Flatlines

Literary Review, October 2016

Transit, by Rachel Cusk (Jonathan Cape £16.99)

Rachel Cusk’s narrator is a writer who is in the process of reorganising her life after the break-up of a long relationship. She moves back to London with her two sons and decides, on the advice of a friend, to buy a bad house in a good street rather than the other way round. It needs a massive amount of building work but that isn’t the half of it; the basement consists of a council flat occupied by a hellish couple who harass her at every turn.

To an outsider, this purchase seems ill-judged from the outset, and the state of the house quickly comes to seem like a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with Faye’s current circumstances. She is self-deprecating and uncomplaining – we don’t even learn her name until a long way into the novel – and these characteristics are reflected in the manner of her narration.

Whenever a new character is introduced, she begins to tell his or her story, often employing reported speech as if she’s little more than a mouthpiece. Here she is, for instance, summarising a conversation with an ex-boyfriend who went to live in Canada when she left him years ago: ‘They had stayed on in Toronto for another eighteen months, Gerard went on, during which time Clara was born.’ The problem isn’t so much that these stories are hard to believe – Faye is a passive narrator, not an unreliable one – as her unemotional reaction to them. It is mystifying, given that some of them lead lives of spectacular misery.

There is a clue to Faye’s detachment in the opening chapter, in a rather laboured anecdote about an unsolicited email from an astrologer. Faye knows that the woman has been generated by an algorithm but in the end she pays up for the reading she’s been offered. She seems to be suggesting that the world is so cruel and confusing, and genuine communication so difficult, that computer-generated sympathy is as reliable as the real thing. She has a friend who feels the same following his divorce, feeling ‘moved to tears by the concern for his health and wellbeing expressed in the phraseology of adverts and food packaging’.

Of course this man is depressed and far from alone among the melancholic characters who take their turns in Cusk’s pages. As in her critically-acclaimed earlier novel, Outline, other people move in and out focus, not seeming to relish their moment in the spotlight. Faye’s life exists in the intervals between these stories, as if she’s not even assertive enough to claim back her own narrative. In the course of the book, she moves into the house, sends her sons to stay with her ex-partner when the building work becomes too disruptive, speaks at a literary festival and becomes embroiled (possibly too strong a word) in a feud with her downstairs neighbours.

The malice of this working-class couple – she is obese, he claims to be suffering from cancer, even their dog is ‘shrivelled’ and ‘hobbling’ – is one of the strongest feelings in the novel, rising through the floor like the smell of boiled cabbage. Their mere presence creates a sense of menace which is hard to interpret – do they pose a genuine threat to Faye? – and would send a less passive protagonist straight to the police.

Clearly Cusk shares a great deal with her narrator, having written about the break-up of her own marriage in an angry, self-exposing piece of non-fiction entitled Aftermath. She is no stranger to blurred boundaries in her fiction and non-fiction, inevitably raising questions about what this series of novels represents. The titles – Outline, now followed by Transit – suggest some kind of movement, but whose progression is it?

Cusk’s themes – failures of communication between men and women, the distance between even well-intentioned adults, the damage sustained in childhood – are clear enough. Transit is an unusual entity, a novel almost without minor characters as though her protagonist is involved in a deliberate exercise in literary democracy, insisting that everyone’s inner world has the same value.

Once this becomes evident, any expectation that the novel will arrive somewhere, rather than repeating its themes, quickly evaporates. If Faye is going to emerge from her passivity and depression, it doesn’t seem likely that it will happen in this book: ‘I said that perhaps none of us could ever know what was true and what wasn’t,’ she suggests to a friend as they sit in a café, batting ideas about love backwards and forwards.

A question remains at the end of this ambitious but contradictory novel. Is it a reflection of modern life, accurately capturing the loneliness felt by many adults in a sensitive piece of fiction? Or is it a series of apparently disparate characters who share Cusk’s low expectations and distrust of the world? The book’s flat narration and affectless style seem to suggest the latter.

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