Rachel Cusk’s Risky, Revolutionary New Novel

Monica Ali in The New York Times:

Monica“Transit” is a novel that all but dispenses with plot. A recently divorced novelist buys a dilapidated house in London, and has conversations with builders, neighbors, a hairdresser, a friend. She appears at a literary festival where she brings “something to read aloud” (we learn no more), teaches, goes on a date and attends a disastrous dinner party. It is the second novel of a trilogy that began with “Outline,” in which Rachel Cusk’s project appears to be nothing less than the reinvention of the form itself. “Once you have suffered sufficiently,” she told an interviewer after the publication of “Aftermath,” her memoir about the demise of her marriage, “the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.” What, then, is to be done? How is the novel to be written? Cusk’s answer is to eliminate John and Jane in favor of an altogether different narrative structure, in which a shadowy narrator, Faye — named only once in each novel — becomes a conduit for multiple stories. These stories are not, as it were, played out John-and-Jane style; they do not unfold before us, nor are they — by and large — composed through dialogue. Instead they are delivered by Faye, who sums up what often amounts to the story of a life. Thus a chance encounter with an ex-boyfriend, Gerard, produces a tale of marriage, fatherhood, and the way life can be simultaneously ever changing and stuck in a rut. “Superficially, for him at least the facts of that life were unchanged since the days I had known him: he lived in the same flat, had kept the same friends, went to the same places.” The difference, Faye notes, was that his wife and daughter “were with him: They constituted a kind of audience.” Pavel, a Polish builder, yields a story about the house he built for himself back home, and the hardships of his new life in London. “He rented a bedsit near Wembley Stadium, in a building full of other bedsits occupied by people he didn’t know. In the first week, someone had broken in and stolen all his tools.”

It is a risky business, this summing up. Show, don’t tell, say the creative writing manuals. Cusk has torn up the rule book, and in the process created a work of stunning beauty, deep insight and great originality. Key to this originality is the novel approach to building a character. The narrator of “Outline” was described by critics as “a cipher,” “self-effacing,” “numbly inert,” or “a faint image.” In “Transit,” Faye is beginning to emerge from the numbness and passivity that followed the death of her marriage. As she tells the real estate agent, “I would want what everyone else wanted, even if I couldn’t attain it.”

More here.