough to be unimpressed by billionaires. That’s just about all. She draws her profile in negative space, like this: “she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.” The narrator is nominally talking about someone else here, as usual, but there it is, “outline,” the title word, firmly requesting attention.
The outline forming this narrator’s profile shows a woman, lost. “Loss” appears in my marginal notes even more than “!,” which comes up often. What distinguishes her loss is the ability to render it in terms of the life stories of the people around her—and in particular, to render their breakup and brutal-aftermath stories in a style conveying limitlessness unto eternity, like the headless Greek statues the narrator adores.
It’s this sense of limitless that interests me. How does Cusk do it? That’s what I want to know; along with, how could we do it, you and me, assuming some thoughtful person sent us a gift basket filled with Cusk’s talent.
I count sixteen strategies Cusk uses to establish this sense of limitlessness, though I’m sure there are more. Let’s start with the easy one: diction. Here are some of the words you run across in the reading of this book: inexhaustible, timeless, countless, universe, interminable, unstoppably, eternal, infinite, enormous, forever, and… plethora! Yes! Plethora makes the cut. My high school students would be pleased to know. Plethora is one of their favorite big words. It’s fun to say. Plethhhhhhhhhh-ora. I get it. Greek word FYI.
If I was teaching this book, I might assign students to answer a prompt—they always like “What do grown-ups think they know about teenagers, but don’t really know?” Just write that first draft, let it all out. Then think—if I could put what I really wanted to say here into one word, what would that word be? Oh, it could be a lot of things: anxiety, libido, rando. Whatever word they came up with would be fine. Then I would have them research a slew of antonyms for that word, and use the entire slew to answer the prompt, “What advice would you give someone who asked your advice on something you’re an expert about?”
I don’t know precisely what the outcome would be—I prefer an open-ended product when lesson-planning—but this process would potentially give us practice in experimenting with words antithetical to our nominal theme and seeing what emerges.
Cusk’s limitlessness gives us room to partake of the narrator’s readily imparted wisdom. Again, you have to like this sort of thing. I recommended this book to my up-for-anything mom, who reported back, “She never pauses to take a breath.” Yes, because, if she paused, we might ask her troubling questions such as “How are you?”
As one of her many, many means of diversion, the narrator is constantly dropping knowledge. For one among countless examples: “People are at their least aware of others when demonstrating their own power over them.” Sounds smart to me! So does this: “There was no such thing as an unblemished childhood, though people will do everything they can to convince you otherwise.” The whole book is aphorism-a-go-go, and the effect this has on me is making me feel the narrator is wise and also generous in giving me so much to add to my own wisdom collection.
Cusk’s particular brand of wisdom involves inversion. Everything is its opposite. That creates a sense of amplitude, because we’re never just dealing with things as they are; we are also communing with how they are not—the same thing, only different.
If I were to school myself and my students in trying our luck with this approach, I’d have them revise either of those first two essays. This time, simply add more of your personal wisdom. Kids like being asked for their personal wisdom. People don’t usually ask them for it, but they have plenty, and I have often found it to be wise. For example, a girl who was just hanging out in my room one day because that’s where her boyfriend was, once said, “Losers are winners, because they gain lessons the winners never learn.”
The tripod keeping Cusk’s unbounded style steady is extreme specificity. Consider the one other guest besides the narrator in an otherwise empty restaurant:
…a fat man in a heavy tweed suit sat alone at a corner table, delicately cutting a slice of pink watermelon into small pieces with his knife and fork and placing them carefully in his mouth.
The novel is a mosaic of such choice tidbits. Cusk’s narrator is a connoisseur of suchness, and her ability to bring such sharp focus to the foreground implicitly magnifies the background.
I wish you could teach kids how to write like that. I wish I could teach myself. It requires patience and concentration most people don’t have, and the reason typically given is that we’re slaves to our phones, although the real reason is, we aren’t geniuses of prose. Therefore, I would play to our weakness and have kids take a slo-mo video of someone taking something out of their backpack and looking at it. Then, give a blow-by-blow description of the slo-mo: every button on the backpack, the detritus on the desk, the off-task behaviors of other kids caught on camera, where the light in the room is coming from, the reflection of the retrieved object in their subject’s eyes…
Everybody is always telling us to slow down, paint what we see, bird-by-bird. We know this advice by heart, but do we follow it? Well, actually, I have found that my students will do whatever you tell them to do between the bells. Homework not so much, but between the bells, they’re down. So I would try this slo-mo activity with them, and I imagine most of us would have fun and possibly learn to be more minutely descriptive. Would it enable us to flaunt a style that gestures eloquently towards eternity, like Rachel Cusk? There is still time left to find out.
I’ve said there are at least sixteen and no doubt more techniques Cusk uses to infuse her style with everlastingness, yet here we are nearing the end of this essay and we’ve only talked about diction, wisdom, and specificity. Let’s show we’ve learned something from human history and not try to exhaust the inexhaustible. For now, the last thing I’d do by way of learning “How to Write” is by keeping on with what we’ve been doing: writing about how she writes and how it affects me.
Cusk writes complex sentences: not simple or compound; complex. These sentences weave through themselves, they flow and ebb, doubling back to emphasize and re-emphasize: “this gap, this distance” between “how things were and how I wanted them to be.” Often the sentences further curlicue around the indication that someone other than the narrator is speaking: the innumerable instances of “he said” and “she continued” render a steady echo. The effect is entrancing, if you like sentences that weave and double back and echo.
The effect is also irritating, because although the novel is a character portrait in negative space carved from listening to people and observing the world around the narrator, all the people sound the same and the places as described could be described by no one but her. It’s irritating—because it’s disappointing. You can’t get away from yourself no matter how closely you pay attention to others, how obsessively you observe every detail. You’re stuck with yourself, so deal with it: or, if you’re our narrator, don’t deal, just keep listening and observing and writing it all down like your life depends on it.
This strategy could get to be a drag if Cusk didn’t pep things up, but oh, she does, especially with her trademark surprising simile. You can count on Cusk for the I-never-looked-at-it-that-way comparison. Eyebrows like “grasses in a rocky plain”; unresponsiveness “like an arm chair”; blandness like “terrain swept by tornadoes”: our narrator transforms everything she observes into some more resonant version of itself.
The entire effect is brought off by an intelligence without the slightest display of uncertainty, except about this one thing: the core of her beliefs. The narrator writes of her former family home: “I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.” This paradox admits entry, but no exit. Graves can’t help it; that’s just the way they are. So perhaps it is ultimately to protect us as well as herself that the narrator draws an outline around herself.
MARK GOZONSKY has published recently in The Sun and Lit Hub; of yore in The Santa Monica Review, Cauldron, and The Austin Chronicle. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles, where he teaches English at Grand Arts High School.