Transit – Rachel Cusk

Before the shortlist for the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award is announced and shadowing duties begin in earnest, I’m going to cover The Goldsmiths Prize shortlist because apparently I have too much time on my hands I’m a glutton for punishment five of the books on the shortlist of six are written by women. Why’s this so exciting? On a broad scale, because experimental fiction writing by women is often confined to the margins. On a personal level, two of my books of the year – Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Martin John by Anakana Schofield – are on the list. (By the time I’ve finished covering the shortlist you’ll see that number’s increased to three, meaning that half of the shortlist are on my books of the year list!) What you’re going to get over the next ten days then are interviews with Sarah Ladipo Manyika and Anakana Schofield, coverage of Eimear McBride’s event at Manchester Literature Festival and reviews of Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Rachel Cusk’s Transit, beginning with the latter.

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time might recall that I didn’t enjoy Rachel Cusk’s Outline which I read when it was longlisted (and then shortlisted) for The Baileys Prize. I wasn’t intending to read Transit which is the second part of Cusk’s trilogy but there was a sense that people thought it was really good/better than Outline and then it was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. I went in with an open mind…


Transit, like Outline, involves a series of stories told to the book’s narrator. Each chapter contains a different story told by a different person, each of whom are in transit in some way. The first chapter is slightly unusual in that the stories come from an online astrologer, whom the narrator believes is an algorithm, and an estate agent from whom the narrator is buying a property.

It was a council-owned property: they were keen to find another buyer straight away, and the price reflected that fact. As I could see, he said, it was in pretty poor condition – in fact, it was virtually uninhabitable. Most of his clients, hungry as they were, wouldn’t have touched it in a million years. If I would permit him to use the word ‘imagination’, it was beyond the scope of most people’s; though admittedly it was in a very desirable location.

Here Cusk lays the thread that will run throughout the novel – her narrator buys the flat and her children go to stay with their father while she has it renovated. She, and the flat, are in transit. But there’s a device here too with the idea of using your imagination. Cusk doesn’t make this tale easy for the reader; as in Outline, you have to piece together who the narrator is and what she might want from the tales other characters tell which reflect back on her, ‘we are only the result of how others have treated us’, she says.

One of the things Cusk appears to be doing is considering how we create the narrative of our lives and how that narrative fits with or contradicts the narrative of those who shared part of the time or an experience with us. The first person to tell their story is an ex-boyfriend of the narrator whom she meets in the street.

I said it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief. It wasn’t, in other words, perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities. I was well aware, I said, that Gerard had constituted one such reality at the same time those events had occurred. His feelings had to be ridden roughshod over; the story couldn’t be constructed otherwise. Yet now, I said, when I thought about that time, these discarded elements – everything that had been denied or wilfully forgotten in the service of that narrative – were what increasingly predominated.

Other narratives come from the builder, a hairdresser, a writer at a literary festival, one of the narrator’s students, one of the narrator’s friends, and the narrator’s cousin.

Elements of the novel I found most interesting were the idea of creating a narrative from other people’s stories; the child in the hairdresser’s who doesn’t speak a word throughout the entire chapter but clearly has some sort of trauma going on in their head which is conveyed purely through silence and (in)action, and the literary festival where the narrator is the only woman on a panel of four (including the chair) and is treated appallingly both during the event and afterwards when the chair walks her to her hotel.

However, I also had a number of problems with the book: the first was that the majority of stories are told by male characters and when the tale-teller is female, the story inevitably involves their relationship with a male.

The second was the working class characters. There are three in the book, one of the writers at the literary festival and the couple who live in the council flat below the one the narrator buys. The writer has written a ‘misery lit/poverty porn’ memoir which has sold around the world.

It was poverty the modern way, everyone living on benefits, obese with boredom and cheap food, and the most important member of the family was the television. […] His mother was given a council house when he was born – ‘one of the many perks,’ he said, ‘of having me in her life’…

He left this way of life after taking a job mowing the lawn of a wealthy, foreign, gay, art-collecting couple whom he told his story to, after which ‘he’d blab his story to anyone who’d listen’.

The couple in the flat below bang on the ceiling when the narrator and her children make too much noise walking across the floor, cook foul smelling meals, have junk in their back yard and make misogynistic comments to the narrator about having men back to her flat. They’re definitely not the sort of people you’d want living below you but there’s some sympathy to be had for them when you realise they’ve been in the flat for forty years, during which time the area has become gentrified. None of their friends live there anymore, they can’t afford it.

