Author(s): Rachel Cusk
Novel | Read our reviews!
In the wake of her family's collapse, a writer and her two young sons move to London. The upheaval is the catalyst for a number of transitions - personal, moral, artistic, and practical - as she endeavours to construct a new reality for herself and her children. In the city, she is made to confront aspects of living that she has, until now, avoided, and to consider questions of vulnerability and power, death and renewal, in what becomes her struggle to reattach herself to, and believe in, life.
Filtered through the impersonal gaze of its keenly intelligent protagonist, Transit sees Rachel Cusk delve deeper into the themes first raised in her critically acclaimed novel Outline, and offers up a penetrating and moving reflection on childhood and fate, the value of suffering, the moral problems of personal responsibility and the mystery of change.
'[Transit] confirms that one of the most fascinating projects in contemporary fiction is unfolding in Rachel Cusk's trilogy.' Adam Foulds
He had just sat down, he said, to begin to write a review, and when he said this word “review” he made those irritating little inverted comma actions in the air with the first two fingers of each hand, which made me wonder whether he used nested one- and two-finger quote gestures for quotes within quotes, and also whether he extended the practice to maybe some kind of diagonal hand signal when he spoke the title of a book or other such matter which would be italicised in print, so that, when he went on to mention the name of the book he had begun telling me about, or, rather, had begun telling me about his beginning to write a review of, a book called Transit by Rachel Cusk, I looked for such a gesture and had trouble suppressing what could have appeared as a small smirk of contempt when the gesture upon which I had speculated was not forthcoming, just as I might, involuntarily, smirk at other examples of people who were incapable of executing the grammatical precision to which they aspired. The book, he was telling me, was narrated by a woman who was trying, despite the best efforts of the downstairs neighbours, so to call them, to submit both her house and her personal life to some kind of renovation after she had moved back to the city with her children, who, due to the renovations, do not appear in the book, except by telephone, some years after separating from her children’s father, who, in the book, is nothing more than a force of absence even though he is supposedly looking after the children while the renovations are taking place. I am unsure why he was telling me this, perhaps he didn’t realise that I had read the book myself, but surely he was not so naive as to think that plot made any particular contribution to the novel, and, indeed it was probable that he was not suggesting this but that he just didn’t know how to begin. Actuality is insufficiently robust a medium to sustain that peculiar arrangement of circumstance and intention that in fiction we like to think of as plot, I suggested, and he looked at me for a moment with his mouth open before asking me to repeat what I had just said and jotting it down on a piece of paper in that illegible scrawl of his. Please go on with what you were saying, I said, but he seemed to have lost his train of thought, if it had ever had sufficient impetus to be thought of as a train. The book, he said, seems to be “about”, and again he made that little inverted comma gesture, the ambivalence of the narrator, and, by extension, perhaps, of the author, who, after all, resembles the narrator in every particular, so far as I am aware, which, however, is not very far, I interjected, to passive observation as opposed to deliberate agency, and to fate, so to call it, to the reading of life as text, perhaps, as opposed to choice, the authorship of one’s circumstances and the guilt and responsibilities that come with that. He had not expressed this well, but it did resonate with certain passages in the book, I thought, such as when one character, I have forgotten who, says, “Only the very lucky and the very unlucky get an unmixed fate: the rest of us have to choose.” I think it was the narrator’s long-ago boyfriend who says this, a man so concerned that choice leads to guilt that he expends immense efforts removing choice from his life, even though this leads to virtual stagnation: “Perhaps it is only in our injuries, he said, that the future can take root.” Is fate “only truth in its natural state”? “For a long time I believed than it was only through absolute passivity that you could learn to see what was actually there,” says the narrator, coming to the realisation that this attitude had led to others dictating her circumstances. But, I thought, at the other extreme, and as exemplified by the narrator’s cousin Lawrence in the final section of the book, in one of the most acidly observed dinner parties in literature, in which the dreadful Lawrence describes how “he had to decide to be a person who prefered smoked duck to processed cheese,” intention