“The Only Form in All the Arts”: On Rachel Cusk’s Autobiographical Fiction

Morten Høi Jensen considers the form of “Transit: A Novel” by Rachel Cusk.

“The Only Form in All the Arts”: On Rachel Cusk’s Autobiographical Fiction

Transit by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages.

IS THERE ANYTHING MORE CONVENTIONAL than a novelist proclaiming his or her frustration with the novel form? The least interesting aspect of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, which otherwise amounts to a kind of oblique defense of the novel form, is its origin as a retreat from fiction-writing. “[J]ust the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous,” Knausgaard confesses in Book Two. A number of English-language novelists, from Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner to Geoff Dyer and Tim Parks, have expressed similar complaints. Authorial omniscience, narrative arcs, character development — these have been earmarked as expensive luxuries, while the autobiographical essay has been upheld as a thriftier, nimbler alternative. The self-proclaimed “poster boy” for this movement, if we can call it that, is the writer David Shields, whose cut-and-paste manifesto Reality Hunger attacked the “conventional” novel for failing to reflect the nature of contemporary existence. Shields’s argument is far less radical than he would have liked it to be. Cervantes, I imagine, felt just as frustrated with generic constraints as he sent yet another chivalric novel windmilling through his home in Madrid in the early 17th century. It raises the question: What novelist doesn’t feel that reality is somehow inadequately represented in fiction? Why write novels in the first place if you do not feel that something is missing, that some aspect of reality is being misrepresented or overlooked? But then Shields never seemed particularly interested in fiction anyway. He unwittingly gave the game away in How Literature Saved My Life when he confessed: “I have trouble reading books by people whose sensibility is wildly divergent from my own.” Cheekily put: David Shields has trouble reading books by people who aren’t David Shields.

Like all the doubters above, the Canadian-born English writer Rachel Cusk admitted some years ago that she had suddenly found fiction to be “fake and embarrassing,” that “the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.” Cusk was then emerging from a controversial experiment in autobiography that yielded A Life’s Work (about motherhood) and Aftermath (about her divorce) and earned her a legion of detractors in the British press. (Writing in The Sunday Times, the columnist Camilla Long said Aftermath offered “acres of poetic whimsy and vague literary blah, a needy, neurotic mandolin solo of reflections on child sacrifice and asides about drains.”) This was in 2012. For the next few years Cusk struggled to write and struggled to read. “[I]t was creative death,” she told an interviewer. She knew she couldn’t return to autobiography, yet she felt that it was “increasingly the only form in all the arts.”

Then came Outline. Remarkably, Cusk managed to accept the contemporary novel’s tendency toward self-examination without somehow indulging in self-revelation. The novel’s Cusk-like narrator, Faye, is everywhere present but nowhere visible. Outline records a number of encounters and conversations Faye experiences while on a British Council trip to Athens. Each chapter is almost entirely taken up with someone else’s life — a fellow passenger’s, an old friend’s, a playwright’s. Faye listens and makes occasional comments but remains a passive and tight-lipped spectator throughout. Her character has to be inferred. It’s what she herself calls “anti-description”: “[W]hile he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.” All we really learn about Faye’s life is that she’s a published author who has recently moved to London with her children, having been forced for financial reasons to leave the home in the countryside where, until three years ago, her husband (and the children’s father) also lived. There’s a hint of loss, of trauma, but Faye’s suffering remains largely unstated. “I had come to believe more and more,” says Faye, “in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible.”

Transit, Rachel Cusk’s new novel, picks up more or less where Outline left off. (It is the second volume of what will eventually become a trilogy.) Back in England, Faye has purchased a “virtually uninhabitable” home in a fashionable part of London, a council-owned property that other clients, a real estate agent claims, “wouldn’t have touched […] in a million years.” But Faye is undeterred. She hires an affable Albanian builder (who sounds perilously like Borat) and deposits her sons with their father while the house is being renovated. The novel’s ensuing chapters — like Outline, a series of interlinked stories rather than a straightforward narrative — record Faye’s encounters with, among others, an ex-lover, two well-known writers at a literary festival, her hairdresser, her students, and her downstairs neighbors, a crotchety old couple living in terrible squalor:

We were in their sitting room; we’d passed down an oppressive corridor with a sagging, yellowed ceiling from which I’d caught a glimpse through the door to a bedroom where a mattress lay on the floor beneath a heap of filthy sheets and blankets and empty bottles. The sitting room was a cluttered, cave-like place; Paula sat on a brown velour sofa. She was a powerfully built, obese woman with coarse grey hair cut in a bob around her face. Her large, slack body had an unmistakable core of violence, which I glimpsed when she suddenly turned to take a vicious swipe at the shrivelled dog — who had been yapping ceaselessly throughout my visit — and sent him flying to the other side of the room.

The best passages in Transit are the ones that seem to roam, with a Fayeish gaze, through the dilapidated house; there’s an unmistakable hint of relish in the destruction and demolition, in all the exposure and unraveling to which Faye never quite submits herself: “The floor had been lifted: the skeletal joists showed themselves, grey debris in the voids between them.” But there is sadness too. In the summer, Faye sits in the dark kitchen and looks over at the happy family living next door whose children run laughing through the garden while their parents drink wine on the patio: “I would become confused, forgetting where I was and what phase of life I was in.” The contrast to Faye’s own garden could not be greater:

The light from the basement window would fall on the sordid garden so that it had the ghostly look of a ruin or a graveyard, with the spectral black angel rising at its centre. It seemed so strange that these two extremes — the repellent and the idyllic, death and life — could stand only a few feet apart and remain mutually untransformed.

Cusk is a wonderful observer of such ironies and contrasts.

