‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk – Listening to Other People’s Life Stories

‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk    (2016)   –  260 pages

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‘Transit’ is almost entirely made up of the life stories that other people tell our narrator, Faye.  Instead of getting Faye’s story, we mainly get those of the people around her who tell stories from their lives to her in casual conversations.

I see this as a strategic retreat on our narrator Faye’s part.  She is going through a divorce, and this might be a good time to listen to what the people around her are saying about their own situations rather than dwelling on her own plight.  Perhaps she wants to re-establish her bond with others by listening to them.

First there is old boyfriend Gerard who is now happily married with a family and still living in the old neighborhood to which Faye is returning. There are two ways that a writer can approach dialogue.  In one approach, to be entirely natural and realistic, the writer can have his or her characters speak exactly like real people speak which means they would rarely say anything clever or witty.  In the other approach, the writer has his or her characters speak in witty sparkling epigrams, constantly saying the perfect thing.  Rachel Cusk favors the second approach, and I admire her for it.  Here is a line from Gerard.

“It’s hard not to become self-satisfied,” he said, “with so much self-satisfaction around you.”

Later Faye responds to Gerard as follows:

“I said that 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.” 

We do find out a few things about Faye as she interacts with the people around her.  She has two children and is going through a divorce.  Her children are staying with her ex while her apartment is being remodeled.  She has a terrible obnoxious couple living below her which is one of the novel’s sources of humor.  She teaches creative writing.  She has started dating again.

But mainly we find out other people’s stories.  The guys who are remodeling her apartment are two brothers from Poland, Pavel and Tony, who are making a go of it in England.  We accompany Faye to her hairdresser and to a literary conference where she is one of the guest speakers.  We learn quite a bit about the other two writers who are guest speakers but not so much about Faye.

Even though Faye is the central figure in ‘Transit’, most of the stories are related to her by the people she meets.  There is essentially no conventional plot and little character development.  Rachel Cusk is on the cutting edge of writers attempting to take the novel to somewhere new and different from its traditional roots. She has a talent for writing eloquent and expressive sentences that many experimental novelists do not have.  I have followed Cusk’s writing from the beginning of her career and am happy to continue to do so.

 

Grade:    A

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11 responses to this post.

  1. I’m not really a fan of authors overdoing the realistic dialogue. Something I read a while ago featured long slabs of dialogue from inarticulate shearers who led very boring lives (shearing, shooting, drinking and not the other one you’re thinking of because there weren’t enough women) and thus had nothing to say. The author was making a point, but it was so boring to read!

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    • Hi Lisa,
      The opposite approach to overly realistic dialogue would be the Oscar Wilde method when nearly every sentence is a witty epigram. That can be exhausting, but I much prefer it to dialogue that has no spark or life in it whatsoever. Talking like real people ain’t always a good thing in fiction. Oscar Wilde said some amazing stuff including the by-line at the top of my blog today.

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  2. I note you say you’ve long followed Cusk. How do you rate Arlington Park among her work? It’s the only one I’ve read so far.

    Arlington I don’t recall being hugely epigrammatic, so does she change style to a degree book to book?

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    • Hi Max,
      I don’t remember a thing about Arlington Park although I did rate it highly. So far it seems that instead of me convincing you people to read Rachel Cusk, you people are convincing me to not read Rachel Cusk. 🙂

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  3. Sadly, I don’t seem to get on with Cusk’s work. It didn’t help that I once saw her do a reading and she clearly didn’t want to be there so came across as petulant and inarticulate (though clearly she may just be painfully shy). Glad to hear you enjoyed this one though

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    • Hi Kim,
      For some unknown reason, Rachel Cusk’s particular brand of 1980s obnoxiousness appeals to me, I don’t know why. I know Cusk admires Karl Ove Knausgaard, and I don’t like Knausgaard. She went through a bitter divorce, wrote a memoir about it which got both a lot of praise and a lot of criticism. ‘Transit’ is the second book of a proposed trilogy which so far is just narrator Faye listening to other people’s stories. So far I’m sure I haven’t convinced you to read her. The word I would use to describe her writing is ‘brisk’. 🙂

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