Transit: A Novel (Outline Trilogy)

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A Year in Reading: Kamil Ahsan

It’s been a great year for reading! Or, at least, every year is a great year for reading, and I’ve never done as much as I’ve done this year. Strange as it seems, the year in which I’ve worked hardest is also the year I’ve read the most, by every metric. The majority of it was probably to offset the noise around me—but a not-insignificant minority was for inspiration, and for optimism.

But as I look back at my year of reading, I find some odd themes. For one, whenever I’ve been utterly bewitched by a writer, I have gone to the bookstore and bought as much of their oeuvre as possible (I know this because one, and only one, aspect of my expenses has been driven up). For another, when I think of what I’ve read—particularly nonfiction—it’s often not because of what the book is ostensibly for (insofar as books have singular purpose, which they do not), but because of something else entirely. So let’s take a gander:

1. EpistemologyI’ve spent much of this year daydreaming about how people seem to know things with such certainty. Every year is like this, obviously, but this one far more than others. Imagine my frustration at the knottiness of the answer. What is Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies about? For me, it was a demonstration of an idea that simply the act of constructing fictions about oneself (within an act of fiction) makes the fictive more real. So, of course, when Florida came out, I threw myself at it as if it were my last allowed love affair with a book—and found something very similar, because I went looking for it. Many other things satisfied the same itch. Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd were more like works of philosophy than fiction.

This was probably not altogether helped by the fact that I was simultaneously reading Seneca’s Consolations, Montaigne’s Essays, Plutarch’s Fall of the Roman Republic, and Lucretius’s The Way Things Are, and all manner of skeptical philosophers. I say this not to give myself a pat on the shoulder for being oh-so-academic: I quite literally went back to the source, so to speak, whenever things seemed even the tiniest bit off, both in real life and in literature, only to return far more confused. That, then, let me down a rabbit hole of “post-structuralist” literary theory. What that really means is: I’ve been hearing some names over and over for years now, and finally felt embarrassed enough to actually read them. And so I read Roland Barthes’s S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Jacques Derrida’s Writing & Difference, and although I likely understood the bare minimum, I understood enough to feel deeply suspicious that anything I subsequently read could have some actual import towards understanding the world or myself. Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, like the other two books in the Outline trilogy, then furthered the case for literature bearing no relation to reality. I wondered if I’d ever get away with a book fashioned out of a series of transcripts for every one-sided conversation I had with another person.

2. BafflementMy active search for all things baffling probably started after I read Antoine Volodine’s Minor Angels, Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, and Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In. I loved them all, and I spent enough time with NDiaye to be somewhat confident about what I was reading, but mostly they made me feel very inadequate, in the way that ‘intelligent’ books often do. Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital made me feel ill, and I’m pretty sure I skipped a doctor’s appointment because I was slightly afraid I’d land up in purgatory. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet induced my first ever existential crisis (or, at least, what I think was an existential crisis), and then Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier made it worse. Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter didn’t really help me be less baffled—though inhabiting their fractured, Brexit-era semi-narratives certainly helped to distract me.

Notably, as reprieve from all this, I read Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, and then sat and thought for a while; soon, I had finished Feel Free as well and was caught between the twin sentiments of annoyance at her seemingly-tepid politics and awe at her ability to make me doubt everything nonetheless. In other words—a reprieve it was not. Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel swooped in a bit dramatically; inasmuch as it helped me feel my ambivalence wasn’t necessarily a problem. Also, it made me feel warm and fuzzy by helping with a bit with my imposter syndrome.

All this coincided with the fact that my patience, as with many others nowadays, was at an all-time low this year. I’ve been tired of liberal narratives for quite some time, and narratives set at maximum moral outrage that insist that this age of Trump is, for the first time in human history apparently, some unique assault on truth. So imagine my surprise when—having rolled my eyes through the first story—I found myself admiring the high-wire circus tricks on display in Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, and simultaneously irritated with the far more radical and experimental My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. The stories in Charles Johnson’s Night Hawks felt taut and sparse like Sittenfeld’s, but with fewer surprises, a lot more Buddhism than I could fathom, and fewer bourgeois settings. I liked them. The prose in Christine Schutt’s Pure Hollywood stories was lyrical and very bourgeois, but less searching than it seemed to think it was. Anyway, my collision course with all things bizarre all came crashing down when I read César Aira’s The Literary Conference. It was more ludicrous than anything I had ever read. So naturally, I bought all the translated books by Aira, apparently one of the most baffling of all living writers. By about book 8, I began to understand his ways, and felt grateful for his unapologetically-leftist bent. Then, for every subsequent book, I started to take notes on details that I found baffling, to see if the writer ever returned to them. I avoided Karl Ove Knausgaard all year, on purpose. The day before I wrote this, I devoured Amparo Dávila’s collection The Houseguest in one sitting. Once, my flat-mate knocked on my door, and what he probably saw was me: bug-eyed, and furiously turning pages which screamed sometimes like newborn children, crushed mice, like bats, like strangled cats.

