Outline by Rachel Cusk was one of the books shortlisted for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The story seems simple enough: a young woman from Great Britain travels to Greece to facilitate a writing workshop and she tells us about a number of people that she met during the trip. I have seen some comments that the book somewhat lack in interest and seemed to be composed of a series of vignettes about the people that the narrator met. And at first sight, it does look like it. However, as I asked myself what the jury of a major literary prize saw in the book, I have come up with a different interpretation of the author’s intent, for what it’s worth.
Many books have a third person omniscient narrator who, like the proverbial fly on the wall, sees everything that is happening and can fully describe the events that compose the plot. More than the fly on the wall, this narrator can also sometimes share the characters thoughts and feelings that are not readily observable. This does not happen in real life… I cannot see the flash of anger in a family member’s eyes, although I may conclude they are angry from some other gesture of facial expression. What Rachel Cusk does is tell us a story in a very realistic way from one single point of view. Since the narrator is not a witness that the marital problems that the man she encounters on the plane went through, all she can do is tell about what the man shared with her. The result has a certain flatness, but the result provides a certain kind of realism that is very close the usual experience of not having input from simultaneous multiple points of view. And Rachel Cusk does this in an unwavering way throughout the book, which I think is actually quite a tour de force.
Cusk, Rachel. Outline. Harper Collins, Toronto, 2014.