In an essay this past summer in The New York Times Magazine, the novelist Rachel Cusk described her home renovation—a seemingly mundane subject that became, for her, a source of physical, psychological, and existential chaos. “I caused walls to be knocked down and floors to be ripped up and rooms to be gutted,” she wrote. “I threw away decades’ worth of clutter and keepsakes and old furniture; with what at times seemed like magic and at others sheer violence, I caused the past to be obliterated and put something new, something of my choosing, in its place.” This was no joy-sparking cleanse. The process drove her to “what appeared to be the brink of mental and physical collapse.” Everywhere she looked, she saw “a hidden part of myself that was publicly exposed.”
If a house is like a woman’s body—a comparison Cusk drew at length in the article—it is also like a novel: a highly individual structure that can assume a virtually infinite number of shapes, within which characters speak, love, fight, and otherwise go about the acts of living. In Outline, published two years ago, Cusk subjected the novel’s form to something like the demolition she described taking place in her apartment. Instead of a story line with traditional rounded characters, she sketched a series of coolly realized encounters between a narrator, a writer something like Cusk herself, and an assortment of people: her seatmate on a plane, the students in the writing class she teaches, friends with whom she socializes. In each encounter, the narrator—her name, Faye, is used only once in the book, giving her the impression of namelessness—remains impassive, revealing little about herself and saying only enough to keep the others talking. The stories they tell, with very few exceptions, revolve around the same theme: the breaking of a marriage. As the novel proceeds, the monologues circle and spiral around one another, their layering and patterning creating a form of profound complexity, like a seashell.
This technique has its roots in the work of W. G. Sebald, the German writer who lived for many years in England (as Cusk does), and who also negotiated the rough terrain between fiction and autobiography through a nameless narrator’s interactions with others. In Open City, which traces a Nigerian doctor’s peregrinations around New York City, Teju Cole, too, follows a similar path. But Sebald’s style was deliberately antiquarian, more reminiscent of the 17th-century polymath Sir Thomas Browne, one of his models, than of anyone writing today. Cusk’s more radical method, by contrast, looks and feels like a particularly well-realized “gut renovation”: elegant, spare, and often very beautiful, stripped of the dusty corners and overstuffed armchairs of its forebears.
Outline came on the heels of Aftermath (2012), a memoir in which Cusk told the story of the breakup of her own marriage. Like Sebald’s and Cole’s narrators, Faye at once resembles her author and is distinct from her—divorced, with two children (in her fiction they are boys, while Cusk herself has daughters). Yet it is impossible to think of Outline as autobiographical in any traditional sense. The instability of its form constitutes the very opposite of not only the 19th-century omniscient narrator but even the conventionally unreliable first-person narrator. We don’t know what anyone is feeling or thinking, least of all the person whose consciousness we are supposed to be inhabiting. The “I” who tells this story feels insubstantial, ghostlike; we see her only via other people’s responses to her. Even so, everything that takes place in the novel is filtered silently, almost imperceptibly, through her intelligence.
Cusk’s new novel, Transit, offers a sequel of sorts to Outline in what is projected to be a trilogy. It begins where that novel left off, more or less. (Continuity of plot is not a priority here: Certain events take place “offstage,” and we learn about them, and realize their significance, later.) In Outline, we saw Faye converse with her real-estate agent; she has now moved into a “bad house in a good street,” an apartment that must be destroyed and remade in order to be inhabitable. A process that normally involves settling down proves to entail its opposite. When the new novel opens, she has just received a spam email from an astrologer who tells her a “major transit” will soon take place in her zodiac sign, a portent of upheaval and change.
The second novel in a trilogy has a difficult role to play. It must advance the narrative while nonetheless remaining incomplete, a bridge to another destination as yet unknown. This state of limbo suits Transit, which, even more than Outline, deals in paradoxes and reversals. The warmth and calm of a beauty salon are shattered—literally—by an act of destruction. A man loses his girlfriend’s beloved dog and finds that his carelessness brings them closer together. The place in which Faye is trying to make her new home turns out to be a scene of horror: The tenants who occupy the basement apartment beneath hers menace her at every opportunity, banging broomsticks on the ceiling at the slightest sound and snarling at her when she emerges. They live in a state of squalor and chaos, with a ruined yard full of garbage through which Faye must pass in order to reach her own garden.
As the floorboards are literally ripped out from beneath Faye’s feet, she feels an excruciating vulnerability. “Everywhere I looked I saw skeletons, the skeletons of walls and floors, so that the house felt unshielded, permeable,” she says. She looks with longing at the people next door, whose children run and laugh on the lawn while the adults drink wine and converse in French or German. (Her own children, as in Outline, are physically absent from the novel, having been sent to stay with their father during the renovation, but they periodically call in distress, their disembodied voices weeping on the line.) “It seemed so strange,” she muses, “that these two extremes—the repellent and the idyllic, death and life—could stand only a few feet apart and remain mutually untransformed.”
