In Other Words Tran­sit by Rachel Cusk

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - by Rachel Cusk, Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 260 pages

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

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