In Other Words Transit by Rachel Cusk
When you begin reading Transit, the second novel in a trilogy by the British author Rachel Cusk, you feel you are overhearing a strangely compelling conversation. The narrator, Faye, is an author who is looking for a post-divorce home. Her real estate agent speaks to her about how hungrily his clients look for houses with the kind of insight you would expect from a psychoanalyst. In real life, we do occasionally land a substantial conversation. The strange thing is, Faye keeps running into service providers, and others, who speak in the same hipster-psychoanalyst manner: her hairstylist, her renovation contractor, and a student all drip with insights. The unrelenting use of quasi-philosophical conversations and the statistical improbability that Faye could have so many, almost back-toback, cakes Cusk’s intelligent novel with the dust of construction.
Let us suppose that Faye has won the conversation lottery. Each person she speaks to describes his or her past, family, vulnerabilities, loves, and how they see life. But Faye says little to them about her own life. At a book festival, she is slated to appear along with two male authors. A chairperson will moderate the conversation. The two male authors speak first, and each in turn is candid, even moving, about his life and work. The reader waits for Faye to speak, wondering if she might at last reveal herself in some meaningful way. When her turn comes, she says she has brought something to read, and the chair nods approvingly. The narrator eludes us entirely.
This game of hide-andseek with the reader is not necessarily unsavory. Cusk’s narrator is in transit, not only in her life, but also philosophically. It is as though she were standing at a train station with some cumbersome baggage and she watches others and listens to them, but there is little she is willing to offer in return. There is a lot we can glean about life simply by listening to the stories of others. But conversations require give and take.
After her divorce, Faye moved to London with her two young sons, though we never see her with her children. She has purchased a council flat, which she is renovating. While the floors are being retiled, the boys are at their father’s house for two weeks. We never see the children with their father either. Their presence in the novel is reduced to voices suspended over phone lines. On occasion, they call Faye to tell her they are lonely or have lost the keys to their father’s house or that they are having a fight. The distance between her and her sons is not only physical, but emotional — during all her ruminations, she never once thinks of them in any real sense — and she never confronts this distance. At the end of the novel, she is at a cousin’s dinner party, where there are children, either having a tantrum or weeping — but hers are notably absent, except for a troubling phone call she gets from them.
Early in the novel, Faye runs into an ex-boyfriend with whom she has an extended conversation. He is the son of musicians, and long ago he abandoned playing the violin, but he finds that his young daughter is talented at playing it. “Sometimes he almost wished he had never shown her a violin in the first place, which goes to show, he said, that we examine the least what has formed us the most, and instead find ourselves driven blindly to re-enact it.” The ghostly way in which Faye moves through this novel, embodying an ear and a mind, suggests that she too is driven blindly to re-enact something, though she isn’t sure what that is.
That being said, the book is an interesting and a surprisingly smooth read. It feels like a modernist painting, one in which the throughline keeps slipping away from us, and multiple conversations are splashed across the canvas and used as a cover to shield the narrator from our gaze. Each conversation is absorbing in itself, and the narrator’s voice is at once vulnerable and knowing — sometimes too all-knowing.
Conversations have on occasion sustained an entire narrative. The brilliant film My Dinner With Andre is famously one long conversation, but it retains focus. We learn about Andre’s spiritual and artistic crises and his attempts to overcome them. We experience Andre’s friend Wally’s skepticism and empathize with his reliance on life’s small comforts. The film works so well because Andre and Wally take us on the ride with them. But if you pay close attention, Faye does give us some insight about herself through dialogue. She has neighbors from hell, and the renovation elicits their almost surreal hatred and revulsion. At a dinner with a man she’s only met in passing once before, Faye remarks, “I had started to desire power, because what I now realized was that other people had had it all along, that what I called fate was merely the reverberation of their will, a tale scripted not by some universal storyteller but by people who would elude justice for as long as their actions were met with resignation rather than outrage.” We can only hope that after suffering through her divorce, and her neighbors, Faye will gain the kind of power she desires. — Priyanka Kumar