What appears idyllic, however, may turn out to be repellent. At one point Faye visits her cousin Lawrence, who has left his wife for another woman. He now lives with her and the children from their previous marriages in a beautiful home in the countryside, “a long low farmhouse with aged, bulging brick walls, surrounded by a walled garden,” everything well tended and brightly lit. But this comforting display of order opens onto a scene of emotional brutality.
The candlelit living room is filled with “the sounds of music and conversation,” but it has the feeling of a stage set, and the characters who inhabit it—Eloise, Lawrence’s new partner, and two other fashionable women with their children—put on a disturbing performance. There is an undercurrent of violence in the parents’ relationships with their children. A girl grabs her mother so hard around the throat that she leaves red marks, while Eloise’s son pulls on her dress hard enough to tear it, exposing her breast. The conversation, in which Faye, as usual, is a quietly curious interlocutor, proceeds through incidents of terrible callousness and cruelty. The evening ends with all the children and at least one of the adults in tears. Faye awakens in the morning to “the ruins of dinner” on the table, with “melted candles … hardened into sprawling shapes,” surrounded by dirty glasses and cutlery and crumpled napkins. She slips out without saying goodbye.
Many of the novel’s strands poke ironically at the idea of freedom and its opposites, obligation and fate. “To stay free,” Faye’s hairdresser tells her in an episode that was published last year in The Paris Review under the title “Freedom,” “you have to reject change.” One character Faye meets boasts of how he tightly regulates his own commitments. “I asked him what he used his freedom for, since he defended it so assiduously, and he looked somewhat taken aback.”
Faye is wrestling with how to understand her own feelings of powerlessness in the dramas of her life. “I was beginning to see what other people called fate in the unfolding of events, as though living were merely an act of reading to find out what happens next,” she tells a man she has recently met. But she realizes that she was wrong. While she once believed that it was “only through absolute passivity that you could learn to see what was really there,” she now desires the power that other people have always had over her. “What I called fate was merely the reverberation of their will.” This realization sets her on a new course.
“Absolute passivity” at first seems like an apt way to describe Cusk’s method of constructing a narrative out of other people’s voices. But—appropriately for a novel that is often concerned with the mismatch between reality and illusion—this apparent surrender is a mask for stringent control. “I like it that you ask these questions,” one of the women at Lawrence’s house says, midway through her monologue, “but I don’t understand why you want to know.” Faye—and behind her, Cusk—knows just what she is doing, as she demonstrates in an episode that takes place during a writing class. Imperceptibly steering a student who is at a loss for words, Faye shows exactly how to ask questions so as to elicit details. In the rare moments when Cusk allows a glimpse of Faye’s own interior, her plain style is clear, elemental. Leaving Lawrence’s house, Faye says, “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.”
If living cannot be “an act of reading to find out what happens next,” this novel’s purposes, too, have little in common with the traditional plot-driven narrative. In one of the most humorous scenes, Faye travels to a remote town to attend an outdoor literary festival, where she appears on a panel with two other writers, both men. It is pouring, but their host is unaware that there is a covered walkway to the stage, so they are all forced to give their talks drenched and dripping. The first speaker, who has written a best-selling memoir about the childhood abuses he suffered at the hands of his stepfather, describes himself as “a cupboard rammed full with junk: when he opened the door everything fell out.” The other man has written a 1,000-page book that turns the mundane into the grotesque in order to capture attention—“eating and drinking and shitting and pissing and fucking.” Their talks are reproduced at length, but when Faye gets up to read, the narrative falls silent. “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.”
We might understand the first writer, who wears a luxurious suit and arrogantly dominates the panel, as—for lack of a better way to put it—your typical contemporary male realist novelist: a Philip Roth or Richard Ford or Jonathan Franzen (winked at with that excerpt titled “Freedom”). Writing, this man explains, is “getting control of anger and shame … [taking] the mess of experience and [making] something coherent out of it.” (Incidentally, he bids Faye farewell with a remark of astonishing crudeness and condescension.) The second writer, who shows up for the panel in a torn leather jacket and dirty jeans, might represent the wave of rebellion against the traditional novel that has arisen over the past 20 years with the monologues of Chris Kraus, Ben Lerner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the author of a several-thousand-page autobiographical novel that deals in great depth with all the aforementioned bodily functions.
Cusk began her career in something like the first mode, with a string of novels that were stylishly written and critically successful. Though some critics have lately placed her among the second group, she doesn’t comfortably fit there. Her work, like Sebald’s, is at once too cerebral and too unstable, confessing a deep skepticism about perception itself. “I heard the students speaking and wondered how they could believe in human reality sufficiently to construct fantasies about it,” Faye says. Writing several years ago on the subject of teaching creative writing, Cusk went further. “Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language,” she wrote. If more students now seek to become writers, it may be a sign “that our manner of life is dishonest, that it offers too few opportunities for self-expression, and that, for some people, there is too great a disjuncture between how things seem and how they actually feel.”
Cusk’s third approach to the novel does not share the consoling imagination of the first mode or the comic nihilism of the second. But in her effort to expose the illusions of both fiction and life, she may have discovered the most genuine way to write a novel today.