In her anti-confessional new novel, Rachel Cusk uncovers in others what it feels like to be human
In 2009, the English novelist Rachel Cusk wrote The Last Supper, a memoir about a trip to Italy; a month after it appeared, its publisher was forced to withdraw the first print run and pulp the books because somebody had recognized himself and was threatening to sue for breach of privacy. Cusk has also been excoriated by the British press for her memoirs about motherhood and divorce: the major complaint seems to be have been that she was not a nice person, a narcissist who cared a great deal more about herself than about her children or ex-husband.
Cusk may have learned the hard way that autobiography can be a dangerous thing. Withdrawing back into fiction, first with the Giller-nominated Outline and now with Transit, she almost effaces the self. Her unusual protagonist in Transit, a recently divorced writer who has just moved with her teenage sons to London—apparently the same divorced English writer who narrated Outline—reveals the barest details about her circumstances and never indulges her feelings. Instead, she concentrates on the stories of those she meets, relying on conversations with interlocutors to gradually reveal the depths of their experiences.
In one typical and telling passage from Transit, the narrator travels to an outdoor literary festival in the summertime to share the stage with two male counterparts. On their way into the venue, all three have become soaked by a rainstorm, but the narrator only belatedly remarks on her own wet clothes, concentrating primarily on describing the men in this awkward situation. Once the event begins, one of them proceeds to hog the limelight with the horror story of his childhood—he was kept locked in a shed by his stepfather—while the other makes bitter jokes to the audience about his rivalry with this scene-stealing author and the literary double act they have developed. In passing, the narrator tells us that she then reads a selection from her work, but she reveals nothing of its content.
The female narrator’s invisibility in the face of much male preening has some sly humour to it and it might be tempting to conclude that Cusk is reacting with bold stylistic inventiveness to the accusation of narcissism, honing her anti-confessional style to almost satirical heights. The reader, so accustomed to the self-revealing “I,” may be surprised or even angered to gradually realize that Transit’s true subject is other people. Certainly, in an era in which fiction writers from Sheila Heti to Karl Ove Knausgaard have concluded that autobiography is the most efficient and honest means of novel making, the opaque narrator of Transit feels like an unusual and courageous choice. Yet Transit is a novel no less dedicated to uncovering what it feels like to be human; in the context of a career that has produced both memoir and fiction, it is probably more accurate to say that Cusk is seeking to relay the truths of lived experience by whatever means she finds at her disposal.
In Transit, those means are the observations of the writer renovating a dilapidated London apartment—to the irrational ire of the nasty layabouts who live in the council flat downstairs. These circumstances might push many a person to anxiety, self-pity and despair, but Transit’s narrator is markedly dispassionate as she describes the interior lives of people she meets: the homesickness of the Polish contractor working on her flat; the disaffection of her hairdresser who has given up partying and taken in a troubled young nephew; the professional doubts suffered by her creative writing student who decided not to have an affair with an older photojournalist; the equanimity of a former boyfriend recalling how he met his wife. As the title suggests, these people are in transition, often in and out of marriages, and many of their stories, whether about their own unhappy antecedents or about their relationships with their neglected offspring, evoke the loneliness and incomprehension of childhood as though that locked shed were the best metaphor for the adult condition too.
Cusk is on a heroic literary quest here, seeking a voice that will be as true to how we feel our lives and our selves as the modernists’ experiments in stream of consciousness. Although the author’s unveiling of these people’s sorrows, their triumphs and most of all their ambivalence is a highly convincing act of naturalism, few former lovers, let alone hairdressers and contractors, are as voluble, as confessional and as insightful as this crew.
And the narrator’s aloofness does at times stretch credulity. On two occasions, the narrator’s younger son phones her in tears: once, he is locked out of his father’s place; another time he is fighting viciously with his brother in the absence of his father. It seems probable that a single mother’s anxiety—or anger toward the ex-husband who should be at home caring for her sons—would be so overwhelming in these circumstances that it would now finally become part of the narrative.
And yet, with its dark recognition of our animal natures at war with our imperfect selves, the image Cusk creates here—of the two boys bloodying each other yet unable to stop—is one of the novel’s most shockingly enduring passages.
Cusk has never been identified as a Canadian writer and prior to Outline’s controversial nomination for the Giller Prize in 2015, her sparse novels were largely unknown in the land where she was born but has never lived. I read Outline naively expecting that the narrator would ultimately reveal some secret link or hidden interest that tied her life tightly to all the other stories she told. I knew better than to have such bourgeois book club expectations of Transit, and this time I found the daisy chain of encounters made for addictive reading. But for all that I was compelled forward, I still felt frustrated by the dark anti-climax of the dispute with the neighbours and by the novel’s Bergmanesque finale in which various adults show a sick-making lack of sympathy for the children and stepchildren of their own marriages, love affairs and divorces.
Cusk’s view of humanity is crystalline, clear as ice but hard as rock; her intelligence is fierce but her empathy is erratic. You pay a certain price for her company as a novelist.