JANUARY 26, 2017
RACHEL CUSK’S TRANSIT is the second in a trilogy following the day-to-day life of an only-once-per-novel-named narrator, Faye. Faye is the type of writer to take Graham Greene’s line about writers having “a splinter of ice in the heart” very much to heart. In a series of sections that nearly create a novel of linked stories, Faye observes the people who cross her path: her ex-lover Gerard, who remains in the flat they once shared, but whose life has moved on to include his wife Diane and daughter Clara; the builders remodeling her flat; her hairdresser; friends; writing students; hostile neighbors; and fellow writers at a literary festival. Faye herself is scarcely described, while everything around her is — particularly those managing to live as families. Her own children are left with their father, from whom she’s divorced, and only appears during distressed phone calls: “Why can’t we just be normal, he said. Why does everything have to be so weird?” We never get Faye’s emotional responses; we simply watch her watching like a literary The People’s Couch, with no reactions. She is ever present, and yet not present at all, seemingly unmoved by everything. Both Cusk’s prose and Faye’s character are a study in subtlety and control.
It’s hard not to compare this image of the writer as the ultimate stoic to the vision Cusk presents of herself in her memoirs (including A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation), for which she has received at times negative and deeply personal critical responses. As a woman, a writer, a single mother, I watched this unfold with horror, and have yet to find similar treatment of male memoirists. For example, Camilla Long, in the Sunday Times, described Cusk as “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish.” The passive, watchful, perceptive Faye, made up or not, is more real, or more easily accepted as such, than a real woman who is opinionated and angry. Pavel, one of the builders working on Faye’s house reminds us: “He say, Pavel, you idiot, you forgot to build the walls — everyone can see you in there!” In fiction, Cusk can build walls, though Faye is rarely sympathetic, nor is her situation entirely representative. She has the money for a dilapidated flat in a good part of town, inhabiting a London that I found hard to recognize, in an area previously shared with her ex Gerard, where the hedges “were a little more unruly” and the view in the distance was a women’s prison. On a clear night, “the tips of the prisoners’ cigarettes could be seen as they smoked on the walkway along their cells.”
Faye now resides in the same neighborhood where:
neighbours came out of their front doors in the morning immaculately dressed for work, [and] they would often pause to look around themselves, faintly smiling, as though they just remembered something pleasant.
Who in London dresses immaculately for work? Pauses? Smiles? And who sees anything of their neighbors, anyway? Who, in London, is not aware that prisoners are not allowed to smoke on the walkway?
There is an Albanian building foreman, Tony, with a dialect that hovers uncomfortably between humor and stereotype, all the while corrected by Faye:
“Especially the hijak,”
“You mean flapjack”
“you mean homesick”
Transit makes no apologies for this limited view of the world. And why should it, in its experimental bluntness and forthrightness. The prose blends cool, pared-back observations with beautifully textured sentences: “The classroom was on the fifth floor: at the start of term it had still been light at that hour, but now it was dark outside, and the windows showed us our own reflections etched in glare against the eerie backdrop of over-blown, dirty yellow clouds.” The language breaks all the rules of the creative writing workshops that Faye teaches to students hungry for certainty and security. God knows what they would think of the book, even if Faye didn’t share with us her thoughts about them:
I heard the students speaking and wondered how they could believe in human reality sufficiently to construct fantasies about it. I felt them glance at me often as though from a great distance. Increasingly they were speaking, I realised, not to me but to one another, building among themselves the familiar structure that I had accustomed them to, in the way that children, when they are afraid, will retreat to the rules and regulations of what they have learned to regard as normality.
The lines between fiction and nonfiction are, of course, ever blurring, truth and fact ever separate. At the heart of Transit is the idea that we long to feel real, and to be seen, particularly as we age. Cusk treats the themes of invisibility, aging, and womanhood with acute precision by allotting them absence and silence. Faye, shadowy and hardly seen by others, offers a portrait of a state shared by other women. Here is her friend Amanda:
Sleeping with a man she would very often have this feeling, that she was merely the animus for a pre-existing framework, that she was invisible and that everything he did and said to her he was in fact doing and saying to someone else who wasn’t there, someone who may or may not have existed.
Cusk further plays with this by using a fictional protagonist so close to her own situation, yet calling it fiction: the women here are “shy, tentative,” and the protagonist completely passive, which might be the opposite of Cusk, the opposite of what is true for her.
Dale, Faye’s hairdresser, has much to say about truth:
In fact, where hair was concerned, Dale said, the fake generally seemed to be more real than the real: so long as what they saw in the mirror wasn’t the product of nature, it didn’t seem to matter to most people if their hair looked like a shopfront dummy’s.
Transit asks difficult questions about literary and critical responses to female characters, whether fictional or not. It is an important and transformative book, both because of the social and political questions it raises about gender and the exploration of truth as a lie within the walls of fiction: “I said that perhaps none of us could ever know what was true and what wasn’t.” With this novel, Cusk demonstrates that it doesn’t really matter.