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13 October 2016

Stuck to the formula: Rachel Cusk’s Transit hits a new dead end

If Outline was all about shifting passivity, Transit is about characters who grab the bull by the horns. Why, then, does the novel cleave to the form of its predecessor?

By Leo Robson

The Canadian-born English writer Rachel Cusk, the author of seven previous works of fiction – as well as a trio of diversely contentious memoirs – made a significant break a couple of summers ago when she published Outline, a fleet and flinty novel that owed minor debts to W G Sebald and Karl Ove Knausgaard but achieved a tone and texture of its own. The narrator, identified a single time as Faye, was a novelist on a British Council trip to Athens. Instead of taking centre stage, however, she served as a courier or conductor for the testimonies of students, colleagues and fellow passengers. The result was a character study in which meaning was conveyed entirely through form: the narrative method was consistent with Faye’s desire for “passivity”, an engagement with the world free from personal designs.

Outline had the air of a palate cleanser, a gesture of rip-it-up-and-start-again from a novelist suffering from something like a creative midlife crisis. Now Cusk has written a sequel, Transit, which, as well as displaying an inevitable drop in freshness, cleaves to the original formula when the novel’s internal logic might suggest the need for tweaking, if not overhaul. (Transit, like its predecessor, has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction.)

As in Outline, Faye has a series of en-counters – with a former boyfriend, a hairdresser, a relative, a couple of writers – in which raconteurish rambling is spiced with epiphany, epigram and putative paradox: “The irony, he said, was that such people, while afraid of being original, were also obsessed with originality.”

And, once again, the testimonies are rendered as indirect speech, mostly without inverted commas but with the frequent use of “he said” and “she said”, along with variants such as the wordy “as far as he was ­concerned”, the cryptic “he said presently” and the insulting “he went on”. Any sentence that lacks one of these phrases is fraught with ambiguity. But since Cusk isn’t enjoying the freedom of paraphrase – the speaker’s words are not condensed, or even recast – the sacrifice of punctuation carries little reward to offset the risks of irritating or confusing the reader.

At one point, we read that, for certain women, hair dyed so much that it resembles a matted wig is “apparently” preferable to the natural presence of grey. But Cusk’s self-imposed scheme has no way of clarifying whether the word originates with the hairdresser who is talking (“apparently” denoting his incredulity at the preference) or with Faye (“apparently” as an alternative to “he said”).

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What’s odd about reprising this approach – apart from its inbuilt vices – is that the novel appears to be telling us how much Faye has changed. At dinner with a man, she explains that she had formerly (in her Outline days) believed: “It was only through absolute passivity that you could learn to see what was really there.” Now she has begun to adopt a more active stance, even “to desire power”, because she understands that “other people had had it all along”, and that what she had called “fate” was “merely the reverberation” of individual will, a tale scripted not by some “universal storyteller” but by human beings.

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The novel is densely populated with characters who have grabbed the bull by the horns, and full of references to phenomena such as social mobility, gender fluidity and processes such as immigration, adolescence and reincarnation, which rely on the relationship between change and continuity (a dialectic that also underpins the idea of a sequel).

The catalyst for Faye’s change is cleanly identified – the decision, depicted in the novel’s opening pages, to renovate her flat. Are we to believe that in her former, passive mode, she didn’t realise that you could exercise your will by paying a tradesman to perform a task? Or merely that being forced by circumstance to make this gesture has ­altered her sense of how big a role she might play in her own life?

However foggy the cause, there seems ­little reason to doubt the effect: we are dealing with a modified Faye. But apart from sprinkling incident over Faye’s encounters – one talker becomes a kisser – Cusk has done little to reflect or accommodate these developments. (The symbolically freighted sans serif font has survived a change not just of perspective, but of publisher.)

Yet if the form of Outline reflected Faye’s passivity, why does Transit take the same approach? One possibility is that the recycling of the Outline method is hinting that Faye is deluded, that she only thinks she has changed. In this reading, when she notes that a former boyfriend had once been “a sketch, an outline”, but “time had given him density”, the supposed change suspiciously mirrors the altered way that she relates to people – she once saw an outline; now she recognises contour – and how she has mistaken a projection of her shifting emphases for an actual mutation.

Another possibility, more plausible and less flattering, is that Faye is right about her progress and has managed to accomplish a more active or positive relationship with the world. In this case, Cusk only invokes the outline/density distinction for the reason that it is near to hand, without considering its ramifications for our understanding of the character.

Faye is either a narcissist, turning her emotions into reality and then using this reality to corroborate her emotions, or a would-be empiricist, trying to see reality for what it is and responding accordingly. She can’t be both.

If she is an empiricist, it is only as a result of a lack of invention on her creator’s part that Faye’s fictional universe is constructed along such similar lines – the same shortcoming responsible for filling this setting with clichés: an old Ghanaian woman crying, “Takes a long, long time!” in reference to her daughter’s medical degree and “clapping her hands to her cheeks”, then rocking back and forth on the edge of the bed “with silent mirth”; a builder confronted by pigeons saying, “Frightened the living daylights out of me,” and, “Christ alive . . . Horrible things.”

There can be no doubting that Outline marked a forward step, a new direction, but Transit, despite its title and a barrage of Ovidian motifs, suggests that Cusk has already hit some kind of wall – a fresh dead end, a different form of stasis.

Transit by Rachel Cusk is published by Jonathan Cape, 272pp, £16.99. 

This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph