It’s only January, but I doubt that I’ll read a better novel this year than Rachel Cusk’s “Transit.’’ Cusk writes in a cut-glass style that is elegant, austere, and disciplined — an important word in a novel about gaining control over the self and fate. Yet this cool, balanced style is used to describe the hottest of feelings and the most destabilizing of experiences: moments of transit — getting divorced, renovating a house — the movement from one life to another.
Indeed, the deepest pleasure to be found in reading “Transit’’ comes from this friction between its Apollonian form and Dionysian feeling. At one point, the narrator, a British writer named Faye, recalls the moment her marriage began to fracture: “I remembered the pressing feeling of reality, just under the surface of things, like a secret I was struggling to contain.” Reading “Transit’’ is like this: You begin to feel that reality, all that we ordinarily blind ourselves to, is pressing itself into awareness.
Faye also narrated Cusk’s splendid previous novel, “Outline,’’ the first installment in a planned trilogy with “Transit’’ being the second. In that book, Faye is teaching a summer writing course in Athens and proclaims that she has “come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible.”
Cusk found a brilliant structural analogue for this life of passivity, this desire to extinguish desire. The novel describes 10 encounters Faye has with acquaintances and strangers in Greece. In each, Faye doesn’t say much. Rather, she listens attentively but distantly as others tell her about their lives: their loves, their deaths, their recriminations against themselves and, more often, against others. Insofar as we get Faye’s story — she’s divorced; she’s a mother of two young sons; she used to live in the English countryside but has since moved to London to start anew — we get it through her responses to others’ stories. Faye’s name is only mentioned once; she’s a ghostly presence throughout. In T. S. Eliot’s famous phrase, she has achieved “a continual extinction of personality.”
“Transit’’ uses a similar construction. Again, Faye’s name is mentioned a single time. Again, exterior action is subdued. Faye gets her shabby house in London renovated; she has run-ins with her hellish downstairs neighbors; there’s a quiet hint at future love. But not much else happens.
And again, we read about Faye listening to others — to an ex-boyfriend telling her about losing a beloved dog, to the Albanian foreman working on her house telling her about his experiences as an immigrant. Listening to one story, Faye muses that it “seemed to invite only two responses — either to become absorbed or to walk away.” Cusk has mastered a third response: an attuned listening that maintains distance between speaker and listener. “Transit’’ continues to offer what Faye in “Outline’’ called “anti-description”: As others talk and Faye listens, “she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.”
In one of the best sections, Faye takes part in a panel discussion at a book festival. The first, foppish writer wears a “luxurious navy suit and mauve silk cravat,” delighting the audience with tales of childhood trauma and witty literary banter: “Point of view, he said, is like those couples who cut the sofa in two when they get divorced: there’s no sofa any more, but at least you can call it fair.” The second writer, proudly shabby in his dress and ostentatiously ugly in his prose, holds forth on his desire to remove “the screen of fiction” and, Knausgaard-like, present the monotonous world untransformed. As for Faye, this is all we get: “I read aloud what I had written. When I had finished I folded the papers and put them back in my bag, while the audience applauded.”
So what distinguishes “Transit’’ from “Outline’’? In a certain sense, not much. The style is similar (and similarly marvelous), as is the lack of obvious narrative drama, as is the attention to the gap between the chaos of our lives and the neat stories we tell about them. But Faye is more of a presence in this novel than in the last. She’s still an outline, but she’s a clearer one. She listens with more skepticism to those around her, and she also talks back more (though still not much). She begins to see that “what I called fate was merely the reverberation of [the] will” of other, stronger-willed people; she declares her desire to possess such a will herself.
This change from passivity to activity isn’t yet complete, or even close to it. On the final page, Faye writes, “I felt change far beneath me, moving deep beneath the surface of things, like the plates of the earth blindly moving in their black traces.” At this midpoint in Cusk’s series, Faye remains in transit. But under the beautifully composed surface, the plates of Faye’s self are shifting.
By Rachel Cusk,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
260 pp., $26
Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.