3. TraditionOne of the other things I did most this year was think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. Having read some avant-garde horror novels (above), I read a little Gothic literature. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and finding in it new things to love, turned to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The latter weaseled its way into a story I wrote which almost scared me to death—and then made me wonder how awful I must be to have written something like that. Still, by the time I had to read Mohammad Hanif’s Red Birds for review, I had read enough stuff to wonder why in the world South Asian writers kept writing such hackneyed stories when so many other possibilities existed, and unleashed a bit of a tirade on some very famous South Asian writers for the Chicago Review. I went back to Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which I hadn’t liked at all the first time, and forced myself to pick out some things I did like. Somewhere in the middle, I read Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us with some amount of glee, because it felt nothing like the reflexively Orientalist prose I’d gone off about. That made me very happy.

4. HistoryIt doesn’t feel right at all to talk about the books that had a major impact on my year without mentioning some of the amazing nonfiction, most of which satisfied historical curiosities whether they were meant to be historical or not. Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s Interior States were expert antidotes for my irritation with tired Trump-era (ugh, even that term) tropes, and expanded my understanding of this very strange country in all sorts of empathic ways (and with O’Gieblyn, some unsettling ways, too). Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock was fascinating—though I knew in her case she had a small, not-insignificant luxury. After all, how far back one can construct one’s own family tree seems to be at least one measure of freedom. I read one very expansive history of the U.S. in Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and one over a far shorter period of time in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies. One is enormous, the other skinny—but both are a little unsatisfying. I suppose These Truths should have satisfied my itch for epistemology too; but as it turns out that—for this American history dilettante—meeting the standards of one Howard Zinn is nigh-impossible.

So: on to kinds of history. I read Henry Gee’s Across the Bridge—about the evolution of vertebrates—and talked about it at work (my laboratory) daily. It proved infectious. Ursula Heise’s Imagining Extinction was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World was fascinating—who knew there was so much to know about the global matsutake mushroom trade!— and on a craft-level, a lesson for academics: see, you don’t have to be boring at all! Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know was utterly convincing in the way things one is already convinced about can be made even more convincing simply by becoming encyclopedic. Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm and Deborah Coen’s Climate in Motion had equal and opposite effects: the first made me progressively more enraged and confused, the second made me progressively calmer and clearer. Essentially, environmental historians still haven’t quite figured out precisely how pessimistic they ought to be about climate change; but I suppose, in the Trump era, we should be happy they’re writing at all.

5. CryingI don’t prepare to cry when I read (who does?) But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the books that made me stop in my tracks and sob. Most times it had very little to do with the book and everything to do with my day or week. But sometimes it was most definitely about the book.

There is one particular moment in my editor Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State where the reader, just like the protagonist Daphne, has to process what has just occurred and cry. Anybody who has read it will probably know which moment this is (I’m not exactly being subtle), but that cry was one of the best cries I’ve ever had all year. Other similar stop-and-cry impulses happened during R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick—both cries were probably more about me than the people I was reading about, but both were beautiful and cathartic and only one happened in public. Again—sometime in the middle of the year—I went to a philosopher to figure out all this crying business. The fact that I chose Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for this task is pretty stupid when I think about it, because it didn’t make me cry at all, and I had thought it could teach me something about verisimilitude, but it did not. Anyway, that is what I did. Regardless, I read a whole lot after that to make myself cry, but nothing worked. Or at least, nothing worked as well as one particular book did; Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. I have one theory that explains why: I realized that the number of books I had read was directly proportional to how lonely I was. So take that, Barthes! Books may not resemble life, but the act of reading does.

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A Year in Reading: Anisse Gross

This year made things of us all. I was reminded of a part of myself I wish did not exist: what I dub the fainting goat inside of me. The fainting goat seizes when it panics, as if thinking of the plan, not realizing that seizing, pausing in place for a period of time, is not a great survival strategy. And yet I have this goat in me. When things become overwhelming, I slip into a kind of fugue state during which on a psychic level I am chanting somewhere, think, Gross, think, Gross, how do we get out of this? I suspect many of us slipped in and out of fugue states in order to cope with this year, but of course survival depends on getting out of the fugue state to fight the powers that be.

I also spent the year finishing my own book about motherhood, a topic around which I am profoundly ambivalent. If you are ambivalent about something as large as becoming a parent, there is the idea that reading hundreds of books about it will help. For me, it did not help. It only deepened my ambivalence and made me realize that the grandness of the question would make any thinking person torn. I suspect that only people of great faith can take on new parenthood during these times.

