Transit – Rachel Cusk

Before the shortlist for the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award is announced and shadowing duties begin in earnest, I’m going to cover The Goldsmiths Prize shortlist because apparently I have too much time on my hands I’m a glutton for punishment five of the books on the shortlist of six are written by women. Why’s this so exciting? On a broad scale, because experimental fiction writing by women is often confined to the margins. On a personal level, two of my books of the year – Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Martin John by Anakana Schofield – are on the list. (By the time I’ve finished covering the shortlist you’ll see that number’s increased to three, meaning that half of the shortlist are on my books of the year list!) What you’re going to get over the next ten days then are interviews with Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Anakana Schofield, coverage of Eimear McBride’s event at Manchester Literature Festival and reviews of Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Rachel Cusk’s Transit, beginning with the latter.

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time might recall that I didn’t enjoy Rachel Cusk’s Outline which I read when it was longlisted (and then shortlisted) for The Baileys Prize. I wasn’t intending to read Transit which is the second part of Cusk’s trilogy but there was a sense that people thought it was really good/better than Outline and then it was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. I went in with an open mind…

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Transit, like Outline, involves a series of stories told to the book’s narrator. Each chapter contains a different story told by a different person, each of whom are in transit in some way. The first chapter is slightly unusual in that the stories come from an online astrologer, whom the narrator believes is an algorithm, and an estate agent from whom the narrator is buying a property.

It was a council-owned property: they were keen to find another buyer straight away, and the price reflected that fact. As I could see, he said, it was in pretty poor condition – in fact, it was virtually uninhabitable. Most of his clients, hungry as they were, wouldn’t have touched it in a million years. If I would permit him to use the word ‘imagination’, it was beyond the scope of most people’s; though admittedly it was in a very desirable location.

Here Cusk lays the thread that will run throughout the novel – her narrator buys the flat and her children go to stay with their father while she has it renovated. She, and the flat, are in transit. But there’s a device here too with the idea of using your imagination. Cusk doesn’t make this tale easy for the reader; as in Outline, you have to piece together who the narrator is and what she might want from the tales other characters tell which reflect back on her, ‘we are only the result of how others have treated us’, she says.

One of the things Cusk appears to be doing is considering how we create the narrative of our lives and how that narrative fits with or contradicts the narrative of those who shared part of the time or an experience with us. The first person to tell their story is an ex-boyfriend of the narrator whom she meets in the street.

I said it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief. It wasn’t, in other words, perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities. I was well aware, I said, that Gerard had constituted one such reality at the same time those events had occurred. His feelings had to be ridden roughshod over; the story couldn’t be constructed otherwise. Yet now, I said, when I thought about that time, these discarded elements – everything that had been denied or wilfully forgotten in the service of that narrative – were what increasingly predominated.

Other narratives come from the builder, a hairdresser, a writer at a literary festival, one of the narrator’s students, one of the narrator’s friends, and the narrator’s cousin.

Elements of the novel I found most interesting were the idea of creating a narrative from other people’s stories; the child in the hairdresser’s who doesn’t speak a word throughout the entire chapter but clearly has some sort of trauma going on in their head which is conveyed purely through silence and (in)action, and the literary festival where the narrator is the only woman on a panel of four (including the chair) and is treated appallingly both during the event and afterwards when the chair walks her to her hotel.

However, I also had a number of problems with the book: the first was that the majority of stories are told by male characters and when the tale-teller is female, the story inevitably involves their relationship with a male.

The second was the working class characters. There are three in the book, one of the writers at the literary festival and the couple who live in the council flat below the one the narrator buys. The writer has written a ‘misery lit/poverty porn’ memoir which has sold around the world.

It was poverty the modern way, everyone living on benefits, obese with boredom and cheap food, and the most important member of the family was the television. […] His mother was given a council house when he was born – ‘one of the many perks,’ he said, ‘of having me in her life’…

He left this way of life after taking a job mowing the lawn of a wealthy, foreign, gay, art-collecting couple whom he told his story to, after which ‘he’d blab his story to anyone who’d listen’.

The couple in the flat below bang on the ceiling when the narrator and her children make too much noise walking across the floor, cook foul smelling meals, have junk in their back yard and make misogynistic comments to the narrator about having men back to her flat. They’re definitely not the sort of people you’d want living below you but there’s some sympathy to be had for them when you realise they’ve been in the flat for forty years, during which time the area has become gentrified. None of their friends live there anymore, they can’t afford it.

The problem I have with these portrayals are they’re stereotypes and in a novel where the majority of characters are middle class and behave in a variety of ways – some poorly, some well – and are allowed to be people, having two sets of working class characters who read like something the Daily Mail might come up with is infuriating.

The third, and final, issue I have is exactly the same problem I had with Outline: that the reader is held at arm’s length from the narrator. We’re distanced by the stories she tells us, she’s not prepared to let us in. What this leads to for me, is an intellectual exercise, which in some sections of the novel is interesting and stimulating and in others – dare I say it – is boring, and it’s very rare I use that word to describe a novel.

I enjoyed Transit more than Outline; although I found it patchy, there were moments that I found illuminating and stories that were interesting. During the chapter at the literary festival, the narrator recounts:

I said I wasn’t sure it mattered whether the audience knew who we were. It was good, in a way, to be reminded of the fundamental anonymity of the writing process, the fact that each reader came to your book a stranger who had to be persuaded to stay. 

The jury’s out as to whether or not I stay for the final part of the trilogy.

9 thoughts on “Transit – Rachel Cusk

    • Haha, quite. I was discussing them with someone who loved the book who said he thought she was portraying them as middle class people think they are but I’m not sure I buy that. If we had equal representation in the art world then maybe I’d have let it slide.

      Cusk’s work is interesting though. I had several discussions about the book afterwards – she always provokes a reaction in me even if it’s not necessarily a positive one!

      • Well, that is something to consider. She came in for an enormous amount of stick for A Life’s Work, her memoir about having a child in which she suggested that it was far from all roses, and so I have some sympathy with her. However, I don’t think I buy your friend’s theory, either!

        • I prefer her non-fiction. I think her work’s interesting, her fiction just doesn’t do much for me. (I type this thinking what will happen is I’ll read the end of the trilogy, something will click and I’ll think it’s genius but hey ho!)

  1. Great review ….like you I had some serious reservations about this ….I found some of the very long conversations not just tedious but pretentious and improbable . I liked Outline a lot ….I thought the humour in that saved it however , as you say, F is on a journey so will reserve judgement until P3 , which I definitely will read .

    • Thanks, Helen. Funnily enough, I don’t have an issue with the improbability…largely because what she’s doing is metaphorical, I don’t think it’s meant to be realistic. Parts of it were so pretentious though. I keep wondering what I’m missing…why do other (middle class) writers love it so much? (I realise the phrase in brackets might be my answer.)

  2. This is the one book on the list I wasn’t planning to read – though that was because I hadn’t read Outline. I can’t believe a writer who clearly has talent would write such lazy stereotypes. I did laugh at the misery memoir, though, as that’s what her non-fiction is a middle class version of!

    • Hahaha. Brilliant. Not having read Outline wouldn’t matter, they stand alone, but if you’re going to give one a miss, this is the one for me. I’m baffled by its popularity.

    • Second that brilliant observation from Grant! So infuriating that when on the rare occasion working class characters appear they are stereotypical, bordering on supporting the current ‘establishment’ rubric of almost demonizing …

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