By Rachel Cusk, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 260 pages, $26
Transit is a novel that all but dispenses with plot. A recently divorced novelist buys a dilapidated house in London, and has conversations with builders, neighbours, a hairdresser, a friend. She appears at a literary festival where she brings “something to read aloud” (we learn no more), teaches, goes on a date and attends a disastrous dinner party. It is the second novel of a trilogy that began with Outline, in which Rachel Cusk’s project appears to be nothing less than the reinvention of the form itself. “Once you have suffered sufficiently,” she told an interviewer after the publication of Aftermath, her memoir about the demise of her marriage, “the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.”
What, then, is to be done? How is the novel to be written? Cusk’s answer is to eliminate John and Jane in favour of an altogether different narrative structure, in which a shadowy narrator, Faye — named only once in each novel — becomes a conduit for multiple stories. These stories are not, as it were, played out John-and-Jane style; they do not unfold before us, nor are they — by and large — composed through dialogue. Instead they are delivered by Faye, who sums up what often amounts to the story of a life. Thus a chance encounter with an ex-boyfriend, Gerard, produces a tale of marriage, fatherhood, and the way life can be simultaneously ever changing and stuck in a rut. “Superficially, for him at least the facts of that life were unchanged since the days I had known him: he lived in the same flat, had kept the same friends, went to the same places.” The difference, Faye notes, was that his wife and daughter “were with him: They constituted a kind of audience.” Pavel, a Polish builder, yields a story about the house he built for himself back home, and the hardships of his new life in London. “He rented a bedsit near Wembley Stadium, in a building full of other bedsits occupied by people he didn’t know. In the first week, someone had broken in and stolen all his tools.”
It is a risky business, this summing up. Show, don’t tell, say the creative writing manuals. Cusk has torn up the rule book, and in the process created a work of stunning beauty, deep insight and great originality. Key to this originality is the novel approach to building a character. The narrator of Outline was described by critics as “a cipher,” “self-effacing,” “numbly inert,” or “a faint image.” In Transit, Faye is beginning to emerge from the numbness and passivity that followed the death of her marriage. As she tells the real estate agent, “I would want what everyone else wanted, even if I couldn’t attain it.” Yet she is still, in many ways, an absence. While we learn about Pavel’s relationship with his father, and a friend’s relationship with her parents, Faye’s biography remains a mystery. Her sons, staying with their father during the building work, feature only as brief interruptions when they call her in states of anxiety. Nor are we privy to Faye’s private thoughts, her inner dialogue or stream of consciousness. There is, in the Kantian sense, no whole and centred inner self to which we are introduced. Nor do we find in Faye a divided, self-contradictory, unreliable self in keeping with the multiplicity and chaos of the subject described by post-Enlightenment philosophers such as Adorno and Horkheimer, and rendered in modernist literature by writers such as Woolf and Joyce. Instead we discover Faye — perhaps as we largely discover ourselves — in relationship to the people and events around her.
This process is organic and dynamic. It evolves in the way she reacts to others, for instance the writing student who “sipped her tea with an air of equanimity, as though in the confident belief that I would not be able to resist asking her to continue.” Faye does, indeed, resist. It flows from the way her thoughts seem formed spontaneously, a challenge to interlocutors: To stay free, her hairdresser opines, “you have to reject change.” Faye demurs: “I said I wasn’t sure: When people freed themselves they usually forced change on everyone else. But it didn’t necessarily follow that to stay free was to stay the same.” Her identity also emerges from the stories that she elicits or pays heed, above those she chooses to ignore. While teaching a class, Faye finds it “hard to attend” to what the students are saying. However, when one relates a story about Arabian hunting dogs that suggests “the ultimate fulfillment of a conscious being lay not in solitude but in a shared state so intricate and cooperative it might almost be said to represent the entwining of two selves,” Faye draws him out. Inevitably, in “suburban Sevenoaks” where he lives, the potential of his own hunting dog — like all two-become-one dreams — has remained unfulfilled.
There is something Freudian, almost of the consulting room, about many of these exchanges. When Faye asks a student why she had felt excited after a romantically “deflating encounter,” or asks the chairman of a literary festival she attends why he “suffered more anxiety” than his sister, both reply that they don’t know. We are reminded of the provisional and transitory nature of self-knowledge. To render a protagonist with the traditional brush strokes of personality, habits, motivations, desires and so on, may in the future and in comparison come to seem like a child’s finger painting. “How can a man know himself,” Nietzsche wrote. “It is a dark, mysterious business.” Cusk’s novel appears to chime with the Nietzschean concept of self as a continuous process of becoming. “Your true self,” he wrote in “Schopenhauer as Educator,” “does not lie buried deep within you, but rather rises immeasurably high above you, or at least above what you commonly take to be your I.”
Where other novelists have looked “deep within,” Cusk seeks to rise above the “I”. In doing so, she has created from Faye’s “absence” a palpable, recognisable presence, and constructed a meditation on the nature of self, freedom, narrative and reality.
Best of all, she has given us all this in a novel that is compulsively readable. It is full of beautifully precise micro-fictions, like the story of the English builder who dreams of “translating himself wholly into the middle-class world” but remains with his sister in working-class Romford, because there “he can watch telly and eat a takeaway and no one expects him to talk.” Cusk can also be funny and has a fine ear for dialogue, talents she uses to conjure up her nightmare downstairs neighbours. While her prose style is economical, she has a flair for imagery, sometimes bordering on the Dickensian. At the dinner party that closes the novel, the children — who would prefer pasta — are each presented with “one tiny bird, with trussed-up legs.” On being told that it is a baby chicken they all begin to cry. “The candles flamed around them, streaking them in red and orange light, illuminating their hair and eyes and glinting on their wet cheeks, so that it almost looked as though they were burning.”
Transit is a slender novel that contains multitudes. It is a work of great ambition, beautifully executed, a worthy successor to the brilliant Outline, and a harbinger of great hope for the third and final installment — soon may it arrive.
–New York Times News Service
Monica Ali is distinguished writer in residence at the University of Surrey. Her most recent novel is Untold Story.