I read every book on motherhood and the report is what you might imagine; most books on the topic are terrible, and because you should avoid them, I will not even bother to list the 40+ of them I read this year. However, some are terrific. Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter is a love letter full of conflict both to her own mother and herself as a new mother. Being Here Is Everything by Marie Darrieussecq is a beautiful portrait of the iconic modernist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker whose work epitomized maternal ambivalence. Mothers by Rachel Zucker examines how to become a mother without becoming your own mother. And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell is one of those books I suspect is terrific for women who actually do become mothers. As is Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes, which is a terrific book and the kind of book you should buy every woman you know who is pregnant. It’s a perfect balance of the personal and the political, and it’s the only book about becoming a mother that didn’t make me feel like motherhood isn’t for me. And I read two novels about motherhood: Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which is a book that perfectly encapsulates how I feel and is a gift to all ambivalent women everywhere, and Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which chronicles actual motherhood in its glory and plainness, connecting women through time, and makes me feel a sense of anticipatory loss at not entering into that space.

And of course reading about the history of motherhood was depressing in the ways that reading any history related to women is, but particularly how it dovetailed with the news this year. Sexual abuse going unpunished, white campus rapists going free, white predators taking and maintaining their place on the supreme court and presidency and in every nook and cranny of power-holding positions. Abortion rights on the brink of being taken back from us. Young black women going to prison for 51 years for killing their abuser in self defense—a sentence no white woman would face. Mothers continuing to do the bulk of the work while the gender pay gap persists, without child support, and often with retribution when they do return to work. Black women three to four times as likely to die from maternal causes as white women. The list is too long to list. Between systemic racism and misogyny, what women, and particularly women of color, have endured and continue to endure is unbearable. It is important to realize and celebrate the gains we’ve made, but sobering to realize how far we have to go.

Finally after all of the less-than-cheery wading through historical research I managed to find some time to read for pleasure. I waited until Rachel Cusk’s trilogy was finished so I could binge read them in a hotel in Greece. It is so worth waiting to read books like this all at once. I should add that while Outline, Transit, and Kudos are clearly brilliant works, her book on motherhood, A Life’s Work, remains my favorite.

I also read the following books which I recommend in spades: R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries (God how I admire her spare sentences; no word seems misplaced in this jewel of a book), The Far Away Brothers by Lauren Markham (nonfiction that reads like a novel about twin brothers that escape the violence of El Salvador), The Marginalized Majority: Claiming Our Power in a Post-Truth America by Onnesha Roychoudhuri (this book is so accessible and important and did not get the press it deserves), Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (I wanted to live in this book of sake drinking, mushroom foraging, and complicated platonic-ish love), There There by Tommy Orange (a polyphonic novel about contemporary Native-American life and the history it holds), Heavy by Kiese Laymon (another complicated love letter to a mother and a searing look at the ugly truths of America), and The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (I loved this book!).

Of all the books I read in 2018, my favorite was Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Just read it. For me it came at a fortuitous time. In my frozen fright-filled state, it was like a wise and benevolent voice that gently tapped me on the shoulder and said, unfreeze my child, there are better things you can do than faint. It made me realize that once I came out of this period of fugue, I would return to the work that my little goat self came to do: read, write, speak, act up—all as my own way of mothering.

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When There’s Nothing Left to Burn, Set Yourself on Fire: On Rachel Cusk’s ‘Kudos’

The third and last installment of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy opens on familiar ground—in the air, where the first book began. Again our narrator Faye finds herself seated next to a man. He’s just as chatty as the first guy (as if any of her characters aren’t born soliloquists), but he’s far less comfortable. In fact, he’s struggling to get his long legs to fit in front of him. This is how it must have felt to write the book’s teaser copy.
A woman writer visits a Europe in flux, where questions of personal and political identity are rising to the surface and the trauma of change is opening up new possibilities of loss and renewal.
A woman writer? A Europe in flux? I imagine a feminist superhero-cum-Brexit blockbuster. Like a seat in economy, the marketing synopsis is a space too standardized to accommodate all, and the Outline series became an unlikely “hit” (as much as the word can apply to an unapologetically literary novel) for being so uncategorizable. Autofiction? Maybe, but it doesn’t subvert or turn away from more conventional books as much as it combusts them. The word is Cusk’s actually, and not even her own oeuvre is spared.

