Is Motherhood a Tattoo or a Shadow on the Sand: Some Thoughts on Identity in the Novel Outline

I just finished Rachel Cusk’s Outline, and I’m thinking, again, about motherhood. Or rather, the role of the mother. Or rather, roles.

The roles of Outline’s narrator include: mother, ex-wife, writer. It is in that last capacity that she, an Englishwoman, has come to Athens, to spend a few weeks teaching a writing class, in English, to a variety of students, all Greek. This itself is important, that her students are expressing themselves in a language not their own, that there are things suppressed or lost in translation, that we are different people in different languages. The book itself has the detached air of translation, but despite the language gap, the narrator is a dab hand at eliciting confessions (roles: therapist/elucidator/catalyst), and it is these that form the surface level of the book.

A recent, semi-celebrated novelist has liberated herself from being only a mother and wife by writing a book about an artist who does the same thing, but while on book tour in Warsaw, she realizes that the story she has told is narrow, and plush, and that she envies one of the women who has come to hear her read, who is poor and plain and solid as rock, but whose children sleep with her photo under their pillows.

A fellow teacher, a playwright, has recently been mugged, and ever since, has been unable to write–”whenever she conceived of a new piece of work, before she had got very far she would find herself summing it up…Why go to the trouble of writing a long play about jealousy when jealousy just about summed it up?” The summing up bleeds into the rest of her life as well, to until she is questioning the point of its existence. (How Borges-ian! And all too easy to succumb to, whether by Incident or Instagram.)

One of the narrator’s students enjoys the sight of her children cooing over a neighbor’s puppy, but the spell of tenderness is broken when they ask if they can have it, for she had given into their last request for a dog and after its care had, inevitably, fallen to her, she had grown bitter and violent and had eventually allowed it to escape.

A man the narrator meets on the flight over and continues to meet during her stay, to ride on his boat — and no more, despite his desires to the contrary — has had three marriages and now realizes that it was a mistake to end his first, but also knows that if he could be with his ex-wife again, this feeling would pass and “the whole demise of their relationship would [be] re-enacted.”

Throughout the book the narrator refers to this man, the only confessor with multiple confessions, as “my neighbor,” and it becomes evident that the moniker is not only spatial but situational. The narrator, too, is divorced, and strafed with contradictory desires: to be back in the home that no longer exists; to swim forever towards an unyielding horizon; to exist, through accomplishment, or money, on a plain above and apart from previous lives and obligations.

And what are those lives and obligations? The narrator’s children are mentioned infrequently and abstractly, and only once does one of them burgeon into the narrative itself. He is lost on his way to school, and calls his mother for help, while she is in the middle of a lesson. She guides him quickly and almost mechanically, and I got a sense, finally, of her as a fledged person, with banal competencies. Up until that point she had seemed to me to be almost entirely edgeless. An outline, a shape created by other shapes.

How important is it that she is a mother, when the artifacts of her motherhood are so scant? Very, I think, but I haven’t figured out if motherhood constricts her, as it does the women who speak to/at her, or if it is something she is more or less able to temporarily shed.

But motherhood can’t be shed like Peter Pan’s shadow! Though I suppose he came back for it, and cried when it wouldn’t stick. So. There were times this past week, my first back at work, when I forgot entirely about my son, and other times when his absence clawed at me. It’s hard to do good work while being clawed. At least, it’s hard to do the work I do, ferreting for audience trends and statistical significance, skeins of insight in burls of data. So is it, then, better to be not a mother for eight, nine, ten hours a day? Better for whom? (Better for the family bank account!)

I don’t know as I’ll have an answer that sticks without months or years of agonizing. My husband took paternity leave last week. He enjoyed it, full stop. He is ready to go back to work tomorrow, also full stop. There is a reason the narrator called her seatmate “neighbor” and not “shadow.”

Upon further thought, I believe the narrator’s motherhood was always there, part of the outline or else the outline altogether, whereas her other roles, writer, teacher, traveler, are the fillings–more visible at times, perhaps, but forever imprinted by what contains them. I don’t know if I’m making much sense (my own outline is bleary from sleep regressions). Read the book, anyways; it is beautiful and provoking on all its levels.

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