Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Transit, is the second in a projected trilogy. The series, which began in 2014 with the publication of Outline, follows the life of her protagonist, Faye, from Athens to London, after the breakup of her marriage. Cusk’s narrative style is unusual. Rather than describing Faye using conventional narrative techniques, Cusk allows an “outline” of her central character to emerge gradually and tantalizingly out of the different conversations Faye recounts. Cusk’s innovative form is deeply linked to her understanding of the self in modern society.
Cusk is also the author of three memoirs and eight previous novels, including Outline and Arlington Park. She spoke to the Amazon Book Review by phone from London.
Amazon Book Review: Setting yourself the task of writing a trilogy is a big challenge. Did it feel almost like a dare?
Rachel Cusk: It feels like if it’s a dare, then it’s the same dare as maturity generally is: having to accept continuity and certain factors being unchanging and remaining in place, and not being able to ditch things and go off and do something else. There’s a point at which you have to accept a set of circumstances as yours and that you have obligations to them. I think generally when one creates something you have a destination, you have an end in sight, and it’s partly that you’re climbing the mountain and you look forward to getting to the end and getting rid of that idea—which is also a narrative idea—about things having an ending. Absolutely part of the ethos of the project was shedding that last bit of “storyness,” if you see what I mean.
Part of what you’re writing about in Outline and Transit seems to be how you feel about narrative and about story generally. There are moments when your narrator seems quite suspicious of stories.
That is definitely true. Part of the circumstantial world of the novels is certain life narratives coming to an end or experiences where maybe unconsciously we are surrendering our fates to an idea of narrative—marriage being a good example of that and parenthood being another good example—and the books are “real” in that sense. As I said earlier, I think there’s a point when you realize life is not a story and it’s not going to have a meaningful ending necessarily. It’s up to oneself as a character to become meaningful.
You’ve written a memoir, and these two novels are written in the first person. Is it difficult for you to talk about the books and keep yourself separate from the narrator? I have no doubt there’s critical distance between you and the narrator, but do people confuse you with that voice?
Yes. In these books the narrator doesn’t work in the way that a central character normally works because she is essentially not very present. She’s a semi-absence that allows others to become more characterful and more present. To me it’s not particularly a blur with myself, it’s an idea of the self.
So much of contemporary writing has gone in the direction of real dependence on the idea of point of view—that it can be swapped around, so you can be John one minute and Jane the next minute and look at everything from these different points of views. Yet the one inviolable law of life is that you can’t do that. You are you, and you will never know what it’s like to be somebody else. So it felt much more like I was just sticking to that rule that is close to everybody’s experiences of living.
In Transit, Faye notes “how often people betrayed themselves by what they noticed in others.” That word “betrayal” is so laden, but it certainly seems to be your tactic in these books to delineate Faye by her interactions with other characters, who are very happy to talk about themselves and tell her their stories.
It’s one way of looking at the conundrum of how people establish reality. That’s clearest in memory. If you grow up in a family and the subject of some event in the past comes up, everyone will remember a different version of it. Sometimes people will remember it and they weren’t even there! Or they “remember” it because someone shows them a photo of it. It does seem to me that people listen and see subjectively and selectively, and that they actually describe themselves or will learn about themselves or identify themselves with what they choose to hear and notice.
Transit is preoccupied with the idea of houses and homes: how our houses—whether they are our actual houses, or sometimes our bodies, the homes of our souls—don’t necessarily fit us very well. I wondered whether you have in mind a sort of perfect house that is symbolic of a perfect home.
I live far too much in my imagination and I have all sorts of ideas about all sorts of things I will never make into reality! It was interesting being able to write about houses in this particular way, not as facts or static institutions that almost precede the people who live in them.
Like Howards End.
Yeah. The interface between outside and inside is really, really interesting, and for anyone who has somehow burst out of, or broken out of, or experiences a failure of the emotional social institution within that house—the marriage or the family—they realize how strange those places can become when they’re not consistent with the story.
At one point in Transit, you use a striking neologism, “rehome,” to describe the process of finding a dog a new home and a new family. Were you were using that odd word in a self-conscious way, to kind of draw attention to the fact that this notion of switching homes is kind of modern and therefore outside of our conventional vocabulary?
I heard that word as an Americanism or a Canadianism. This is very much a word that came from your culture rather than ours, and its connotations are of new social arrangements and new attributions of emotional value to human situations. If you’re English, those things seem very much to be coming from North America. Phrases like “the blended family” are very, very un-English. We take them on because we need those words, because our lives are doing exactly the same thing and there’s no vocabulary for it. I very consciously wanted that to be a new word that might describe people feeling things about dogs, for instance, that haven’t been admitted in the past.
There are a number of references to Biblical stories in Transit, but the allusions—to the Road to Damascus, Solomon’s Choice, Cain and Abel—are only half-remembered by your characters, or translated into something modern: Solomon’s Choice becomes not about cutting a baby in two, but about cutting a sofa in two, for instance. I wondered if this might be a little bit like “rehoming”—to do with a lost frame of reference for some of these perennial problems that we face in our personal lives?
That’s well put. Because the books do absolutely operate out of a sense of fragmentation in a sense of one’s identity having collapsed in one way or another. Here will be funny sorts of bits of beliefs, and you’re not quite sure how you got them, or what they are anymore. At one point they powered big decisions and ways of living, and now (this being possibly a societal fragmentation, too) these little sort of shards crop up in the conversation but they don’t add up to a meaningful shared system of belief. People can’t quite remember the details, for instance, or they have to remind each other what the words are, what the names are, what the story actually was. It’s sort of a Google world, where you just look things up very instantly without connecting them to other things. So everyone is trying to remember something that at some point seemed bigger than them. The suggestion in the book is that reality has crumbled in some way.
Tell me about some of the writers that have influenced you along the way.
Golly. I was saying this to somebody the other day, that I realized that arranging your reading journey into the future is 75 percent of doing what I do, being a writer and a reader. I think probably you’re more influenced, in fundamental ways, when you’re younger, by writers like D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. In terms of finding a style or thinking about style, you begin like an art student, by copying paintings in the Louvre. You sit there and draw the paintings. Everybody learns by mimicry, to begin with.
Later I think books change because you change. It’s like the movement of the sun and how the shadows change. As you get older, certain books are not the same anymore, and ones you couldn’t read, you can, and ones that you could, you can’t. I read a lot of drama now, and I’ve learned a lot about writing from it. I think probably visual art is as influential as books to me, at this point. And music. Approaches to structure in other art forms, such as poetry.
There’s quite a lot about the painter Marsden Hartley in this book, and at one point you acknowledge a little bit of Beckett creeping through in the characters of the mean people who live downstairs from Faye. There are some acknowledged precursors there. What other dramatists do you like to read?
I wrote a play that was put on last year at the Almeida Theatre in London [a new version of Euripides’ Medea]. It was interesting. I was reading, throughout my life, a lot of Chekhov and Ibsen, and I’ve become more interested in [contemporary playwrights like] Martin Crimp and Sarah Kane. Drama is so hard, it’s so daring and dangerous, it’s very, very different because it’s so live. Putting on a play made me realize that it’s very, very bold form, and the novel needs some of that boldness. It’s very lacking.
You mentioned Henry James earlier. He’s famously a very successful novelist who was a very unsuccessful playwright.
There’s a bit of a history of novelists not making very good playwrights.
I’m sure you’re the exception.
I feel lucky to have got away with it. [Laughs]