Tuesday, July 12, 2016

61 Books: #31

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–30 are below this post.

31. Rachel Cusk, Outline (2014) (7/12/16)
This book of ten chapters takes place over the course of a few days in Athens and consists largely of conversations, as reported by the narrator—whose name we learn only very late in the book: Faye. 

Faye, who lives in London, is in Athens to teach a writing workshop. Two chapters are devoted to her class. In the first, we meet the ten students, who—prompted by Faye—describe something they noticed on their way to class. The last student to speak considers this a ridiculous exercise, saying "she had obviously been mistaken: she had been told 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." She declares Faye a "lousy teacher" and does not show up for the second class. That class presents students' stories that, variously, involve animals.

It doesn't sound like much, but Cusk is strangely able to find perfect details that accentuate the universal. The stories she reports in these two chapters are rich with imagination and humanity.

In two other chapters, Faye goes out on a sailboat with a man—identified only as "my neighbour"—whom she met on the flight to Athens. Over the course of their three meetings, she learns about this man's life, reinvented or reformulated in its details each time.

She has drinks or a light meal in turn with several acquaintances, again conversing, again learning deeply intimate hopes or fears or joys or—this perhaps mostly—rationalizations about the disappointments of life.

One chapter is given over to a description of the apartment she is staying in for the weekend, the apartment of a stranger—and yet by the end of the description, you feel you know both the stranger and Faye better. The apartment as character; Faye as interpreter.

It's a curiously compelling book, considering how little activity there is. But there is lots of psychology, and much consideration of themes we all grapple with: friendship, marriage, children, expectations, desires.

Here is but one example of the sort of thoughtfulness Cusk imparts to her characters, this in the words of Faye herself: "I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying—it seemed to me—was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become—to put it bluntly—anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all."

I found myself rarely fully agreeing with the characters' thoughts and opinions, but always listening carefully, generally in great sympathy, and respecting those thoughts, trying to weigh them against my own truths. This book is very much about listening.

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