Rachel Cusk’s Outline is about a novelist who goes to Athens to teach creative writing. The work seems loosely autobiographical: a book written by a divorced writer about a divorced writer. This is called ‘autofiction’; some well known examples are James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.
Autofiction is an interesting type of work. An author is bound to know their own psychology best—that is, they have direct access to their own mind, while only indirect knowledge of the thoughts of others. Therefore, writing a novel about oneself is the best way to “write what you know.”
But Cusk doesn’t spend her whole novel talking about herself—quite the contrary. The story is told through a series of conversations with those she encounters. The protagonist ends up on the receiving end of prolix monologues.Each character we meet, one after another, all tell her their unabridged life story.
In this, the true nature of the novel is revealed. Itis a novel about gathering information for the production of a novel, a story about telling stories. The scrupulous rendering of each character, through the language that they use, is a master class in character building.
Often the characters reveal themselves over the dinner table. Rachel Cusk’s protagonist goes for dinner with Paniotis, a friend from publishing, and a novelist named Angeliki that she is meeting for the first time. Angeliki’s character is shown immediately through her chagrin of the restaurant that Paniotis has chosen for them to dine at. Angeliki is described as very elegantly dressed but having “a face so extraordinarily anxious” that “anyone looking at it could only feel anxious too on her behalf” (103). She is on a special diet ordered by her doctor and must converse with the waiter for several minutes to modify the menu; the scene is reminiscent of Sally’s ordering style in When Harry Met Sally. The meal they eventually order is described as follows:
“There was a carafe of pale yellow wine, a dish of tiny green olives on their stalks that looked bitter but tasted sweet and delicious, and a plate of cold, delicate mussels in their black shells,” (Cusk, 2014).
Cusk’s descriptions of the food and setting of the novel, Athens, immerse the reader in the story. Even the way the narrator describes the olives as looking bitter is a subtle hint to the character’s perceptions—shown rather than told. The swelter of the Greek summer makes the briny sweet olives and chilled mussels sound perfectly refreshing with a glass of white wine; you can almost feel that relief while reading the book.
The meal of a crisp white wine with green olives and cool meaty mussels can easily be prepared in minutes, and shared with guests or eaten alone on a hot summer night. The mussels can be served hot right after they are cooked, or allowed to cool before eating. We would recommend a crusty baguette to soak up the mussel liquor afterwards.
Ingredients: (serves 4)
1 kg. fresh mussels, debearded and cleaned; check for any broken or open shells
2 tbsp. Greek olive oil
2 shallots, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 bulb of fennel, sliced (save the fronds for garnish)
½ bunch of soft herbs (we used tarragon, parsley, dill), picked and chopped
250 ml dry white wine
Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper
Small green olives
White wine (we would recommend Assyrtiko, a popular Greek wine known for its crisp mineral flavour)
Instructions: Place a big pot that you have a lid for on medium heat with the olive oil. Add the shallots and sweat with a pinch of salt for 5 minutes. Add the sliced fennel, sweat 5 more minutes until becoming transparent. Add the garlic and soften, then the mussels and white wine. Add a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper and place the lid on. Lower to med-low heat and check after 5 minutes. Once the shells have opened it is ready. Remove from heat and place in a serving dish. Either eat right away or cool and serve cold with the bread, olives, and white wine.