In an essay this past summer in The New York Times Magazine, the novelist Rachel Cusk described her home renovation—a seemingly mundane subject that became, for her, a source of physical, psychological, and existential chaos. “I caused walls to be knocked down and floors to be ripped up and rooms to be gutted,” she wrote. “I threw away decades’ worth of clutter and keepsakes and old furniture; with what at times seemed like magic and at others sheer violence, I caused the past to be obliterated and put something new, something of my choosing, in its place.” This was no joy-sparking cleanse. The process drove her to “what appeared to be the brink of mental and physical collapse.” Everywhere she looked, she saw “a hidden part of myself that was publicly exposed.”
If a house is like a woman’s body—a comparison Cusk drew at length in the article—it is also like a novel: a highly individual structure that can assume a virtually infinite number of shapes, within which characters speak, love, fight, and otherwise go about the acts of living. In Outline, published two years ago, Cusk subjected the novel’s form to something like the demolition she described taking place in her apartment. Instead of a story line with traditional rounded characters, she sketched a series of coolly realized encounters between a narrator, a writer something like Cusk herself, and an assortment of people: her seatmate on a plane, the students in the writing class she teaches, friends with whom she socializes. In each encounter, the narrator—her name, Faye, is used only once in the book, giving her the impression of namelessness—remains impassive, revealing little about herself and saying only enough to keep the others talking. The stories they tell, with very few exceptions, revolve around the same theme: the breaking of a marriage. As the novel proceeds, the monologues circle and spiral around one another, their layering and patterning creating a form of profound complexity, like a seashell.