In such moments, the rare occasions when her own life is brought into the foreground of the narrative, Faye gives an impression of almost glacial remove. When her son calls her from his father’s house one day, tearfully wondering why things can’t “just be normal,” she tells him she’s doing her best, but neither she nor her son is particularly convinced. Faye’s passivity from Outline, her sense of standing on the riverbank of life watching as everything passes her by, remains intact. The difference in Transit, however, is that by buying and renovating a house, she has set things in motion:

For a long time, I said, I believed that it was only through absolute passivity that you could learn to see what was really there. But my decision to create a disturbance by renovating my house had awoken a different reality, as though I had disturbed a beast sleeping in its lair. I had started to become, in effect, angry. I had started to desire power, because what I now realised was that other people had had it all along, that what I called fate was merely the reverberation of their will, a tale scripted not by some universal storyteller but by people who would elude justice for as long as their actions were met with resignation rather than outrage.

This passage comes toward the end of the novel — intended, perhaps, to set up the third installment of Faye’s story: what this new reality is remains to be seen, because, as with Outline, most of Transit belongs to the lives of others. Their thoughts and concerns mostly trickle down to us vicariously through Faye rather than through straightforward dialogue, with many a “he went on” and “she went on” tripping up the sentences. This is a habit that becomes increasingly difficult to ignore, like a smudge on an eyeglass. Rarely is a character’s voice allowed to stand out for too long before being consumed by Faye’s stolid placidity, thus blurring the separation between narrator, character, and author. Yet rather than acquiring a sort of Jamesian ambiguity, the voices merely collapse in on each other, like exhausted drunks. Everyone just sounds like Faye.

Who are these people anyway? They appear to us as hairdressers and ex-lovers and building contractors, yet they all secretly yearn to be amateur cultural theorists, eager to free-associate about their relationships, families, successes, and failures. And they all suffer from feelings of unreality: Birgid, an elegant Swede, recalls the day she began to feel as though “she was watching life from the outside rather than being part of it”; Dale, Faye’s hairdresser, remembers having “one of those bloody great blinding flashes of insight that changes the way you look at things” on New Year’s Eve; even Faye’s oldest son “said it felt like he was acting a part in a play.”

Life, in both Outline and Transit, is never really lived; it is only endlessly, discursively analyzed. Both novels are very much about life, but they treat it coolly, as an object held up for classroom scrutiny. The effect is often absurd, as when a character with a newfound interest in fine dining suddenly acts on a craving for the processed cheese sandwiches he used to enjoy: “[A]s he opened his mouth to take a bite, he was suddenly overwhelmed by sense-memories: of the malty dustiness of the sliced bread, the tang of the processed cheese, the thickness and whiteness of the mayonnaise coating the shreds of lettuce.” It goes on:

What he had realised, he said, standing there on the street, was that he was in a process of shaping his own desires, of harnessing them with thought, and it was only when he had found himself momentarily in the grip of the old sensory impulses that he had realised this process was, ultimately, about discipline. He did not, in other words, desire his lunch of smoked duck with the same mouth-watering blindness with which he had desired the processed cheese sandwich. The former had to be approached consciously, while the latter relied on the unconscious, on needs that were never examined because they were satisfied by mere repetition. He had to decide to be a person who preferred smoked duck to processed cheese: by deciding it, he by increments became it.

Rachel Cusk is often praised for her intelligence, and in a passage like the one above you can see why. But it’s an intelligence that seems removed from life, that even seems to resent it a little. Look at the words and phrases she uses: “examined,” “discipline,” “sensory impulses,” “a process of shaping,” “relied on the unconscious.” They sound almost woefully academic. Reading Transit, I occasionally felt like the dog in Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s December, barking into the Romanian night: “[F]or God’s sake, open the universe a little more!”

At its worst, Cusk’s penchant for digressive analysis contracts into neat epigram. The whole novel is a series of small-scale epiphanies and pithy banalities: “Like love, I said, being understood creates the fear that you will never be understood again”; “It’s strange, she went on, how sometimes you can believe something to be true when in fact the exact opposite is the case”; “[W]hatever we might wish to believe about ourselves, we are only the result of how others have treated us.”

It’s odd to encounter such platitudes from a writer known and revered for her mordant wit, of which Transit offers plenty. There’s the old couple downstairs, “crouched malevolently in the psyche of the house like Beckett’s Nagg and Nell in their dustbins.” There’s a character whose parents brought up five children “so close in age that in the family photo albums her mother had appeared to be continuously pregnant for several years.” But there are misfires too, such as the Albanian builder’s neologisms (“homestruck” for homesick, “hijack” instead of flapjack, and so on). On the whole, Transit’s comedy seems merely incidental.

In fact, the dominant mode of Cusk’s writing is neither comedic nor tragic, but didactic; characters are often mere props in the novel’s endless philosophical expositions. What seemed in Outline to be an interest in the lives of others is revealed in Transit to be something less expansive. The scope has narrowed. Cusk has plenty to say about the world — about relationships, ambition, writing, reality — but the suspicion arises that she has yet to figure out a way of saying these things novelistically. The relationship between story and truth, as she puts it in Aftermath, is still being worked out:

I might explain that when I write a novel wrong, eventually it breaks down and stops and won’t be written any more, and I have to go back and look for the flaws in its design. The problem usually lies in the relationship between the story and the truth. The story has to obey the truth, to represent it, like clothes represent the body. The closer the cut, the more pleasing the effect. Unclothed, truth can be vulnerable, ungainly, shocking. Over-dressed it becomes a lie. For me, life’s difficulty has generally lain in the attempt to reconcile these two, like the child of divorce tries to reconcile its parents.


Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen, which will be published by Yale University Press in the fall of 2017.

LARB Contributor

Morten Høi Jensen is a writer and critic from Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press, 2017). Photo by Niels Hougaard / Kristeligt Dagblad.


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