Book Club

Magpie Book Club: Rachel Cusk’s Outline.

By: Jen Shoop

This book started very strong, took some questionable twists and turns, and left me feeling intellectually challenged and emotionally shortchanged.

Let’s start with this: there is no question that Cusk is brilliant. Some of her achievements from a technique standpoint are nothing short of astounding — especially in her presentation of the narrator, a cool and removed and detached presence about whom, at the end of the day, we know very little. Hers is a kind of anti-narrator who seems to elicit and absorb the stories of all those around her (quite literally, when teaching a writing seminar, but also more informally, in her social relationships and happenstance encounters with strangers) and yet who seems reluctant or unwilling or unable to share her own. After all, at the book’s end, we know she has children but know very little about them or her relationship or devotion to them, we know she is divorced but know very little of the details, and we know she is a professor but know little beyond that except what we might piece together from he seemingly fast and loose academic technique during a seminar (which is, incidentally, volubly critiqued by one of its students — but even then, we know very little about how she received that criticism). At the end of the novel, I found myself reflecting on omission, suppression, silence: what’s said versus not in a novel, and by whom. It’s hard not to transfer this conversation into a gender studies realm, though there was not quite enough meat on the bone for me to form a complete thought there, as there seem to be many wounded birds in this novel, male and female alike.

Most of the novel reads placid, almost deadpan, in its delivery, but I had a creeping sense of doom as she alighted the boat with her “neighbor” and he accelerated recklessly and without warning. When he started playing with his pocket knife!? I was certain we were in for a sudden change-in-tack and steeled myself for violence. Nothing ensued, but it seemed to me deeply implicative of the kind of sudden eruptions of violence people endure — how even in spite of a very controlled, suppressive narrator, we can occasionally be shocked by the cruelty and inhumanity of a change in events. This is echoed later when another character talks about being assaulted and then being unable to control aspects of her life in the aftermath (specifically, eating — to me, a proxy for communications of other sorts). And so again I was left thinking about voice/silence, violence/intimacy, control/abandon. These all seem to be off a cloth for her.

At times, the book felt like an academic exercise — especially in the middle bits, where she is teaching her class and we swing from random story to random story and suddenly are wondering who is saying what and it all feels a bit like Russian nesting dolls, or a house of mirrors. Here we are, reading a fictional story within a fictional story by a fictional character being described by another fictional character. It’s an elaborate and showy gesture toward the destabilization of narrative that leaves you scrambling: what is a story? what is a narrator? what is a plot line? do we care, or why do we?

These kinds of interrogations exhaust and rankle. It feels like Roland Barthes, who famously said: “The author is dead!”, all over again and ehhh. I read for intellectual stimulation but more often than not want to have my cake and eat it, too — I want to enjoy the experience as much as I want to learn from it. So, the bits that were heavy-handed in their dismantling of narrative conventions left me short-tempered.

On the whole, though, I think this was an impressive book. Fresh and different — I’ve never read anything quite like it, especially in its presentation of the narrator — and Cusk is exceptionally elegant with language (sometimes overwrought, but I tend to favor a flourish anyhow).

I would give this book a four out of five stars.

What did you think? (Claire, will be waiting with bated breath for your input in particular.)


+Currently reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. My SIL recommended it to me as “a modern Gothic” which — know I have written about a million times — is one of my absolute favorite “genres” or “modes” of writing.

+I shared this in my review post earlier this week, but I am taking a break from Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost because I think it is causing me to break out (others have reported the same reaction — sigh). I was originally going to go back to Belif’s Aquabomb BUT am instead going to try another highly-recommended French pharmacy moisturizer (thanks to many Magpies who suggested this brand!): Avene.

+Love love love this print for a pillow.

+How amazing is this black and white dress?! Mod-turned-modern.

+As I mentioned in my apartment progress update earlier this week, we’ve officially become adults: we now own house plants. I’ve been on the hunt for chic indoor planters. Why does it feel like the vast majority of them are midcentury modern?! I’m eyeing this, this, or this.

+While looking for stylish indoor planters, I did come across this outdoor planter which reminded me of the ones we had in our old Chicago house. Sad!

+LOVE this coat dress (on sale). Similar vein: this $60 Chanel-esque jacket. Or — go whole hog with the real deal.

+Into this look with sneakers for the weekend. What I imagine a chic Frenchwoman would wear, along with a straw basket, at the farmer’s market.

+Chic neutral sweater on clearance for only $25.

+Own and love this marble-and-wood cheeseboard. Such a pretty way to display snacks — even when it’s not a cheese/meat plate! Dips with a scattering of crudite and crackers, or rows of diced fruit look just as elegant. It weighs a ton — you’ve been warned.

+DROOLING over this Loewe bag for summer.

+This mock-neck sweater jacket comes in such great colors!

+For your next ball (ha)…Cinderella redux. STUNNING.

