By Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
218 pages, $25
One forgets, between books, just how exceptional a writer Rachel Cusk is, with her pin-perfect focus on the day-to-day or, as one of her characters puts it, “the inherently traumatic nature of living itself.”
Her latest novel, “Transit” -- a sequel to her irregular yet critically-acclaimed “Outline” – comes in the same form but is even finer as Cusk continues to fill in the outline of her protagonist, Faye, a U. K.-based writer and mother of two (quite like herself) trying to find her way post-divorce in a world that seldom thinks the way she does.
“Transit” as title, for instance, is not about buses or trains but is cosmic, Faye opening the novel with the words, “An astrologer emailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future…She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky…”
With this, we are along for Faye’s journey as she settles back into London city life. Cusk’s style here is, once again, that of her narrator as a Chaucer or Scheherazade, telling story after story (and sometimes stories-within-stories) about the disparate individuals she encounters along her path. Faye (as she is called in “Outline” and so is presumed to be named in “Transit”) mainly listens, sometimes asking a probing question, occasionally offering a piece or two of her own tale.
This includes (as does Cusk’s trajectory) a return to London’s environs where she chances upon a former lover, Gerard: “I hope it’s right for you to be back here,” he says.
“I said I didn’t know yet: it was too soon to tell. Often, I said, I still went out for a walk at night … and it always surprised me how quiet it was, how empty the dark streets were. In the distance the faint drone of the city could be heard, so that the nearby silence seemed somehow man-made. This feeling, I said to Gerard, of the very air being constructed, was to me the very essence of civilization. If he wanted to know how I felt about being back here, the overwhelming sensation was one of relief.”
This is even though Faye – coming back to London’s outskirts “with limited funds” – has bought what a writer friend recommended: part of “a bad house in a good street (rather) than a good house somewhere bad.” Bad houses not only require endless work, but sometimes come with vile downstairs neighbors – as in Faye’s case. (Her anonymous astrologer never said her “major transit” would be easy, or fun.)
It is thus we meet, beyond Gerard the former lover, a nameless, highly disapproving estate agent as well as Tony the Albanian who happens to work for Pavel the Polish builder; those vile neighbors, Paula and John; Dale the hairdresser -- and a whole passel of literary folk including a student, several writing friends and fellow conference participants plus Faye’s remarried cousin Lawrence who hosts a boozy dinner party so tense and so real a reader can “smell” its underlying emotion nearly as much as its main course (“one tiny bird with trussed-up legs each”).
Everyone, Cusk is saying in her intelligent often droll voice, has a story worth knowing. However, as she has been telling interviewers for years, not everyone, if anyone, in a piece of fiction must be made up. By this we are made to surmise that the fellow travelers along Faye’s path are those Cusk has met on her own.
To you and me, as readers, this is interesting if irrelevant – except (and this is a very big except) in light of the fact that, using this barometer, the Canadian-born Cusk has certainly perfected the art of depicting a character. In this, she is like an oil painter, carefully and painstakingly layering the people upon her pages.
At one point, for example, Faye meets a friend called Amanda for coffee: “Amanda had a youthful appearance on which the patina of age was clumsily applied, as if, rather than growing older, she had merely been carelessly handled, like a crumpled photograph of a child. Her short, fleshy body seemed to exist in a state of constant excitement through which something else could occasionally be glimpsed, an oceanic weariness that became visible when her animation wore out. Today the grey tint of fatigue lay just beneath her made-up skin: she glanced at me frequently, her face crinkled against the sun, as if looking for her own reflection.”
Conversation is often at a high level here – considering everything from “stability as the product of risk” to marriage as suspension of disbelief and freedom as “a home you leave once and can never go back to.” As “Outline” dealt with fantasy and reality, “Transit” is in liege to concepts of freedom and loneliness.
“The story of loneliness is much longer than the story of life,” a student who comes to see Faye maintains. Their meeting is of two minds that never coalesce as Faye tries gently to show her visitor the difference between wasting and spending time. This is enthralling stuff and becomes even more so as Cusk takes us to a writers’ conference where all of the participants, including the annoyingly brash and the shy and seldom heard, are caught in a downpour and must appear soaking wet.
It is the dampness, of course, that makes it all human, and real – as does a chair falling in a restaurant, or a child phoning to say his brother is fighting with him and won’t stop. Cusk uses it all. Her picture is whole. We are convinced it is because she relies on actuality – not a new concept but one fairly rarely used in contemporary fiction.
Also: Although it is not necessary to read “Outline” before picking up “Transit,” knowing the first book enhances a reader’s experience of the second: One’s sense of Faye herself is stronger and one notices more plot while once again reveling in Cusk’s spare and deceptively simple prose, in this book topped by a surprise chapter ending or two.
Better known in Great Britain (where she is a controversial figure for her non-fiction books about her own early motherhood and subsequent divorce), Cusk has received numerous literary awards for her work, the most for “Outline,” a New York Times’ “Top Ten Book of the Year.”
At the time of its publication, she told the British daily The Guardian, that “Outline” was engendered by her divorce: “You are chucked out of the house, on the street, not defended any more, not a member of anything, you have no history, no network. What you have is people, strangers in the street, and the only way you can know them is by what they say…I could hear a purity of narrative in the way people described their lives. The intense experience of hearing this became the framework of the novel.”
Tribulation of course comes to every life. That Cusk makes such satisfying and original use of hers is something of a modern literary phenomenon.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.