Posts Tagged ‘Rachel Cusk’

‘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

‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk

‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk    (2014) – 249 pages   Grade: B+

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After a certain age, each of our lives can be told as a collection of stories.  We may not know the full truth of all these stories, and our view of them may be limited or one-sided, but the stories together make up who we are.

There are two chapters in ‘Outline’ where our main character Faye is teaching a writing class in Athens, Greece.  She asks each of the students to tell her something that they had noticed on their way to class.  Each student has their own story some of which go on for several pages.  We get each student’s story until there is only one student left who has said nothing.  This woman says to the teacher as the class breaks up that she doesn’t know who the teacher is, but “I’ll tell you one thing, you’re a lousy teacher.”

The rest of ‘Outline’ is much like the students’ chapters with various people Faye meets up with in Greece relating their life experiences and lessons learned or not learned from them.  This is a philosophical novel and also an unconventional one.  Faye herself has not much of a story here.  She is constantly listening to other people.  This novel consists almost entirely of conversations in restaurants, on airplane flights, on boats, and in classrooms.

Perhaps the dialogue is not realistic in that usually when we talk, especially to strangers, there is a lot of back and forth.  In ‘Outline’ one person relating an incident may go on for several pages.  The conversations are like long monologues with short interruptions.

Rachel Cusk has expressed her dissatisfaction with the traditional forms of fiction before, calling them “fake and embarrassing”:

“Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.”

 In ‘Outline’ Cusk is attempting something new and different.  Instead of an omniscient all-knowing voice, she has the people in the novel tell their own stories through conversations. This new way of storytelling might have been disorienting except that Rachel Cusk is such a graceful and intelligent writer that it all seems quite natural.

Each sentence in ‘Outline’ feels like it was polished and crafted to achieve the maximum perceptivity and precision.  Here are two examples :

“He began to ask me questions, as though he had learned to remind himself to do so, and I wondered what or who had taught him that lesson, which many people never learn.”  

“I replied that I wasn’t sure it was possible, in marriage, to know what you actually were, or indeed to separate what you were from what you had become through the other person.” 

41orC4b88kL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Some readers may prefer a little less measured approach, but I found the sentences to be a strong positive making the novel a joy to read at the sentence level.  Rachel Cush has a distinctive style of writing, and I find that a huge plus for any novelist.

As I’ve mentioned before, ‘Outline’ was short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize.  I believe that both the actual winner, ‘How to Be Both’ by Ali Smith, and ‘Outline’ would have been worthy winners.

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