A Review of Rachel Cusk's Transit
Review by Sally Cooper
In a recent interview, George Saunders describes a novel as “a 300-page system of meaning that…is really talking to itself.” His definition seems especially apt when applied to Rachel Cusk’s Transit. Cusk’s prosaic language, as she moves through a woman’s daily life, belies an interrogation of language and story along with a wonderfully intricate meditation on what it means to feel real.
Transit is loosely structured around Faye’s purchase of “a bad house in a good neighbourhood” of London where she will live with her children now that her marriage has ended. Faye soon meets her downstairs neighbour, the antagonistic Paula, and responds by reconstructing the floors to make them sound-proof, a situation which means her children must leave because of the renovations, unsettling her life even further.
With the house renovation and the nastiness it stirs up with Paula, Cusk elegantly evokes Faye’s protean self. Paula spreads her meanness around, poisoning the neighbourhood against Faye. Faye describes Paula’s “slack body” with its “unmistakable core of violence,” underscoring her neighbour’s lazy embodiment of evil. Faye comes to define evil as surrender, not will, and counsels energy to counteract it, observing that “…evil could only be overturned by the absolute sacrifice of self.”
Faye’s house represents not only Faye’s psyche, but the psyche of our times, when hatred intrudes constantly through our online connectedness. Transit opens when Faye receives an electronic come-on from an astrologer that sets the purpose and tone and even the imagery of what follows: “An astrologer emailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future.” Faye recognizes the hard-sell, the impersonal-personal, and considers the possibility that computer algorithms have generated not only the email but perhaps the astrologer herself. The novel then unfolds in a series of encounters, metaphors and philosophical observations. Cusk inserts a call to action when she writes of “…a tale scripted by people who would elude justice for as long as their actions were met with resignation not outrage.” The connections will always exist, Cusk insists, the evil, too.
Transit is the second instalment in a trilogy about one woman’s post-divorce life. The first instalment, Outline, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Literature in 2014. As with Outline, Transit sets up the narrator as listener in a brilliantly executed structure that underscores how much of identity consists of interpretation and being seen.
Throughout Transit, Cusk raises the question of who controls the story and whether (and to what degree) the story controls us. Along with the character who “[sees] life as a fantastical plot full of contrivances,” the book includes many remarks about life as story, and story as access to understanding others. Faye’s name is spoken once, at a moment of growth. Cusk has named her character wisely, too. With its evocations of faerie and fate, the name Faye ties in beautifully to themes of providence—the stars—and truth.
For a short novel, Transit goes deep. It is a thoughtful, stand-alone read. By breaking tradition with conventional plot and even character, Cusk has constructed a form that rewards attentiveness to the connections she’s making while troubling our need to delve into an accessible character’s emotions. Change happens in small degrees, she is saying. In the process of transition, we become someone new, not merely a better version of ourselves.
Later, at a dinner party when Faye discusses fate with her cousin, she observes, “...what mattered far more was to learn how to read that fate, to see the forms and patterns in the things that happened, to study their truth.” Her cousin responds: “Fate, he said, is only truth in its natural state.” Here is the novel talking to itself, the novel as Cusk has situated it: a work of ideas and morality, a statement of time and place, this time and this place, this morality, this life.