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Outline is the first of the Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos) written between 2014 and 2018 by Rachel Cusk, a Canadian novelist living in England.

A new literary style

The tree books create a trilogy that represents the arrival point of Cusk literary research. Here in the first one she outlines a great fresco about the human nature with a narrative structure and style entirely new. Reading this novel is somehow similar to that sort of feeling one gets when observing with respect and positive curiosity someone else’s home. The eyes looking at the pictures on the walls, or at the titles of books on bookshelves, noticing smells and caressing furniture in search of any details able to reveal what seeing, feeling and living through the individual experience of someone else may mean. The book has been considered a transcendent literary example in the sense that transcends individual experience towards reflections that go beyond its borders.

Space and time stretch

Moreover, the story seems to be told in such an original way that transcends the traditional form of the novel. An English women, a writer goes to Athens to teach writing in a summer course. Space and time are the same for the whole novel, however they seem to stretch in an indefinite way embracing every experience and person she runs into.

This peculiar structure combined with the original narrative style that uses few adverbial connectors and many digressions makes the novel a multifaceted composition with several different themes apparently unevenly put together. Topics like the experience of loss, the nature of family life, intimacy, memory, and many of the fundamental experience of life are treated as spokes of a wheel that seems to have no centre.

The centre reveals itself

However as we proceed with the reading we realise that there is one element that keeps together the wonderful waterfall of impressions, memories, thoughts composing the story. This is the act of creating and in particular of writing, intended not only in practical terms but mainly as a mental attitude of openness, listening and mediation.

An important part of the story is dedicated to the very course of writing the main character teaches. During the first lesson she proposes to her students a simple activity: to tell the class something they have noticed on their way to school. This drill becomes the chance to explore how everyone is different and unique in the way in which one sees, listens, and experience reality. Hence also to understand how the real and effective communication can only be an act of mediation and the reflection of a particular way to observe life.

Observing life with a writer’s eyes.

The act of writing origins indeed from an individual drive but this book makes us reflect on how writing comes mostly from the capacity of establishing an emphatic communication with the other and from the ability of seizing those details that make us human defining meanwhile the value of our daily routine.

“And life seems so rich, when I look at it through his [a writer, D.H. Lawrence] eyes, yet my own life very often appears sterile, like a bad patch of earth, as if nothing will grow there however hard I try.”

This novel makes us consider the connections between the subject and the object of creative imagination and the relation between the mystery of individual creativity and the capacity of listening. So we find ourselves speculating about the possibility to balance the impulse of self-portraying developing the necessary modesty to interpret its beauty in relation to the individual experience of others.

Reading Outline

In Outline we read about a complex woman who looks at life with a writer’s eyes and tells us all about it. She is the narrator yet she seems to dissolve in the choir of voices belonging to the people she tells us about.

In this way the text casts some light on the big paradox of artistic creation. Creating means to express oneself to others and to express oneself to other presupposes a deep comprehension of their interpretative criteria. Then, how deeply can we create, namely expressing ourselves, without getting completely lost in others, namely what we have learnt to consider familiar? isn’t the risk the quest may entail that of creating at last something different from what we were pursuing in the first place?

The book can inevitably take the shape of an indefinite response. The query is too big and difficult, but the attempted answer is eye-opening nonetheless. A splendid mosaic of fragments of memory seized from different people and told by our main character with whom at the end of the novel we feel to share much; in particular the passion towards stories and towards the ability to see, listen and share those marvellous particulars that make us human.