The problem I have with these portrayals are they’re stereotypes and in a novel where the majority of characters are middle class and behave in a variety of ways – some poorly, some well – and are allowed to be people, having two sets of working class characters who read like something the Daily Mail might come up with is infuriating.

The third, and final, issue I have is exactly the same problem I had with Outline: that the reader is held at arm’s length from the narrator. We’re distanced by the stories she tells us, she’s not prepared to let us in. What this leads to for me, is an intellectual exercise, which in some sections of the novel is interesting and stimulating and in others – dare I say it – is boring, and it’s very rare I use that word to describe a novel.

I enjoyed Transit more than Outline; although I found it patchy, there were moments that I found illuminating and stories that were interesting. During the chapter at the literary festival, the narrator recounts:

I said I wasn’t sure it mattered whether the audience knew who we were. It was good, in a way, to be reminded of the fundamental anonymity of the writing process, the fact that each reader came to your book a stranger who had to be persuaded to stay. 

The jury’s out as to whether or not I stay for the final part of the trilogy.

The Bailey’s Prize for Women Shortlist 2015

Here it is! The official shortlist for 2015. It shares three books with the Shadow Panel shortlist. If you click a cover, it will take you to my review of the book. Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors.

Outline – Rachel Cusk

An unnamed narrator – a writer – flies to Athens to teach on a creative writing summer school course ‘entitled “How to Write”’. On the plane from Heathrow, she sits next to a man with whom she has a conversation about his life in the way that only seems possible when you converse with a stranger you never expect to see again. He talks about his upbringing, his two wives, his children and the way the second wife treated one of the children from the first marriage.

The narrator reveals little of herself during this time. The only real comment from her is that she’s recently moved to London with her children, having lived in the countryside for ten years – seven with her then husband and a further three following the end of the marriage.

It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion…a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and thought it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious. What was real, in the end, was the loss of the house, which had become the geographical location for things that had gone absent and which represented, I supposed, the hope that they might one day return. 

As they arrive in Athens, the man (who she refers to as ‘my neighbour’) asks for her telephone number. They go on to meet twice more when he takes her out on his boat.

The narrator goes to meet Ryan, another tutor on the course, and then establishes herself in the flat she’s staying in for the duration of her time in Athens. The rest of the book concerns her teaching and meeting up with a number of people – other writers, friends and ‘my neighbour’ – before the tutor who will take over from her arrives and they spend a brief amount of time together. There are no spoilers there as the plot is scant. The book concerns itself with the stories of the people the narrator meets. This is a novel of ideas, rather than one of plot or character; it’s about narratives – the ones we construct and what they tell us about how we see ourselves and what other people take from them.

Before the narrator leaves ‘my neighbour’ at the end of the plane journey, she tells him:

I remained dissatisfied…by the story of his second marriage. It had lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to those extremes were often correct…I found I did not believe certain key facts…Reality might be described as the eternal equipoise of positive and negative, but in this story the two poles had become disassociated and ascribed separate, warring identities. The narrative invariably showed certain people – the narrator and his children – in a good light, while the wife was brought in only when it was required of her to damn herself further. The narrator’s treacherous attempts to contact his first wife, for instance, were given a positive, empathetic status while his second wife’s insecurity – well-founded, as we now knew – was treated as an incomprehensible crime…this was a story in which I sensed the truth was being sacrificed to the narrator’s desire to win.

The ideas in the book are interesting and it’s mostly well written – there are some terrible similes (if, like me, you have a problem with similes in general). However, I’m not convinced this works as a novel. We meet the people the narrator meets and learn their stories – or the stories they want to tell her – but we barely get to know the narrator and it’s here the issue lies; she distances us from the stories and herself, leaving the reader nothing to grasp to help us through the narrative. I don’t mind a protagonist being unlikeable; I enjoy character studies as much as a plot-driven novel, but to give us nothing, is asking a lot. The point of this seems to be explained by the writer who arrives at the end of the book. She too has flown – this time from Manchester – and has spent the flight in conversation with the man sitting next to her – a diplomat.

He was describing, she realised, a distinction that seemed to grow clearer and clearer, the more he talked, a distinction he stood on one side of while she, it became increasingly apparent, stood on the other. He was describing, in other words, what she herself was not: in everything he said about himself, she found in her own nature a corresponding negative. This antidescription, for want of a better way of putting it, had made something clear to her by a reverse kind of exposition: while 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. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her, for the first time since the incident, a sense of who she was.

As a reader, I would have liked the protagonist to have let us in, to give us more of a sense of who she was.

Outline has also been reviewed by fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow panel members Paola and Eric on their respective blogs.