If you haven’t yet discovered the young English writer Rachel Cusk, I urge you to do so.  Last year’s offering from her , Outline,  was just a shard less spectacular than her just released new novel Transit (note the use of single words as her titles: her writing’s as spare as those one words, with their double/triple meanings and ambiguities). Cusk is fascinated by the ordinary, or seemingly ordinary, conversations she, or her protagonist, has; the narrator asks random people probing questions in the course of an approximately two week period in Transit. Everyone is, in some way, indeed in transit in this novel, and the narrator, a writer herself, asks penetrating and brilliant questions of those whom she encounters (a hairdresser dying her hair; a random student in a fiction class she teaches; a cousin recently remarried; contractors fixing up her new house; a close women friend with whom she has coffee, amongst others). I note that the narrator is only once given a name, and a first name only, and that appears when she is having dinner with a new male friend, who actually asks her some questions and seems to understand the basic drift of what she’s doing–he, thus, deserves to know her name.

What the narrator is doing is getting her subjects to address times in their lives when they are/were looking for freedom, for transformation, for epiphanies.  As a writer/teacher, she is able to propose that the narrative structures that people give to key incidents in their lives may well be the very opposite of other such structures she suggests to them.  Or she’ll propose that the freedom they believe they’ve found may well be the opposite of what they think they’ve found.  I felt an element of the writer as therapist, occasionally, in Transit, and a brilliant one at that, but by making these pithy observations/aphorisms/de La Rouchefoucaldisms into literature, Cusk suggests how many different narratives we might make of our lives, or how many a writer could pursue in her writing.  Cusk is, in many ways, a kind of contemporary philosopher; reading Transit is a lot like reading Renata Adler’s Speedboat, the first time, way back in the late sixties or seventies: one luxuriates in one epiphany after another.  In this sense, Transit is very much a postmodern novel, as Cusk’s ability to alter the narrative structures of people’s lives and external/internal facts is very much a postmodern trope.  If you toss in Cusk’s Englishness, and put her in the same lineage as writers/philosophers like Iris Murdoch, you’ll get some sense of her brilliance and her deep understanding of human nature.  Cusk/the narrator seems to thrive on such writing/teaching/analysis/structure, and one does wonder a tad what’s in it for her, where her own allegiances and feelings lay, but one gets so caught up in what’s really a series of random encounters that we lose our curiosity a bit about her, except when she’s discussing her two small sons, when we sense both distance and, perhaps, a bit of coldness, as if her own narrative here is beyond her control. 

And Cusk writes with brilliant prose, simple, narrative prose, without an error in word choice, structure, anything, much in the tradition of English writer Anita Brookner, who also wrote flawless prose.  (English writers Tessa Hadley and Jo Baker also fit this category: they are also incredibly astute psychologists and flawless stylists).  Oddly, Transit’s a page turner; you can’t put it down as you marvel at the questions, at the narrator/writer’s ability to ask these questions, at refusing conclusions which seem too simple to her; Cusk has all the hallmarks of that rare avis, the great listener.  Any readers who are also writers, novelists or even essayists in particular, will see how Cusk approaches writing as a total way of living; virtually no distinctions are made between art and life in this brilliant novel.

The narrator’s in as much transit as her characters are; she’s recently divorced, moved back to London, has two children to raise, and some relatively minor teaching gigs, though it’s clear that she’s a well known writer (one of the scenes she draws is of a weekend writers’ conference, which is one of the most brilliant pieces of writing in the novel: writers are talking about the differences and/or similarities between their writings and their lives, but our narrator sticks strictly to reading sections of her new book).  One could even read Transit as an armchair seminar on writing,and in structuring narrative our of flotsam and jetsam.   Transit’s already the best book I’ve read this year, and Cusk is a very young woman, so we’ve got lots of years of reading pleasure in front of us from Rachel Cusk, a truly brilliant writer and thinker.   Transit’s a must read.

–Daniel Brown

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