Outline

Rachel Cusk

I referred to 10:04 as feeling at times like “a novel of anecdotes,” with many parts structured around characters telling each other stories. Entirely by chance I picked up Outline shortly after and found Rachel Cusk built it entirely around this framework, though more people call it “a novel of conversations.” The twist is that the main character, a writer teaching a summer workshop in Athens, converses mostly with people who dominate their exchanges, and therefore we learn very little about her, directly at least. The premise is that she takes shape in the negative space of all their chatter, but that idea at first seems more convincing than the book’s actuality.

Cusk acknowledges this subtly. At one point another teacher tells her how he’d gone out with some students, who taught him a few words in Greek. He notes how much of English is rooted in the language, like how “the word ellipsis, he’d been told, could literally be translated as ‘to hide behind silence.’ ” Silence comes up again when a woman taking her place in a borrowed apartment describes the aftermath of an experience of a serious trauma, reflecting on the “power of silence”:

Lately, since the incident … even her closest friends had started to tell her to stop talking about it, as though by talking about it she made it continue to exist. Yet if people were silent about the things that had happened to them, was something not being betrayed, even if only the version of themselves that had experienced them? It was never said of history, for instance, that it shouldn’t be talked about; on the contrary, in terms of history silence was forgetting, and it was the thing people feared most of all, when it was their own history that was at risk of being forgotten. And history, really, was invisible, though its monuments still stood.

The philosophy of silence has personal significance for Cusk whose last book, Aftermath, was a memoir about her divorce that received some scathing reviews for a level of honesty many found pretentious. In an interview with The Observer she revealed that she couldn’t write or even read for nearly three years after this: “my mode of autobiography had come to an end. I could not do it without being misunderstood and making people angry.” But during this time she became attuned to encounters with strangers and “could hear a purity of narrative in the way people described their lives.” It’s likely she noticed suggestions of narrative in the ghosts of what they chose to leave out as well. In that way this novel is not just exploring the contrast between active sharing and total silence but also the gray areas between.

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