Transit by Rachel Cusk

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The characters in Rachel Cusk’s Transit—like those in her novel Outline—appear from out of the ether, open their chest to bare an eloquent heart, then disappear into the fictional universe, often never to be seen or heard from again. Once I owned a CD of Shakespeare soliloquies—a somewhat random sampling—and each track would begin and end with no preamble or subsequent commentary. Although Outline is bookended by a trip to Greece, and Transit by a move to London and the full-scale renovation of a flat, Cusk’s form recalls that series of Shakespeare soliloquies more closely than any novel I can think of.

The experiment—and Cusk’s innovativeness warrants the term—is not about flashiness. Instead, she achieves the rare novelistic feat of exposing through a book’s construction—not in its exposition or plot—a fresh way of encountering the human psyche. The protagonist of Outline and Transit emerges onto the page without the firm ego that most novels rely on. Instead, Cusk builds her main character from the outside in, through a series of one-sided encounters between Faye and the people she happens to cross paths with over the course of two weeks.

These conversations walk the line between realism and hyperbole. On the one hand, there is always a clear, mundane occasion for the interaction: Faye runs into her ex-boyfriend on the street; a student comes to her house for tea; she and her foreman must travel to pick up material for the renovation; she is getting her hair done, etc. But, on the other hand, the speakers are divinely skilled at elocution, with a straight-to-the-point self-awareness. These gifts allow a young man, the hapless boyfriend of an egomaniac writer, to convey a life story that looks, in cross-section, something like this:

He had felt both atomized and on the brink of discovery; both disappointed by what the world had revealed to him and in new, faltering correspondence with some of its elements. But what he had felt most of all, that night, was the incoherence of what he was doing: everywhere he had been in Europe, he had found not the intact civilization he had imagined but instead a rugged collection of confused people adrift in an unfamiliar place.

Likewise, a student of writing, whom we suspect to be without much promise, gives this account of herself:

What she did learn from all the books was something else, something she hadn’t really been expecting, which was that the story of loneliness is much longer than the story of life. In the sense of what most people mean by living, she said. Without children or partner, without meaningful family or a home, a day can last an eternity: a life without those things is a life without a story, a life in which there is nothing—no narrative flights, no plot developments, no immersive human dramas—to alleviate the cruelly meticulous passing of time.

The voices of the auxiliary characters arrive to us filtered through Faye. The details are endlessly engaging; the language, like “atomized and on the brink of discovery,” is fresh and unabashedly elevated. The stories come at us nearly uninterrupted: Faye’s specific contributions are rare. When Jane, the student, balking at criticism of her book-in-progress, insists that she cannot throw out three hundred thousand words of notes, Faye responds, coolly, “Why not?” As Jane leaves, Faye imagines her, not as the present-day incarnation of the American painter, Marsden Hartley, as she believes of herself, but rather, with wicked accuracy, as an inert piece of art, “thirsting if not for interpretation then for the fulfillment at least of an admiring human gaze.”

But what of Faye? These conversations must mean something deeper to her. After all, they deal with the possibility of freedom from others, or the chance of love versus the chance of true isolation—the very themes that the book explores in its form. And yet, Faye is a hazy reality, as perhaps many of us are to ourselves. Our spouses, our friends, our family, our colleagues: those are the people with a concrete substance. As for the self, craning a neck to look in a mirror, it is doomed to know itself only in glimpses and reflections. We are each, to some degree, the ghost haunting our own lives, forever in the presence of our own impalpable consciousness.

Unlike much first-person literary fiction, which prizes above all else the psychological shifts of the protagonist, we have no idea, most of the time, what Faye thinks about anyone. It is as if she is being constantly assaulted by the lives of other people. In one rare moment of action, the assault is literal, in the form of a kiss. There is an invitation, especially in this section, to read Faye’s passiveness as patently female—a quintessential woman, doomed to listen, while hardly getting a word in herself. But Faye’s silence is, at least in part, a choice. It is a writer’s tool, a tool for understanding “forms and patterns in the things that happened,” and one that, at the conclusion of the book, comes into question. “For a long time,” she says, “I believed that it was only through absolute passivity that you could learn to see what was really there.” But what exactly do you see, when you look? Often a simple mess of people, asserting their will. The irony is that, in many instances, this character suppresses her ego only to be subsumed by the egos of others.

Transit does not bend naturally toward epiphany. And in the final sequence, one can feel the author’s hand, nudging Faye toward the choice to reunite with her sons. Still, the change in her is not quite enough to threaten the bold implications of what’s come before. Yes, we act, we think, we even make decisions that change the course of our lives. But just how concrete are these individual movements, how loud are they against the noise outside our own heads? Are the stories we tell of ourselves really as sturdy, for instance, as every novel descended from a stream-of-consciousness style seems to suggest? Even the grand soliloquies of Faye’s acquaintances, often delivered with steely self-confidence, begin to seem like weak cries into a void. With these gestures, Cusk models a fascinating alternative to the interior voice: and one that, like the best works of fiction, will produce a jolt of recognition. We are each the inscrutable black hole at the center of our own galaxy: mysterious, stolid, and, like it or not, encircled by a swirling chatter of stars.

Ariel Djanikian is the author of the novel The Office of Mercy (Viking/Penguin, 2013). Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Alaska Quarterly Review, West Branch, and Tin House, and her essays and book reviews can be found at the Kenyon Review Online, the Paris Review Daily, and The Millions. More from this author →