A Tree That Is All Branches: On Rachel Cusk’s ‘Transit’

January 17, 2017 | 3 books mentioned 4 5 min read

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In a much-quoted Guardian interview, the British novelist Rachel Cusk said that following the publication of her divorce’s chronicle, Aftermath, she was unable to write memoir.  Trying instead to write a novel she found herself, additionally, “embarrassed by fiction.”  “Once you have suffered sufficiently,” she said, “the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.”  Where does that leave a writer, when you can neither invent, nor tell the truth?  Transit, along with its predecessor, Outline, seems to be an attempt to solve this problem — and I suspect that whether or not a reader responds to this book ultimately depends on whether she finds Cusk’s solution successful.

covercoverTransit pursues Outline’s unusual formal strategy, in which a cagey first-person narrator relates the stories of people she encounters during the novel’s plot, or “plot.”  As with Outline, the story is, at best, wispy — our interlocutor, Faye (like Cusk, a divorced writer), has returned to London and bought a run-down apartment in a fashionable neighborhood.  She has two children, though we never meet them.  They are installed with the former husband while she gets the flooring replaced and deals with unpleasant downstairs neighbors — the central problem of the book.  She also has a haircut, goes to a literary festival, tutors an annoying woman, teaches a class, and attends a dinner party.

If this sounds slight, it is.  The story serves only to bring the narrator into contact with other characters, all of whom have a story to tell, related in chunks of dialog and third-person exposition.  The effect of these stories, essentially novelized dramatic monologues, is both interesting and tiresome.  There is interest in what they replace, the silence they fill, as the narrator’s reticence communicates a traumatic past that is finally — though incompletely — revealed by novel’s end.  There is also a voyeuristic interest in hearing these voices speak.  We have no real reason to care, for instance, about the abusive youth of Julian, the voluble festival co-attendee, yet it is compelling, the same way overhearing a stranger talking on a flight or train ride can be compelling.

But just as that chattering voice behind you can become dull, even maddening, so it sometimes is here with these reported anecdotes.  Though Cusk has a good feel for how long to linger before moving on to the next talkative stranger, the book is necessarily hemmed in by its own rules.  The book is told from her perspective, yet the narrator cannot or will not divulge too much of herself; the interesting walk-ons quickly walk off stage again, eliminating any conventional narrative drive.  For me, the experience of reading Transit was largely the experience of wondering about these constraints — mainly, what purpose do they serve?

For one thing, perhaps, they allow Cusk to write quasi-memoir without any personal shame.  By creating a narrator of such fuzzy reluctance, she offloads the confessionality onto these peripheral voices, emboldened to speak precisely by not bearing the burden of the novel’s focus.  At the same time, by promoting these extras and crafting the book from their summarized stories, she dodges the embarrassing task of “having them do things.”

In one representative section, the narrator, teaching a creative writing workshop, thinks while gazing out the window at a cloud:  “I heard the students speaking and wondered how they could believe in human reality sufficiently to construct fantasies about it.”  The workshop continues without her instruction, digressing from a student’s appreciation of his dog, a Saluki, to a several page biographical account of the breeder from whom he purchased his dog, to a history of Saluki breeding and dog training, culminating in an philosophical riff regarding “the unitary self being broken down, of consciousness not as an imprisonment in one’s perceptions, but rather as something more intimate and less divided, a universality that could come from shared experience at the highest level.”  Here, our narrator turns away from the window and asks another question that occasions two pages of reported introspection.

This is extraneity elevated to art, an aesthetic choice that strikes me as perverse in several senses.  It is perverse in its effect, in the engrossing alienation it creates.  It also seems grandly perverse for an author reportedly hostile to fiction, and the artificial demands of invention it imposes on writer and inflicts on reader, to create a book from marginal anecdotes.  Read in this light, Transit can, at times, feel like an expression of this hostility, alerting the reader to the arbitrariness of story by telling dozens of arbitrary stories.

