‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk
Jonathan Cape; $32.99
A novel, to paraphrase Stendhal, is a mirror travelling down a road. In Outline (2015) and Transit – the first two published volumes of a proposed trilogy – Canadian-born, UK-based novelist Rachel Cusk offers disconcerting reflections about the way we live. The daily life of her narrator, Faye, takes her through the streets of London. There, she segues among a chorus of disparate voices and chronicles the disconnected lives and secrets of those she encounters, all the while maintaining an often icy mystery about herself.
Transit opens after the narrator returns to London from teaching a summer writing seminar in Greece, a trip that Cusk recounts in Outline. The narrator’s philosophy, as we find it in Transit, is that “Freedom is a home you leave once and can never go back to.” Divorced and raising her children alone, she strives to re-locate a sense of freedom. “I said it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief.”
These, however, are rare forays into the narrator’s mind. A master of the lost art of listening, she offers little judgement as she collects stories of ex-lovers, builders, hairdressers, students and writers. These characters find themselves and their ideas in transition, whether regarding aspects of love and life, the process of ageing and creation, or the ethical and moral questions that a daily sojourn through the neighbourhood incites us to address. In Outline, Cusk’s narrator admits a desire to “find a different way of living in the world”. These books also show Cusk seeking a different way of writing. Although her style can be at times essayistic, she seduces us into a claustrophobic narrative that reveals the flaws in the technology and codes of our time. This allows her to examine each of the characters’ growing separation from themselves and one another. This, too, becomes part of Cusk’s achievement. In Transit, one character admits to Faye that he “actually felt something akin to love … for the female voice that guided him while he was driving his car, so much more devotedly than his wife ever had”. Another says, “We are so schooled … in the doctrine of self-acceptance that the idea of refusing to accept yourself becomes quite radical.”
In these books, Cusk reveals herself as a writer with an acerbic humour and a probing mind. Her style and substance coalesce to highlight the tales of those among us who are so trapped in the frenzied hum of their lives that they remain unaware of their own ennui or their purpose. Transit urges us into uncomfortable spaces. It is lucid, invigorating and, most of all, unsettling.