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"Outline" by Rachel Cusk

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"Outline" by Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk introduces her readers to a cast of characters in Outline; these characters don’t interact with each other much, and the only action to move the narrative forward is a series of monologues about their lives. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking, Why would I want to read that? Well, you would want to read it for the unique insights that intelligent and articulate people bring to judging themselves and their lives. In Ms. Cusk’s hands, this turns into a very compelling read.

Our first-person narrator, a woman whom Ms. Cusk takes the trouble to identify only once in the book - by first name only - meets a talkative Greek gentleman on a flight from London to Athens. This older man recounts the struggles he has had through a series of marriages, and this is the first of our deep and wide-ranging conversations. His tale of woe continues on a couple of jaunts they take together on his powerboat, and the narrator finally confronts him about the self-serving nature of his complaints, and the built-in hopelessness of his approach to women. His reaction to this carries perhaps the central theme here: he confesses his attraction for her and awkwardly approaches her across the deck of his boat to give her a clumsy, ill-aimed kiss, which winds up on her cheek.

His refusal or inability to change his attitude toward the people he meets aligns with the other stories told here by other characters. There is the beautiful woman who can’t get past something she overheard her lover tell someone. There is the fellow writing teacher who climbs away from a dreary life of illness and stagnation in Ireland on a stair-climbing machine in America. There is the poetess who encounters the same unstable man, who may or may not be a fan, on all her readings throughout Europe. The narrator subjects her own life to the same kind of scrutiny, and she has imposed a self-exile with her trip to Greece.

Ms. Cusk rivets us to the page with the depth of her characters’ observations about life and love and various philosophical issues. There is a wide variance between our private and public domains, for example; in given situations some people immerse themselves in the moment while others become detached, observing for transcribing later. We have observations about the infinite capacity for humans to delude themselves, about how safety and security are illusions, about how people can go through life missing all its essential truths, remaining unaffected by all if it in their small, myopic orbits.

Throughout this, the author makes intermittent use of quotation marks, which makes all the speech appear more detached, less personal. Thus are thoughts and beliefs given to the reader, in an exposition in which we must read into the person’s remarks their frustrations and beliefs and hopes.

You will need to be prepared to encounter a wide range of ideas at the expense of structured plot; you will need accept self-exposition in place of dramatic action, to enjoy and appreciate this book. It’s fortunate that I am habitually in that realm and could sample these dishes with pleasure.

"The Eastern Shore" by Ward Just

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"The Eastern Shore" by Ward Just


In The Eastern Shore Ward Just considers the life of a newspaper editor who works his way from small-town Indiana all the way to Washington, DC. In the nation’s capital he heads up a major, influential daily. He spends his career preparing each day’s newsworthy events for the world’s consumption, but … his life contains only a few those moments of drama - becoming estranged from his father after as a teenager incurring his wrath, finding out his onetime lover has died in Africa - that form a stark contrast from the lives he publicizes. The man spends his retirement struggling to write his memoirs, and eventually he figures out that he’ll never get it done. Even the stately country home he purchases for his golden years has fallen into disrepair and desuetude.

It’s a curious journey Mr. Just takes us on: he provides the life of an unappealing protagonist, a man who’s married to his job, and lives with it for better or for worse for 40 years or more. This hero sustains his bachelorhood throughout his life, and never has any very grand regrets about it, apparently, in spite of the fact that he loves and is loved pretty deeply several times in his life.

It could be that the title provides a major clue. When the chief character Ned reaches his (ineffectual, rather stilted) retirement in a crumbling estate on the Maryland shore, he has reached the end of the land, and is forced to stop. But it’s the only thing that’s stopped him. His focus is on other peoples’ news - those who are the subject of the stories, and those for whom the various newspapers are published, has dictated his life in spite of a handful of promising affairs. Even the journalism trade is reaching a retirement point: daily print withers in favor of real-time mass consumption of “news” on the internet.

The storytelling here adds to the art, and may be the main recommendation of this book. It’s bare-bones, almost like a news article in a big-city daily. The few excursions we have into Ned’s deeper self are the times when he frustrates his would-be life partners by preferring his career to any kind of close companionship. There are a few lessons learned along the way about journalistic responsibilities, and it could be we’re supposed to be touched and gratified that Ned learned the lessons and applied them to his work.