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Other People’s Stories

I’d be hard-pressed to refer to Rachael Cusk’s tantalizing Outline as a novel or even as a collection of short stories, though the similarity to the latter is obvious in many ways. Cusk (whom I have not read before) has published seven earlier novels and three memoirs, and it may be that “memoir” best describes the form of her original new work. Her main character, who we learn is called Faye only late in the narrative, is a middle-aged and divorced English writer who has accepted a week’s residency in Athens in order to teach a workshop for beginning writers. She is one of several such British writers who have agreed to do teach in the program.

On the flight to Athens, she is seated next to a man who is Greek, probably about twice her age. He’s short and unattractive, but they strike up a conversation for much of the flight, which means that he mostly tells her things about himself, and she reveals little about herself (other than what I have already mentioned). “Her neighbor,” i.e., seat neighbor, as she will call him for the rest of the story, is thrice married and thrice divorced, with several children along the way. He’s been well off, and though lately his finances are somewhat
reduced, he’s managed to hold on to his own boat. Before they deboard the plane, she provides him with her phone number, which means that she obviously hasn’t seen the last of him. Sure enough, within a day he calls her and asks if she’d like to go boating and swimming, and since she’s accepted the gig in Athens in part to do those kinds of activities, she says yes.

Soon, she meets other writers and friends—writers who appear to be blocked in their writing and consequently have turned to teaching. The topic frequently turns to failure. One of them, a Greek male she has known from the past, tells her, “The human capacity for self-delusion is apparently infinite—and if that is the case, how are we ever meant to know, except by existing in a state of absolute pessimism, that once again we are fooling ourselves?” Later, he will add of his nation, “Greece is a country that is on its knees and dying a slow and outlinecuskagonizing death,” perhaps a fitting analysis about what has happened to the country in the past few years. It’s a bleak picture, mirroring his own failures as a writer.

In two chapters, Faye describes the process she uses to engage her students, to get them to be perceptive and prepare them for their
writing. In the first meeting of the week, she tells her ten students to relate something they observed on their way to the class that day. Some of the results are uninteresting but others are entire stories in and of themselves. What she’s done is trick her students into relating the “outline” for what might eventually become a legitimate short story. The punch line at the end of this rollicking chapter is the tenth student (a woman named Cassandra, with an increasing sour expression on her face) who has remained silent throughout the session, refusal to contribute to the discussion.

“She had been told that this was a class about learning to write, something that as far as she was aware involved using your imagination. She didn’t know what I thought had been achieved here, and she wasn’t all that interested in finding out. At least Ryan [Faye’s predecessor the week before], she said, had taught them something. She would be asking the organisers to refund her her money, and would make damn sure they got her feedback. I don’t know who you are, she said to me, getting to her feet and collecting her things, but I’ll tell you one thing, you’re a lousy teacher.”

The second classroom chapter is even funnier than the first. In between these two, Faye goes boating and swimming with her “neighbor” two more times and she has some of the funniest conversations with other writers that I have ever read. (Apparently quite a few of them have been imported into Athens for similar assignments.) A woman poet describes the poetry reading she gave the night before, attended by six people. “One of the six, she added, glancing up, was a man who came to nearly every public appearance she gave, and would sit in the front row making faces at her. This had been happening for several years now. She would look up from her lectern, not just in Athens but in other cities that are quite far away, and there he would be right in front of her, sticking his tongue out and making rude signs.”

Faye’s details of these conversations with others (both her students and other writers) are often priceless, and her observations provide two of the hallmarks of great writers: the ability to listen and the ability to observe. At the end of the week, while she is still getting ready to catch her flight back to England, her successor for the next week arrives before she has yet left the house where she has been staying. That person, she tells us, “was an attenuated, whey-faced, corkscrew-haired person somewhere in her forties, with an unusually long neck and rather small head, like that of a goose.”

I do not know if Rachel Cusk has ever been a teacher but—if she hasn’t—all I can say is that some university needs to hire her immediately. What she demonstrates about teaching is brilliant. And her writing is imaginative as hell.

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $26.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, ion Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.