and pretension, creation and fakery, are indistinguishable. I hadn’t been listening to what the bookseller had been telling me for the last minute, lost as I had been in my own thoughts about the book, but he was explaining to me, not that I needed an explanation, that the book was arranged in a sequence of sections in which the narrator, whose name is revealed by one character to be Faye, relates the stories told her by various other characters, including the stories these characters tell her as having been told to them by yet other characters, sometimes to a third or fourth degree removed, while the narrator herself is almost entirely absent from the proceedings, so to call them, a mouthpiece for the stories that lie outside herself. When I suggest to the bookseller that our identities always lie outside ourselves, primarily in the stories of other people, and that the idea of your self is a cypher, that you are nothing more than what you are at that moment aware of, or, rather, that you are nothing more than others’ awareness of you, which is not the same thing, but, fortunately, the bookseller was not mentally agile enough to keep pace with what I was saying as long as I spoke fast enough. The personal is a void in the continuum of others, I went on, as the bookseller’s mouth gaped stupidly and he groped for his pencil and paper without finding them, just as the private is a hole in the public, a void; we are defined always, I speculated, by our absence. It was perhaps dawning now upon the bookseller that I had actually read the book upon which he was styling himself some sort of authority, at least by presuming to review it, or at least by sitting down, as he had said, with the intention of reviewing it. Could it be, he asked me, that the combined mass of all the people we come into contact with forms a sort of algorithm that can do our thinking for us, given that all thought, as I had suggested, takes place outside the head, that the ‘I’ is always outsourced into the combined stories of others? He had, I could tell, been thinking about the book after all, at least in a rudimentary sort of way, or maybe just listening to what I had been saying more carefully than it had appeared. He wishes, he said, that he had started reading the book earlier in the week, but he had begun to read two other books, one after the other, that he had abandoned before beginning Transit. He had been looking forward to Transit, he said, after having read Cusk’s latest book, Kudos, a few weeks ago and reviewed it. Kudos was, he thought, perhaps the best book he had read this year. He had even read Transit walking home that day from the bookshop that he ran with his partner, so that he could finish it in time to write the review that was expected of him, if not by the customers, who most likely didn’t read his reviews in the weekly e-mail newsletter anyway, then at least by himself. He might have managed to get the review written, he said, if he had not remembered when he got home that he had promised to investigate the awful rotting smell they had noticed in the shed that his partner also used as a studio and which she had been intending on using the next day, Sunday, their only day off in the week. What should have been, he had thought, merely a matter of locating the dead rat, he recognised the smell, and disposing of it had turned into a rather protracted operation as it turned out that the rat had crawled into the back vent of their clothes dryer before expiring, and that its removal required the disassembly of a fair part of the dryer’s housing and venting system and, more protractedly, is reassembly after cleaning. He tried not to think, he said, about the children’s towels, along with their own, that had been dried on a few damp days that week with heated air that had been passed over the corpse of a rat. I don’t know why he was telling me this, it had nothing to do with Transit as far as I could tell, but he went on to say how, despite the surgical gloves he had worn and the disinfectant he had liberally employed, he still felt contaminated by the corpse, and that the stench was still resident in his maxillary sinuses, with the result that, as the deadline for his review, midnight, was fast approaching, his inclination to actually write it was much depleted and he was considering instead writing a short piece relating his experiences with the rat, entitled ‘Why I Have Not Written My Review’. I suggested that nobody would be interested in this, was he, after all, trying to both bore and nauseate them? and he should, I suggested, either just write no review or write a short one. A short one would be a relief to anyone who actually read what he wrote, in any case, I said, and probably more effective at selling books, which is perhaps his intention, after all, than the long and confusing paragraphs he so often produced. Just write, I like this book, I suggested, or don’t write anything at all. I handed him his pencil and paper, which had fallen under his chair. I like this book, he wrote, and I think you will too.