Anything Else Is Make-Believe

Rachel Cusk, Transit

Vintage, 272pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781784702250

reviewed by Matthew Parkinson-Bennett

A reader coming to Rachel Cusk’s work for the first time with Transit may find their reception of the book influenced by certain preconceptions. For a writer of novels mostly confined to the safe literary territory of middle-class England and constructed out of spare, minor-key sentences, Cusk has a gained something of a dangerous reputation. She is, we are led to believe, a radical and rager against tradition; a hardened realist whose rejection of artifice might undermine the edifice of fiction itself. Her name is associated with the worst excesses of a narcissism which blights the contemporary English-language novel. Somehow both avant-garde and typical of main stream literary currents, she is routinely lumped together with authors said to practise ‘autofiction’, the tiresome buzzword-du-jour of critics who would have us believe there is anything remotely new about novelists fictionalising their experiences. We are even told that the books, ostensibly novels, of these authors actually are not novels, a contention at odds with the fact that it is the very mutability and capaciousness of the novel that has made it such a sturdy, unkillable form.

If this adds up to an unenviable reputation, these preconceptions are in part derived from the fact Rachel Cusk has for years been giving good value to arts journalists with provocative public utterances. In a 2014 Guardian interview, for instance, Cusk outlined her misgivings about literary fiction in startling terms: ‘Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous’ (my italics). Transit is a novel preoccupied with the problem of the preconceptions which prevent us from seeing each other truly, and effectively cause us to create fictional characters of real people. The novel opens with the narrator, Faye, receiving an unsolicited email from an astrologer. The message is typical of its type, containing some observations of the recipient’s character and predicament, just enough to appeal to the desire to have oneself recognised and understood. The insights are balanced between vagueness and specificity such that any given reader, any John or Jane Doe, might take them for perceptive observations about theirselves. They include (my italics): ‘She knew that I had suffered sufficiently to begin asking certain questions, to which as yet I had received no reply.’

Something about the prose makes the narrator suspicious, not of the bogus art of astrology, but the fraudulence of the writer – she wonders if this astrologer is in fact an algorithmically generated, fictional character: ‘her phrases were too characterful, and the note of character was repeated too often; she was too obviously based on a human type to be, herself, human.’ But if the supposition is wrong, and this correspondence was in fact written by a real person, it also may have been written to and about a real person, that is, the person it is addressed to, our narrator. It is possible that the perceptive remarks about Faye’s character have been drawn not from the stars, or a reservoir of banalities which might be said of John and/or Jane, but from actual knowledge of her person. For our narrator is herself a well-established, public author; wherever she goes, her reputation precedes her. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, what she’s really like. Of course, they don’t know her at all, and nor do we by the end of the novel, except as the conduit of other people’s self-expression. This is the author as solitary amid the crowd, her gift an intense sympathy with the suffering of others; narrator as everywhere present, rarely visible except through the eyes of the interlocutors whom we encounter from her point of view.

The rest of the novel goes like this: Faye meets people as she goes about her life, and those people speak their characters into existence in impossibly long and soul-bearing soliloquies. Faye responds from time to time, saying things like ‘I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible’; or

‘I said that my current feelings of powerlessness had changed the way I looked at what happens and why, to the extent that I was beginning to see what other people called fate in the unfolding of events, as though living were merely an act of reading to find out what happens next. The idea – of one’s own life as something that had already been dictated – was strangely seductive, until you realised that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters […].'

Shortly after receiving the correspondence from the astrologer, a writer who might not exist, or might, Faye, a made up character who might in fact correspond to the really existing Rachel Cusk, or might not, meets an old flame on a London street. He proceeds to tell the story of his life, of the slow formation of his character. During the course of the monologue the narrator recalls her guilt at having hurt this former lover: ‘My own indifference to Gerard’s suffering […] which at the time I had barely considered, had come to seem increasingly criminal to me.’ Nonetheless, she can be consoled by the knowledge that, by having caused him such pain, she gave him a story to tell, which is to say, a self to speak of.

Throughout the novel we encounter characters whose weight and depth, whose reality, seems to derive from their sufficiency of suffering, their experience of ‘the inherently traumatic nature of living itself.’ Anything else is make-believe. Considering the experience of a divorcé, Faye reflects: 'It seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief. [...] His feelings had to be ridden roughshod over; his story couldn’t be constructed otherwise.' The old boarding school master’s adage is taken to be literally true: suffering is character-building.

Faye’s defining characteristic is a kind of negative capability. For stretches she hardly seems to be there at all, pages given over to recounting the monologues of others, sufferers whose agony she enters into like a Romantic poet merging with the experience of a sparrow or a leaf. She hires a builder to work on her new fixer-upper house, and the job turns out to involve much holding forth to Faye about his pathetic existence: “Now that his heart was on the blink he’d had to start thinking about his health. ‘If you can call it thinking,’ he said, ‘lying in bed at night panicking for the thirty seconds it takes you to fall unconscious after a day at work.’”

The novel’s centrepiece is an event at a book festival, where Faye shares the stage with other literary types, some of whom know each other well. They don’t know our narrator, but they think they know what there is to know about her and her autofictionalising ways: ‘“Like a dog that shits in his own bed,” he said, turning and looking directly, for the first time, at me.’ One writer tells a story which is partly about how being a successful public author has changed him, partly about transformation of self wrought by observation of suffering: he explains how, watching his cat torture a bird, and doing so from the comfort of a plush sofa bought with his book earnings, he found that ‘he was actively and by small degrees becoming distanced from the person he had been, while becoming by the same small degrees someone new.’

The slow and piecemeal, painstaking nature of personal transformation is a recurring theme. Even the most trivial aspects of a person’s character can be understood in terms of gradual change (transit) from one state to another: ‘He had decided to be a person who preferred smoked duck to processed cheese: by deciding it, he by increments became it.’ In the case of the narrator, though, it is observing the experience of others which works on her, not the suffering through it. Recall also the writer who reached epiphany watching a cat inflict pain on a bird, and another theme emerges: that it is the artist’s burden to bear witness. Faye’s empathy is compassionate in the original sense of ‘suffering with’ another.

The Rachel Cusk of Transit seems less intent on bringing down the house of fiction than challenging the fictions we tolerate ‘in real life’. Her characters emerge almost in real time, their essence coming forth and slowly replacing the image that we are first presented with. Confronting the epistemological and social problem of preconceptions, even as she plays with the levels of relation between the author-narrator and the author-author, Cusk does not fooster with the hermeneutic problems of fiction: an apparently reliable narrator gives a clear-eyed and wry account, with subtle humour. Her sentences are clear, confidently and quietly delivering on their promise of meaning. To read them is not to suffer, but they may go to work on you, if you are able to listen.