Somehow when it was published, I neglected Elizabeth Hardwick’s 1979 novel SLEEPLESS NIGHTS. It’s a short book, lyrical and dense, looking back into the author’s life. It seems like a memoir, but Hardwick has stated that much of it is “made up.” No plot- other than the rise and fall of places and people as the years unfold. The narrator reports conversations and situations from which truth may be drawn. Characters emerge, as do the effects they have on the one telling the story. Details of life in the ’70s keep the reader grounded, regardless of the shifting locations. Hardwick uses memories and letters, as well as wishes and dreams to tell her story. It is a meditation on facts and memories written with style and grace.
Rachel Cusk’s new book OUTLINE is a similar sort of fiction. In ten conversations, we learn about the people met by the narrator when she goes to Athens to teach a writing workshop. Less about the narrator and more about others, the novel implies the personality of the narrator, as facts and emotions emerge in each conversation. Again, not much plot. Instead, a skillful interweaving of life stories that lead to possible conclusions. Descriptions of the surroundings, the food, the heat are vivid. Characters are distinct and also vivid. This is a novel difficult to describe. It requires patience to read, but will reward those who are willing to forego plot for psychological insight.