Rachel Cusk's "Outline" reminded me of the movie "My Dinner With Andre," which consists entirely of a conversation between actor Wallace Shawn and director Andre Gregory, mostly about the art and craft of filmmaking. This not-quite-a-novel consists entirely of conversations between the narrator — an English writer teaching a writing course in Athens — and friends, colleagues, students and her airplane seatmate, about the possibility of talking truthfully about reality, and what is gained and lost when it is turned into fiction.
Conversation usually implies friendliness or at least informality, but these exchanges are quite formal and abstract, even when the content is personal life. The personalities and feelings of her 10 interlocutors don't interest the narrator, just as she seems to have no interest or purpose in her own life. Asked whether she liked her airplane acquaintance, "I said that I had become so unused to thinking about things in terms of whether I liked them or whether I didn't."
Although she has a long conversation with a Greek man on the plane to Athens, whose invitation to spend a day on his boat she accepts, she says of him, "My neighbor was merely a perfectly good example of something (not 'someone'?) about which I could only feel absolute ambivalence."
Her conversations with him are an exemplary embodiment of Cusk's theme, that our habit — or deeper yet, our need to interpret our lives in the form of stories — means we are bound to fictionalize them, make them neater and more meaningful than they are. Even the intense moments we relive have "no particular story attached to them," a friend tells her, "despite their place in the story I have just told you. That time spent swimming in the pool beneath the waterfall belongs nowhere: it is part of no sequence of events, it is only itself."
There is no plot here, no sequence of events, no relationships forming or failing, no character study or development. Even the setting feels arbitrary. The Greek man who on the plane recounts his two marriages and divorces, the first wife supposedly much better than the second, complicates his story when on the boat he talks of a third marriage and divorce and a son mistreated by wife No. 1.
We also never get close to the narrator. We know she has not recovered from her divorce and that she has two sons, but there's no story. We sense her intelligence from her responses to other people's confessions, but otherwise she is our stand-in, the reader of other lives. Obviously, this novel is not a page-turner, but is more a philosophical inquiry into what can be jettisoned from fiction and still maintain our interest. In that, it succeeds.
Brigitte Frase is a Minneapolis book critic.