The London-based novelist, personal essayist, and playwright Rachel Cusk is a figure of some controversy. Her 2001 memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, an unsentimental depiction of the bomblike effect babies have on our lives, developed a cult afterlife because women were, and continue to be, hungry for her nuanced, unapologetically intellectual perspective. But she was also excoriated because she made it clear that sacrificing her sense of self for her offspring was torturous. Then in 2012’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, about her divorce, which was triggered, she implied, by her own unfaithfulness, Cusk flipped the feminist equality script and admitted her outrage that she had to share custody of her two daughters—believing that as their mother, they should be only hers. Once again, readers were torn between empathy and judgey-ness.
Her novels got relatively less attention, particularly in America, until last year’s Outline, the first in a trilogy. The New Yorker lavished this experimental narrative with a 3,000-word appreciation; the New York Times called her “one of the smartest writers alive.” American literati, beyond the tight group of Cuskian devotees, now recognize her name and abilities—some even read Outline.
In Transit (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the second novel in the series, Cusk hones her new approach, which might be called stream of conversation-ness. She structures her minimalist plot as a jeweler affixes glittering gems in a necklace: The narrator, Faye, is the chain, and each bead is a story told to her by characters as she encounters them. As one person recedes, another comes into the frame, suggesting that we can only access one another through a scrim of stories.
Faye, which means “fairy” in Old English, sounds like fate, faint, feint, and fey—all of which apply here. Faye is faint on the page; she feints like a boxer, landing sharp judgments while ducking out of range when her opponents swing. She’s fey, feminine, and clairvoyant in her ability to draw people out; men fall under her spell. What we know of her—that she’s a successful writer and divorcée who’s recently moved to London—is gleaned from her conversations.
Her first interaction in Transit is with a real-estate agent, who tells her about London’s rampant gentrification and the desperation of buyers who ingratiate themselves with him and then, when they no longer need him, don’t recognize him on the street. He helps her buy a decrepit former council flat in a sought-after neighborhood. Ironically, she passes him on the street later and he doesn’t acknowledge her. We’re enmeshed in the upper-middle-class twenty-first-century professional urban sphere and its bourgeois vanities and domestic malaise, watching how an artist, and a single mother, fits within it.
The central conflict in the book is in the seething rage of the crazy tenants who remain in Faye’s basement as she renovates upstairs. But what will propel you, compulsively, to swim in Faye’s slipstream isn’t the book’s tensions and resolutions, but the act of listening along with her. Faye’s walk-ons divulge their inner and outer beings with depth and unselfconscious analysis. The experience of reading Transit re-creates, with delicious adult sophistication, that wonderful sensation of being a child, staving off bedtime by requesting tale after tale. “I had found out more,” Faye says to a cousin at the end of the book, “by listening, than I had ever thought possible.”
Through her nonfiction disclosures, Cusk has given us permission to regard Faye as her stand-in. (She’s written about her divorce, her two teenage daughters, and even—in a recent essay in the New York Times Magazine—her renovation.) And so in Transit, Cusk (as Faye) is the avidly listening child, and, as her author, the parent telling the story. Such deft positioning is Cusk at her most brilliant, feminist best—a reminder that she, and her readers, won’t be pinned down by stories, but freed.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of ELLE.
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