Reading Outline is like spying on an author in the process of auditioning characters for a future novel. In other words it is indeed an outline, an outline for a work that it still shadowy in the writer’s mind. Cusk interviews her potential characters and lets them tell her emotionally pivotal stories about themselves. She makes no other dramatic demands of them. They become like a Greek chorus of voices without a play.
A writer, unnamed until the penultimate chapter, travels to Athens to host a writing workshop. Each chapter either recounts a conversation with someone she meets or a group discussion with her writing class. If Cusk has an agenda, a unifying theme to these conversations it is the shredding of romantic illusion. Its principal agents, sexual attraction and parenthood, are both mercilessly called to account. Cusk, it becomes clear, had had enough of illusion. The narrator, bitter herself, extols the virtues of passivity as a philosophy of life. And by extension it’s as if Cusk is bored with creating the illusions necessary to write novels. She’s like the magician who can no longer be bothered to go through the charade of masking the tricks. She’s a writer letting us know how bored she is with the theatre of constructing novels. However boredom is never going to be the best mainspring inspiration for the creation of a novel.
There wasn’t enough contrast in the voices for me, almost all of which were markedly narcissistic and given to self-pity. There was a sense everyone was hired to conform to a preconceived and adamant argument. And as such there was no sense of discovery in the novel. The tone of the first speaker was almost identical to the tone of the final speaker. Beneath the surface of this novel is a great deal of unresolved rage, belonging, you sense, to the author herself. One of the novel’s central premises is that every relationship is doomed to fail, to become little more than a distorting outline, or as one character puts it there’s “a disgust that exists indelibly between men and women and that you are always trying to purge with what you call frankness” . Frankly, that’s a melodramatic statement to me, a distortion of perspective caused by unresolved anger. And this anger prevents any possibility of evolution. Thus the novel ends as it begins, with little sense of a meaningful journey, with little resolution.
In short, it’s a novel that’s much easier to admire than to love. It’s very well written with some truly brilliant observations, it’s intelligent, it holds its focus. It’s also a novel that arouses the suspicion now and again that there might be a conceit involved, the presence of the emperor’s new clothes factor. I enjoyed reading it; at the same time I have a feeling I’ll remember nothing about it six months from now.