Rachel Cusk’s ‘Transit’ trilogy is something I have come late to: The first volume, ‘Outline’, was published in 2014, with the final volume, ‘Kudos’ published earlier this year.
I gobbled up ‘Outline’ in Mallorca, intrigued by Cusk’s narrator (a famous writer)travelling across Europe, revealing little of herself bar the snippets and clues revealed in the interactions, conversations, reflections and reactions which fuel the narrative: glimpses of a life lived and left behind, all the while commenting on the nature of fiction, the art of literature: What is fiction: art, lies, truth…or something between all three?
‘Transit’ brought our narrator home but continued in the same vein: a stream of meetings which make the reader feel like an eavesdropper on a mobile phone conversation: only hearing one side of a conversation, listening intently for clues to fill in the blanks, to enable us conjure up a our own fiction to satisfy our urge for the truth, the whole truth, a truth…and Cusk provides just enough information to keep our interest, to keep reading to find out exactly what it is that makes this woman (any woman?) so invisible, so without voice that we can only discover her tale through the words of others?
‘The translator was a woman of about my own age who lived in Warsaw. She had emailed me several times to ask questions about the text: I had watched her create her own version of what I had written. In the emails she had started to tell me about her life – she lived alone with her young son – and sometimes, talking about certain passages in the book, I would feel her creation begin to supersede mine, not in the sense that she violated what I had written , but that is was now living through her, not me. In the process of translation the ownership of it – for good or ill – has passed from me to her.’
Is Cusk trying to sum up the position of women both with in the narrative and within the structure of the novel? Is she trying to make us feel what it is like to be a woman in the modern world; to display, like Louise Bourgeois attempted in drawings long before, an
‘…example of female invisibility… in which the artist herself has disappeared and exists only as the benign monster of her child’s perception.’
‘Outline’ seems to present us with thoughts about relationships and lovers, with the narrator talking through the passions and sorrow of those she meets and the repercussions:
‘But it was true that he hadn’t seen his daughter or several years, as she hadn’t returned to Greece. It seems success take you away from what you know, he said, while failure condemns you to it. I asked whether she had any children, and he said that she didn’t. She was in a partnership – was that what you called it? – with another woman, and other than that her work was everything to her.’
‘Transit’, in contrast, seems concerned with children. We find the author at home with her sons, living on above the vile Paula, a woman who takes pride in tormenting and abusing the writer, obsessing over her ‘dancing around in your high-heeled shoes, throwing yourself at men.‘ The author worries about her sons and the scars she and their shared past may have left on them. In one sequence, she realises just what that might be:
”This show of violence, the like of which had never happened in our house before was not simply shocking – it also concretised something I appeared already to know, to the extent that I believed my children has merely acted in the service of this knowledge, that they had been driven to enact something that they themselves didn’t realise or understand. It was another year before their father moved out of the house, but if I had to locate the moment when the marriage had ended it would be then; on that dark evening in the kitchen when he wasn’t even there.’
And later, in ‘Kudos’ in a nightmare dinner party, full of spoilt children and hopeless parents, the writer faces her fears head on… and begins to realise the frightening power of the child to reflect their parent’s ‘own feelings and misdemeanours.’ until the children present resemble creatures from hell…
‘There was a cry from the other end of the table. We turned to look and saw one child after another was rising to its feet beside Angelica, until all of them were standing before their plates, tears pouring down their faces. They stood in a row, their mouths emitting sounds that were indistinguishable as words and instead merged together in a single chorus of protest. The candles flamed around them, streaking them in red and orange light, illuminating their hair and eyes and glinting on their wet cheeks, so that it almost looked as if they were burning.’
…or are the creatures banished to hell?
But to reduce these three novels down to basic themes is doing them an injustice. To be honest, I suspect that these are books which will continue to bear fresh fruit on reading after reading, so full are they of new leads and pathways. In some ways they are rather like those ‘game-books’ by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, in which the reader makes plot decisions which create new narratives each time.
And don’t think that these are pretentious novels without wit or self awareness:
‘All writers, Julian went on, are attention seekers: why else would we be sitting up here on this stage? The fact is, he said, no one took enough notice of us when we were small and now we’re making them pay for it.’
Cusk writes in a very clear, easy style which makes these three novels slip along. Of the three, I felt that the final volume’ Kudos’ sagged by focussing rather too heavily on the writer’s lot…but that is a small criticism of a trilogy which ends with an image which is so startling and yet so right that I was amazed that no one had used it before.
As I write this review I realise that Cusk has produced something quite extraordinary, something which I am finding very difficult to sum up and discuss. I doubt myself: have I understood them? Did I admire rather than enjoy them? Have I missed something? Perhaps Cusk has created a new form of novel which I am grasping to understand? But beyond my struggle, I would heartily recommend these strange, addictive, puzzling novels – they will stimulate and tantalise but I couldn’t, hand on heart, guarantee that you will actually enjoy them.