Canadian-born, U.K.-based Rachel Cusk, author of eight previous novels and three memoirs, has become one of our most astute writers, gaining steady recognition and a couple of literary prizes along the way. Her latest book is the second volume in a trilogy; it follows the acclaimed Outline (which was shortlisted for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize), and is further proof of her immense talent for blending auto-fiction and character study into razor-sharp prose.
The novel is an assemblage of narratives that revolve around the central character, an unnamed female writer nearly identical to Cusk. In Outline, this character travelled to Greece to head a writing workshop; in Transit, she has returned to London after a bitter divorce. She’s lost, having trouble finding meaning in the day-to-day or hope for the future. This is heavily mined territory for Cusk – her last memoir (Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation) was a brutal exploration of the disintegration of her own marriage, with her personal feelings front and centre. Transit offers a decidedly more cerebral approach, but one that is no less evocative or poignant. It is a book, in part, about anger, without being remotely strident about it.
Throughout, Cusk relies on the prefix “trans” to illustrate the character’s struggle to get beyond or across this episode in her life (words like transit, translation, transition, transformed, transparent, and transgressed all make appearances). In her acclimatization from country to city, married life to single – moving house, renovations, run-ins with old flames, friends, students, colleagues – the central character is a primarily passive witness to and receptacle for other people’s stories, while the surrounding characters are almost absurdly vocal and confessional. It is as if the protagonist is quietly absorbing their confidence in order to summon her own.
Cusk is very good at creating characters who seem fresh; they blossom under her pen to fill out and enrich the scenes, perpetuating the tragicomedy of life with bombast, vulnerability, and an appropriate tinge of menace. They vocalize the humanizing ways in which we all look for meaning. For example, the basement neighbours, a pair of curmudgeons of Roald Dahl proportions, seem like grotesque evidence of the ills that attach to long-term bonds. They goad the divorcée into near violence forestalled only by the intervention of the handymen at work on her house. Later, a beautiful woman at a dinner party might be perceived as having it all, were it not for the unruly haranguing of her own children.
This is part of what makes the book so effective and smart. Unlike other recent auto-fiction (the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Chris Kraus comes to mind), Cusk democratizes the form. She spreads attention out and away from the character most like herself and applies it instead to all the others. They get the soapbox, acting with passions the protagonist is drained of, before generously dropping away without us feeling the loss of their presence. It is as if those secondary characters are but avatars, reflections of what Cusk and her protagonist both might be were it not for the discipline inherent in conceiving, managing, and transforming great loss.