To put too fine a point on it, “Transit” is a novel about transition by an author whose style is in transition.
British writer Rachel Cusk is returning fiction to its roots in storytelling. This is a concept she first pioneered, perhaps with more success, in “Outline,” her 2015 novel about a woman at a writing workshop in Athens. The title alluded, fittingly enough, to the writing process, but also to the bare-bones structure of the plot: Writing instructor ambles through Greece, hosts workshop and is told by a number of strangers the bare outlines of their lives. In “Transit,” too, there is a tellingly Cusklike narrator and a shell story: Writer returns to old neighborhood and renovates flat while negotiating relationship with her two children (with recently divorced husband) and looking, a little, for love. But the meat of the novel isn’t the narrator’s story so much as the stories that strangers feel compelled to tell her.
As a structure, this is as old as Chaucer, but it feels, for this generation, very new. At a time when many literary bestsellers are introspective and self-focused, Cusk has created a novel in which every chapter begins with other people: “The trees were a mixed blessing, Lauren said”; “Gerard was instantly recognisable”; “The student’s name was Jane.” The narrator reduces herself to a vehicle for others’ stories. There’s a daring in this method congruent with its modesty.
What results is implicitly, and often explicitly, a story about storytelling. Cusk’s theme here, excellently timed for the new year, is the near impossibility of transformation.
This would be vague or allegorical, if Cusk weren’t so perfectly specific. Take the early pages, where the narrator moves into her decaying “money sink” for no readily identifiable reason. It’s on the second floor of an old London council house, its walls blistered, its roof crowned with pigeons. On the bottom floor are bigoted neighbors, of the thump-on-their-ceiling-with-a-broom variety (“You’ve got to be bloody joking,” says Paula, when the narrator tells her she’ll be moving in with kids). If this were a horror movie, you’d tell her to look behind the door . It’s unclear why she persists. Perhaps she just feels the need for change, a desire that can come on suddenly and impracticably and is often most satisfying when difficult.
The novel is haunted by change, its characters threatened and encouraged by it. In their decomposing flat, with its buckled yellow ceiling, Paula and John keep a photograph of Paula as a young woman, “tall and shapely and handsome” in her swimsuit , and the changes that time has made are terrifying. It’s worth remembering that when Rilke said, “You must change your life,” he was looking at a broken statue.
Cusk’s focus on transition is played up with frequent thematic cues — home renovations, but also children. Characters rejecting change have a tendency to abruptly manifest as babies. Julian, a memoirist fixated on his harrowing childhood, is “big and fleshy and strangely childlike” — well, really not so strangely at all, since every section features one of these child-people, stranded in time. Jane, for instance, a writing student tangled in five years’ and several hundred thousand words’ worth of notes on the painter Marsden Hartley, has “the face of a worried child.”
These people speak explicitly about freedom, responsibility, self-discipline and power, sometimes sounding like protagonists in search of an Ibsen play. (Might I suggest “A Doll’s House”?) Take the narrator’s cousin Lawrence, who realizes Rilke’s mandate by swearing off processed cheese and divorcing his wife. “This is about freedom, he said. Freedom, I said, is a home you leave once and can never go back to.”
As that exchange suggests, the language of these stories is not quite plausible. Cusk’s characters are characters, but also symbols and philosophical propositions. The dialogue is not so much dialogue as Socratic questioning. (“I asked him why he had used the word ‘guilt’ to describe what other people might have called homesickness.”) This is the fantasy of a life lived without small talk, all the fat cut away. But Cusk’s goal isn’t plausibility so much as the establishment of a compelling, dreamlike language and worldview that are utterly her own.
“Transit” is the second volume in a planned trilogy. It’s impossible to predict what theme will be next (particularly because a better title for “Transit” might be “More Outlines”). Still, changes are likely in store for the Cusk-person at the center of these novels. When a man kisses the narrator and tells her, “You’re like a teenager,” we understand that she’s in the process of undergoing her change. She’s in transit.
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer and Chinese-English translator.
By Rachel Cusk
Farrar Straus Giroux. 260 pp. $26