Portrait of an Invisible Artist: Transit by Rachel Cusk

Only one book I read last year rivalled Rachel Cusk’s Transit, the sequel to her 2014 novel Outline. That other book was Outline. Transit won’t thrill everyone: it will enrage those expecting plot, and it may unsettle those expecting a straightforward depiction of family drama and self-discovery. But many will read it with the breathless exhilaration it deserves.

Like Outline, Transit is a series of loosely linked chapters reported by Faye, a writer adjusting to life after divorce. She’s a first-person narrator who eclipses herself by recounting, in studiously neutral tones, anecdotes she hears from friends, acquaintances and strangers. Rarely does she let herself into the spotlight. Yet the self-portrait that emerges despite her dodges is fully fleshed. As she herself observes, “often people betrayed themselves by what they noticed in others.”

The brilliance of Transit is in the telling—or, rather, in the re-telling, since Faye tells mostly second-hand stories. The story is minimal. Faye, with two young sons in tow, moves back to London, buys a house and hires a contractor to fix it up, angering her neighbours. She runs into an ex-boyfriend, goes on a middling date, accompanies an Albanian tradesman to the hardware store, visits her brother and his new wife, attends a literary festival. The dramas are domestic and professional—and hardly dramatic. Nothing much happens.

But nothing can happen in many ways, and Cusk makes it fascinating. Against the odds, her calm, contemplative plotless novel is a page-turner. How does she do it?

With uncanny control over Faye’s voice, Cusk amplifies the micro-dramas of everyday interactions, revealing cliffhangers in undercurrents of worry, fear, mirth and excitement. Throughout the novel, often during moments of nearly comic social awkwardness, Faye’s youngest son calls her in a state of minor but genuine distress, infusing the narrative with a menace that is both commonplace and disquieting. In an especially affecting episode, a boy knocks over a display case in a salon where Faye is having her hair dyed. The event somehow feels like a disaster.

Only a great stylist could pull it off. Part of the effect is due to Cusk’s handling of mood and tone, a skill she shares with Kazuo Ishiguro. She also knows exactly how to let a sentence unfold. Erudite but never grandiloquent, Cusk writes so well it’s easy to overlook how experimental her method is, and how profound her insights. Few novelists so deftly manage the Big Questions. The novel’s central tension between fate and freedom—hardly fluffy stuff—is always in play, but unobtrusively, arising in all  Faye’s conversations, taking on poetic, philosophical or colloquial hues depending on the speaker. Time and again, she makes observations worthy of Proust—without overly straining her sentences.

Early on, for example, Faye explains how “a friend of mine, depressed in the wake of his divorce, had recently admitted that he often felt moved to tears by the concern for his health and well-being expressed in the phraseology of adverts and food packaging.” Much has been written about Big Data, surveillance, automation and the distractions of smart phones and Facebook; much has also been said about the freedoms afforded by the internet. But the view outlined by Faye’s divorced friend is remarkable for its moral complexity, its teetering halfway between terror and enchantment:

There had been a great harvest, he said, of language and information from life, and it may have become the case that the faux-human was growing more substantial and more relational than the original, that there was more tenderness to be had from a machine than from one’s fellow man. After all, the mechanised interface was the distillation not of one human but of many.

Faye reports her friend’s theory without comment, perhaps because it comes uncomfortably close to describing her own self-portrait as the gathering of other people’s voices and stories. It is not the only time Cusk flirts with metafiction, but it is a particularly significant moment. Situated in the first few pages, it offers a kind of guide for reading what will follow—not a “how to” let alone a key, but certainly a hint at the novel’s concern with the simultaneous intimacy and aloofness, self-revelation and impersonality in the genre of autobiography. The passage continues:

What was soothing, he believed, was the very fact that this oceanic chorus was affixed in no one person, that it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere…. For him the erosion of individuality was also the erosion of the power to hurt.

This passage speaks to the question of autobiography that inevitably trails Rachel Cusk, who is often (inappropriately) called a writer of autofiction. Faye’s life may overlap with Cusk’s, but this fact (if it is one) adds little to our reading of the novel. In autofiction, like Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, the novel’s effect depends on our knowledge that it’s written “from life” and on the ontological puzzles that arise from that knowledge. This is not how Transit works. Though it often foregrounds the line between art and life, fiction and biography, the novel does not seem all that concerned with the line between the fictitious writer Faye and the real writer Rachel Cusk.

In this Transit resembles Lydia Davis’s metafictional masterpiece The End of the Story, with which it also shares an atmosphere of weariness, or Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, with which it shares almost nothing else. These novels are about writers who are much like their authors, but their autobiographical elements, interesting and informative as they may be, are inessential to their art.

This isn’t to say autobiography is irrelevant. Undoubtedly aware her readers would be looking for it in Transit, the spectre of real-life revelations gives Cusk the chance to have some fun. It seems fitting that Faye should be invited to a literary festival to participate in a panel on autobiography. Speaking to the festival’s Chair afterward, she remarks that her fellow panellist and his book “were the same thing,” prompting the Chair’s (and our) response: “That’s a strange thing for a writer to say.”

During the festival, Faye is third to speak, after long self-promoting anecdotes by two male autobiographers, Julian and Louis. One of the most shocking revelations about Faye—or at least about how others view her—comes when Louis ends his speech and introduces her to the crowd:

He supposed, he said, that the time would come when the book people were now reading would seem no more personal to him than the skin a snake has discarded and left lying there. He wished only to return to that state in which, uniquely in his experience, he had been capable of absolute honesty, but by using writing as the forum for it, he had also ensured that writing was a place he would never be able to go back to. Like a dog that shits in his own bed, he said, turning and looking directly, for the first time, at me.

The last sentence is probably Transit’s most autobiographical wink, a hint at how the public has vilified Cusk for her nonfiction accounts of marriage and motherhood. But the context of Louis’s insult should warn us against such literal readings. By writing about himself, Louis has become someone new; autobiography, Cusk suggests, does not record or pin down the self as much as it enables the self’s transformation. “We are so schooled … in the doctrine of self-acceptance,” says one of the novel’s characters, “that the idea of refusing to accept yourself becomes quite radical.”

The literary festival is the literal and thematic centre of the novel, its version of a climax. Its prospect hangs, unmentioned, over the early chapters. When Faye dyes her hair, for example, she does not so much as hint that she’s worried about looking old in front of the festival audience; it is only in retrospect that we can make such connections. In the novel’s second half, we get the sense that the festival has precipitated Faye’s transit, her self-transformation. She refers obliquely to a “change far beneath me, moving deep beneath the surface of things,” not revealing whether it is an epiphany or just a vague presentiment.

Some readers will find Transit bourgeois and quietist, too silent on politics. Yet a potent ethics is concealed in the way Cusk entwines its themes of fate, freedom, authorship, selfhood and the stories other people tell. As Faye puts it, “that idea—of one’s own life as something that had already been dictated—was strangely seductive, until you realised that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy.”



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