Reviewed by Zachary Severt
In Rachel Cusk’s new novel Transit a writer and mother of two young sons recalls the moment when her marriage ended. “It was as though our ability to believe in ourselves, in our home and our family and in who we said we were, was being worn so thin it might give way entirely.” The scene she’s describing doesn’t include her husband: he’s at work, she’s at home with the kids; they’re waiting. It’s the waiting that proves unbearable, and leaves room for the narrator to recognize her life as empty routine, looking ”all at once like a form that could be broken, could be suddenly and shockingly transgressed.”
Transit is a sequel. In its predecessor, Outline, the narrator is adrift in Athens, Greece, where she has come to teach a workshop in fiction. The divorce has already occurred. Exhausted by the subject of herself, the narrator’s character is defined only through interaction with others – creative writing students, neighboring air travelers, complete strangers – and because Cusk strips so much narrative convention from the novel – traditional scene-setting, plot points, plodding character development – her writing instead homes in on her interlocutors in passages of intense observation. The general effect is that of a Rorschach blot, wherein “everywhere you looked, there was only the reflection of what was already there.” I.e. what she sees in them exposes her.
From Outline to Transit the form is mostly unchanged. The narrator speaks with students and strangers, with house builders and estate agents. Freudian terms like “transference” and “identification” are sprinkled throughout. One character is caught reading a book by the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung. But whereas Outline was a document of drift, Transit charts the run-up to rebirth.
Now back from Athens, the narrator is alone and overseeing the reconstruction of a dilapidated London flat that will serve as her home, post-divorce. Although her sons will join her, they are notably off-page for much of the novel, the site of reconstruction having been deemed unsafe for children.
Because Cusk deals heavily in metaphor – and she does deal heavily in metaphor, it being perhaps the only fictional device she finds indispensable to the form – we understand that the narrator is, herself, the site of reconstruction. Numerous mentions of tree roots give the impression that she is finally “putting down roots.” And all of this would be a bit obnoxious if that weren’t exactly the point. Because the narrator sees the metaphors, and sees the metaphors as metaphors, as fictional devices outmoded as a condition of her divorce, that transgression of permanence that incurred in her a loss of faith in lasting love, in objective reality, and in the project of fiction. Rachel Cusk may have felt this way herself – her 2012 memoir Aftermath exhaustively details the dissolution of her own marriage – and although it’s a fool’s errand to go searching for traces of biography in works of fiction, Cusk suggests that fiction may be as good a form as non-fiction for getting at the truth.
In one crucial (and lengthy) scene from the novel we overhear memoirists discussing strategies for reproducing “the mechanism of time” – i.e. how they shape reality, or how they misshape reality. In another, we hear an account of a man whose lost his wife’s dog. It’s a good story, but when he’s finished he says: “Diane tells that story better than I do.” Better, maybe. Differently, without a doubt. What the screen of fiction allows Cusk to say that she couldn’t with her divorce memoir is that writers aren’t the only ones who distort truth in the telling. We’re all self-certain narrators who sometimes misremember, sometimes lie, sometimes smooth an edge or lose the thread.
Cusk’s obvious gifts are her sentences, full of sharp humor and psychological precision. Like Outline before it, Transit is made to feel fragmentary, without organizing principles, nothing but a collection of scenes in the life of its scrim-like author-narrator, and this seeming lack of structure forces us to savor the words as arranged on the page. Each sentence its own island of meaning.
Cusk’s great achievement, however, lies in deconstructing the components of fiction without dimming their natural light: Those metaphors, however obvious, still work. Even plot is made palatable to the ironical narrator, “plot” being just another word for the author’s way of “reproducing the mechanism of time.” The kicker comes near the end of the novel when, for the first time, the narrator’s name is invoked. I won’t spoil the circumstances of the scene. Suffice it to say that she’s returned her sense of self, and her faith in a stable identity. It’s only pages later that we sense a weakening of resistance. “I felt change far beneath me,” she remarks, “moving deep beneath the surface of things, like the plates of the earth blindly moving in their black traces.”
Early in the book, Cusk promises no “concrete explanations,” but this dawning faith in fate – referred to by one character as “truth in its natural state” – represents an unambiguous move in the right direction for a woman in want of mooring.