Charlotte Grimshaw on the selfie novels of acclaimed English writer Rachel Cusk.
Rachel Cusk’s previous novel, Outline, was a narrative experiment that followed her divorce memoir Aftermath. The author’s voice – her world view – was so strident and solipsistic in Aftermath that she was accused of being a “brittle little narcissist.”
In Outline, Cusk played with the concept of invisibility, creating a central character, a writer called Faye, who was a silent listener, a mere outline herself. It was a novel of passive witnessing in which Faye was barely present except as a recipient of other people’s stories, and it read like Cusk’s creative response to the critical aftermath of Aftermath, symbolic of a vanishing act, or a passive-aggressive device by which the author could disappear yet subtly and powerfully assert herself. If it was a reaction to the accusation of narcissism, it couldn’t have been more interesting, even if the reading required a certain suspension of disbelief.
Outline is entirely made up of Faye’s encounters with strangers who, on meeting her for the first time, relate their life stories to her in intricate and writerly detail. It’s implausible that stories would unfold as first person narratives in this way, yet the accounts are compelling enough to sustain the artificiality of the device: Faye meets stranger (seated next to her on a plane, in a classroom) and silently listens as the person articulates a fully-formed short story.
Faye’s circumstances are similar to Cusk’s own – she is separated and living apart from her children – and the stories include encounters with writers and discussion of their autobiographical work. It’s a novel about writing, where the narrative is accompanied by a commentary on the creative process itself. Beyond each stranger’s story is silent Faye, beyond Faye is Cusk, whose creatively oblique stance manages, in the context, to “speak louder than words.”
RACHEL CUSK NOT LOOKING ESPECIALLY BRITTLE BUT HARD TO TELL
In the new novel Transit, Faye is living alone and working as a writer in London. She has no contact with her children, except when they phone her in distress. She retains her magic ability to elicit complex, neatly shaped life stories from strangers she meets in her daily routine: her builder, her hairdresser, her pupil.
Attempting to establish herself in a new life, Faye has bought an old house and is trying to have it renovated. The interior is in a squalid and depressing state. It’s impossible to be comfortable in any room, the floors and walls are rotting, and the basement flat is occupied by troglodytes, a couple so aggressive, deranged, ugly and noisome that Faye thinks of them as trolls. When the trolls are not abusing their ancient dog, smashing broomsticks against their ceiling and defaming Faye to the neighbours, they’re poisoning the atmosphere with their cooking, sending a vile stench throughout the dwelling.
The trolls are so grotesque they seem symbolic – of Cusk’s anger perhaps. If the house is a metaphor for the mind, just look what she’s got seething in the depths. It’s a stark portrait of discomfort and alienation, a tour through the writer’s unquiet mind. Perhaps, on some level, Cusk is sick of Faye’s silent, passive listening, and is yearning to burst out and make some noise. But she’s trapped in her own fictional device. This is the central interest of the writing, that it interweaves compelling narrative with an implicit observation of itself. In this, Cusk is an absolutely contemporary practitioner, a writer for the selfie age. If Transit’s central narrative stratagem, Faye’s passive listening, doesn’t really work, that’s not the end of the story. To a certain extent, it is the story.
Transit (Jonathan Cape, $37 ) by Rachel Cusk is available at Unity Books.