It is also surprisingly effective.  The accumulation of peripherality works as both a critique of narrative, and as narrative in its own right.  Though perhaps narrative isn’t the word, exactly — it’s more of a thematic scaffolding, as experienced by the exquisitely inert and receptive character at the center of the novel.  Her receptiveness is sincere, and in the end, I don’t believe that Transit is fundamentally an exercise in formal cleverness.  There is a generous spirit behind this storytelling mode, articulated elegantly in the last scene of the book:

What mattered was to learn how to…see the forms and patterns in the things that happened, to study their truth.  It was hard to do that while still believing in identity…just as it was hard to listen while you were talking.  I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible.

And through this listening, what a reader hears, in the end, is philosophy.  I find these novels (a third in this loose trilogy is slated for release in 2018 or 2019) best appreciated as philosophical tracts, full of mini-disquisitions on subjects like representation, literature, authenticity, modernity, hate, anger, and love, among many others.  By the end, my reader’s copy was full of little colored flags marking places where I’d admired the clarity of Cusk’s perceptions, trains of thought worked fully through in her smooth and stylish prose.  Try this:  “The idea — of one’s own life as something that had already been dictated — was strangely seductive, until you realized that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy.”   Or:

He had come to the conclusion…that up to a certain point his whole life had been driven by needing things rather than liking them, and that once he had started interrogating it on this basis, the whole thing had faltered and collapsed…He was used to being with [his wife]:  once she was gone he was left with a need that could not satisfy itself because the cycle of repetition had been broken.  But he had started to realise that what he called need was actually something else, was more a question of surfeit, of the desire to have something in limitless supply.  And by its nature that thing would have to be relatively worthless, like [a] cheese sandwich, of which there was an infinite and easily accessible number.

The peripheral narrative construction of Transit — the feints and evasions and elisions — is finally peripheral to the central pleasure:  spending time with the book’s animating intelligence.  The slipperiness of this intelligence — the refusal to express itself in banalities like plot and conflict — can be frustrating at times, but is also integral to its character.  It is a perceptual mode that is necessarily elusive, and it builds something up into the air like a tower that is all crossbeams, a tree that is all branches.

is a writer and teacher living in Carrboro, NC.  The paperback edition of his first novel, The Grand Tour, is now available on Anchor Books.  His podcast, Fan's Notes, is a bi-weekly discussion about books and basketball.  He can be found online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

4 comments:

  1. Yes, very nice review. I somehow hadn’t heard of these books, but the mentions keep popping up. Onto my 2017 to-read list with you!

  2. Yes, this is a fine review that I am just catching up with — your untangling of methods is edifying and forces me to look past the endless unresolved palaver. Relieved to see that I am not the only one finding her a bit frustrating, even given Cusk’s obvious intelligence and gifts.

    Your comment that “the refusal to to express itself in banalities like plot and conflict” did leave me nonplussed — surely we have not done with those abused little critters yet, not while we’re human, right? While her writing at the sentence level is clear, lucid, often luminous, wise, and sometimes very droll, the refusal to play ball, as you stated, does strikes me as perverse. I think Plot and Character are only banal in hack work.

    I am only half-way through so perhaps I am not seeing the grander picture yet, and
    certainly you make some lovely points. I do get a bit skeeved when a novel can “best be described as a philosophical tract.” Ouch. Or as an excuse to write a memoir without actually writing a memoir, as if a lack of nerve were the driving creative force.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this piece and will be looking for the resolution you found. Meanwhile, I am enjoying the “animating intelligence,” while waiting for the payoff.

  3. @Adam O’Fallon Price — Note to self: Finish the book before commenting — D’oh! you were right — time spent with the book’s “animating intelligence” was truly worth it. “Extraneity elevated to art,” as you point out, is both perverse yet ultimately compelling. Her discursiveness is the plot, and I found myself stopping to mull over sentences and looking up artists and pondering her use of color and on and on. So much to think about.

    Hope you will consider taking on her other novels here — they deserve the thoughtful analysis you provided and I would love to read it. Thanks!

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