+Chic over a swimsuit or with jeans for a boho moment.

+More books to read.

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10 thoughts on “Magpie Book Club: Rachel Cusk’s Outline.

  1. I have a copy of Outline that I picked up at a bookstore in Philadelphia four years ago (!), thanks to a bookseller rec — still haven’t read it, and may not for a while to come, considering that I currently own over a year’s worth of unread books, given my current pace (!!) I sometimes like reading challenging books, but I would say that 60-70% of the time, I’m reading for enjoyment/pleasure. That’s not to say that I only read brain candy (far from it, as I tire easily of fluffy novels), but sometimes I need to turn away from the very intellectual reads. Maybe it’s just that season of life for me?

    I’m currently reading Emma Straub’s “All Adults Here” (out in May) and am really enjoying the way she explores family dynamics. Have you read anything of hers? I also enjoyed Modern Lovers, and I have a copy of Vacationers, but haven’t read it yet (there I go again with the tsundoku!)


    1. Yes! I read “Vacationers” and I actually heard her interview Sally Rooney live here in New York. I was a little underwhelmed by her in person and it’s shaped my impression of her work. She’s doing wonderful things for the writing community and I appreciate that but she seemed so scattered and ill-prepared that I couldn’t help but wonder about her more generally. Weird when that happens. Kind of like when I went to hear a reading of “Florida” by Laurie Groff and was completely thrown off-kilter by her tone! So much sillier/more light-hearted than I’d anticipated. At any rate, that’s not what you asked. I was so-so on “Vacationers” though I found it fun and easy to read. LMK what you think of her newer work!


    2. Ahh, I actually really appreciate this slight tangent about ES — it helps me to frame some of what I’ve felt, reading her work. Furthermore, I personally feel that she & Sally Rooney are a bit of an odd literary couple. Maybe they share a publisher or something? Trying to grasp why they’d be paired together … ha!

      I’m enjoying All Adults Here so far, but some of the topics discussed are cringeworthy enough that I have to temporarily put down the book and read something else (!!) It’s strange to have that reaction. It’s been a quick-ish read so far, though, but will I remember the story crisply in, say, a year? Likely not … this was similar to my experience with Modern Lovers. ES is not the most artful/memorable writer I’ve ever read.


      1. Yes, you are so right – an odd pairing, but it’s because Straub owns a bookstore in Brooklyn and it was in part a promotion of her shop. I think she might do a series like this where she interviews authors but I’m not totally sure.


  2. Outline! About as philosophical a novel as I’ll read. It’s stuck with me. I think often about the translation aspect of it—how her students are telling her stories in a language not their own, how she is living in the midst of a language not her own (can it be accidental that it’s Greek, our mother tongue?). How motherhood is partly that way as well. And we are so vulnerable outside our native tongues!
    Like you, I grappled with the narrator herself — I didn’t quite understand how it was possible to be so detached, before I realized she wasn’t; the detached person she presented was only an outline. That felt pretty real to me.

    1. That’s interesting from the standpoint of creative writing and — well, all writing, too: in its own way, a translation. Translation of the ineffable emotions, observations, experiences that make up a life.

      I also wondered about that title. I kept thinking that we were getting “outlines” of people, their silhouettes, rather than fully-fleshed out forms, but that felt kind of cute for her given how damned brainy she is and I wondered what else I was missing.


  3. Based on your review, I’ll give this one a pass! I read more for entertainment/escape, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time analyzing and reading between the lines. However, I was excited to see The Murder of Roger Akroyd pictured above – loved that one! Hey there, Agatha, I see you peeking out from behind!

    I’m finally reading Americanah, which I’m mostly enjoying but feels like it’s taking forever to get through. And listening to the 4th Maisie Dobbs book, which are always fun and good audiobooks for the car with a toddler – no bad language (unlike the Louise Penney books, which is my other go-to series right now).

    1. Hi Stephanie – I had the same reaction to Americanah, which many bright women I respect here on the blog and in my personal life went wild over. I found it difficult, dense to get through and couldn’t wait for it to end…I dunno. I don’t think Outline sounds like your cup of tea! Too aware of itself…


  4. I had a lot of trouble with Outline. The unknowable narrator made me very frustrated. After finishing it, I kept finding myself returning to the idea that the narrator was experiencing depression. Her tendency to float above her own life, to be removed in interactions with others, her ambivalence towards her own wants and interests, her fractured focus, and the sense of going through the motions reminded me of the feeling of going through a depressive time or seeing a friend wrestling with a tough time. That’s a difficult mental state to write well without creating an overwrought caricature, and I think Cusk conjured the foggy state of mind well. I found the book tough going enough that I’ve never picked up the other two in the trilogy, despite admiring Cusk’s ambition.

    1. Wow, interesting. That’s a really fresh take I hadn’t considered and I completely see it. Thanks for sharing that.


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