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Framework of narrator’s life emerges through others’ stories

Illusion spars with reality in Rachel Cusk’s smart new novel, “Outline” – a timeless tale of love and loss told in an unending cascade of stories, each of them rendered with Cusk’s trademark edge and acumen.

Yes, Cusk is a Scheherazade here, holding us fast with stories spun to her principal character, Faye, an England-based author (as is Cusk) traveling from London to Athens to teach a summer course. Beside her on the plane is “a small man in a pale linen suit, richly tanned, with a silver plume of hair.”

He is talkative and showers Faye, our first-person narrator, with vignettes of his Greek birth and English upbringing before remembering to ask her about herself:

“I said that I lived in London, having very recently moved from the house in the countryside where I had lived alone with my children for the past three years, and where for the seven years before that we had lived together with their father. It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.”

This is the most we learn, directly, about Faye – whose circumstances in many ways echo Cusk’s. Thus, much is being made, by the literati among us, of “Outline” being either Cusk’s fictional answer to readers dissatisfied with her memoir, “Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation,” or her reply to a professed disillusionment with conventional forms of the novel.

“Outline,” I would venture, transcends both ideas. Unusual in its form, but not that unusual, it is a book of thoughts often expressed by others as Faye begins to teach her summer writing course by coaxing its mostly Greek enrollees to describe something he or she noticed on the way to class.

One student confides: “It had been interesting for her to realise how little she noticed of the objective world. Her consciousness, at this point – she was forty-three years old – was so crammed full not just of her own memories, obligations, dreams, knowledge and the plethora of her day-to-day responsibilities, but also of other people’s – gleaned over the years of listening, talking, empathising, worrying – that she was frightened most of all of the boundaries separating these numerous types of mental freight, the distinctions between them, crumbling away until she was no longer certain what had happened to her and what to other people she knew, or sometimes even what was or was not real.”

It is an interior world that Cusk probes here – one at different times considering marriage, or writing, or friendship, always with a sliver of humor. When, for example, Faye meets early on with a billionaire she is told wants to found a literary magazine, she muses, “A lot of people want to be writers: there was no reason to think you couldn’t buy your way into it.”

But it is the serendipity of her neighbor on the airplane, and the disparity of the individuals she encounters during her stay in Athens, that become the meat of “Outline,” each of them finding, in Faye, someone to confide in – be it on a plane, a boat, in a restaurant or in the openness of her class.

Only her airplane neighbor gets a second act here when, after filling her – in the air– with one-sided accounts of his several marriages, he invites her to an afternoon, and then another, on his boat, wooing her of course while she chooses to focus on his bare back: “It was very broad and fleshy, leathery with sun and age, and marked with numerous moles and scars and outcrops of coarse grey hair. Looking at it I felt overcome with a sadness that was partly confusion, as though his back were a foreign country I was lost in; or not lost but exiled, in as much as the feeling of being lost was not attended by the hope that I would eventually find something I recognised.”

In other words, she tells herself, “His aged back seemed to maroon us both in our separate and untransfigurable histories.” A deal-breaker, apparently, and an opportunity lost – but, more than either, the very definition of Faye’s perceived lot at this point in time.

How clever, then, of Cusk to allow others to inform “Outline,” to fill it in a bit, flesh it out with others’ stories, including that of Kevin, another teacher in the summer program, a young Irish writer with a successful novel behind him but nothing like it on the horizon.

If, he tells Faye, “there’s one thing I know it’s that writing comes out of tension, tension between what’s inside and what’s outside … when I think back to the conditions that made me write The Homecoming, I realise there’s no point me trying to get back to that place because I never could … reproduce that particular tension in myself …”

Kevin’s problem of the moment is “three kids and a mortgage and a job I’d like to see less of …” He will later tell Faye of learning that the word “ellipsis,” Greek in origin, can “literally be translated as ‘to hide behind silence.’ ” Faye, we understand by now, already knows this, her own life being in an ellipsis …

In this way, “Outline” is constructed to give us a fuller grasp of Faye whose only contacts with home during her Athens sojourn underline her sense of life as surreal: One son phones to say he cannot find his tennis racket; another, because he has lost his way to school; a friend at her bank calls to say the institution cannot increase her loan …

Faye recalls her sons as inseparable as children – bound by “a shared vision of things that strictly speaking could not have been said to exist.” So too with her marriage, she offers at one point: “I suppose … it is one definition of love, the belief in something only the two of you can see, and in this case it proved to be an impermanent basis for living.”

Faye also has old friends in Athens – authors and editors who introduce her to others in the field, all of them fascinating, all with stories of their own. Even the apartment she is staying in belongs to an (absent) writer named Clelia whose study and view to the street are replete with examples of the relationship between illusion and reality.

It is to this apartment that another writer, a playwright named Anne, comes on Faye’s last day in Athens, a garrulous but likable woman who not only also has experienced personal trauma but who also met a man on her plane to Greece. The man, in speaking of himself, presented her opposite, Anne tells Faye:

“While he talked, she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it … Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her for the first time since the incident a sense of who she now was.”

We know this to be true. We have just been in Athens with the outline of Faye.

Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.

FICTION

Outline

By Rachel Cusk

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

250 pages, $26