When I mentioned Cusk to a British colleague, it was as if we were talking about two different writers. I thought at first it was cultural (us Yankees being so distinct as to demand a redesigned cover; in fact I came to Outline only for its beautiful U.K. design, and would likely have never read for the notebook paper-inspired U.S. version). But it turns out she’d just stopped reading Cusk when I’d started. She knew Cusk as she was in a former life: a novelist and memoirist who brought stylized, aphoristic, and acerbic (edging on bitter) prose to the topics of motherhood, marriage, and family.

It’s hard to describe Outline, Transit, and Kudos to the uninitiated without calling it a series of short stories. And perhaps that’s what they are, except the tales are spoken to Faye in real-time (who’s now at a literary conference in an unnamed European country) by protagonists who are all impossibly eloquent, open, and earnest. Their voices can come close to converging—not unlike the characters of Anomalisa, whose lines are all read by Tom Noonan—but they’re saved by their stories’ distinctness and depth. And, of course, Cusk’s brilliance. If she’s found her novelistic structure it’s because it allows her to overwhelm the reader with profound insight only to, a few pages later, reach new heights on an entirely new topic. In just the first third of the slim novel, we hear full-fledged stories from the following (insert the most tepid of spoiler warnings): the man on the plane who’s had to bury the cancer-ridden family dog; Faye’s publisher who delights in having found the market’s sweet spot (writers that are ostensibly literary but actually readable); a deadpan author who’d been trapped in a writers retreat designed to give the villa’s owner a sense of culture; and an interviewer who admits to trying to provoke Faye’s envy at an earlier encounter, before detailing her own jealousy of a friend’s gilded marriage (this contains possibly the most flagrant offense of burying the lede I’ve ever read, which I won’t reveal for its narrative virtuosity).

If it doesn’t sound like Cusk is inventing anything new, it’s because she isn’t. These are fundamentally the same narratives she’s built a career on, except they’re shrunken, distilled, and told not by her but to. What she’s doing, in other words, is what Faye’s publisher suggests is the key to a book’s (commercial) success:
‘People enjoy combustion!’ he exclaimed.

In fact, he went on, you could see the whole history of capitalism as a history of combustion…Whether or not it looks like preservation,’ he said, ‘it is in fact the desire to use the essence until every last drop of it is gone. Miss Austen made a good fire,’ he said, ‘but in the case of my own successful authors it is the concept of literature itself that is being combusted.’

His eureka moment is sparked by Faye’s own metaphor: “In England, I said, people liked to live in old houses that had been thoroughly refurbished with modern conveniences, and I wondered whether the same principle might be applied to novels.” Indeed.

If Cusk is explaining (or explaining away) her own feats, she’s also asking us what modern conveniences her new genre has wrought. We get a generous clue in the title—rather, when it appears in the book. Faye is being led on a tour by Hermann, an unusual young man who talks about an enormous architectural snafu, public space, his mother, and gender dynamics before this:
To return to the subject of the college’s award, he said, the name of they had chosen for it was ‘Kudos’. As I was probably aware, the Greek word ‘kudos’ was a singular noun that had become plural by a process of back formation: a kudo on its own had never actually existed…[it also suggests] something which might be falsely claimed by someone else. For instance, he had heard his mother complaining to someone on the phone the other day that the board of directors took the kudos for the festival’s success while she did all the work.
If you take Cusk for a political writer, which wouldn’t be wrong, there are plenty of ways to render the passage into concepts of commonality, identity, and appropriation. The stories in Kudos have a lot to say about literature’s use and misuse in the 21st century, and, more so, women’s. Her splashes of second-wave feminism are not epiphanies, but they’re fresh enough in the context of a literary world busy on succeeding schools. We hear of lives ruined by society’s imbalances, carried by a tone somewhere between call-to-action and eulogy. (The book ends with a haunting image of a man looking at Faye “with black eyes full of malevolent delight while the golden jet poured unceasingly forth from him.”) This all may be what Cusk has chosen to fill her form with in the finale, but what’s made the series from the beginning is that form itself.

Whether through fiction or memoir, her work has always been personal, continuously illuminating the questions of her own life. The Outline trilogy is no different, just in its own combusted way. And in the kudos passage, we finally have a sketch of the chemistry behind it. To recap: “kudos” is something that appears plural but is truly singular. It’s also taking what is not yours. In Kudos, we have many (barely differentiated) voices all written by the same hand. We also have an outline of the narrator, a first-person built on the stories of strangers—in other words, an exchange of narrative ownership.

If the nature of identity has us cast on other people, seeing ourselves only by how we look on each of them—like kudos, a singular noun becoming plural—Cusk reverses the process. What’s taken for granted in any first-person novel or memoir is now suddenly missing, and what we get in return is a revelation: a character defined as the reflective surface all others cast themselves onto. And why not start outside in? As Cusk says, “A kudo on its own had never actually existed.”

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