Time invested in Rachel Cusk’s work is never ill spent. There is so much to luxuriate in. Her sentences are like artfully laid little paths in a beautiful bit of woods. In Transit, her recently published novel, she allows an astrologer’s email to lead the reader in. “She could sense — the email continued — that I had lost my way in life, that I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come; she felt a strong personal connection between us, and while she couldn’t explain the feeling, she knew too that some things defy explanation.”
Cusk is always playing at something, and here it seems to be the way an ordinary reader is invited to trust a novelist, usually in ways we are scarcely aware of in the moment. The world is big and confusing, and we find ourselves wanting guidance. Some people like to find it in churches; others like to find it in fiction. But Cusk is one of those novelists — and they abound right now, from Ben Lerner to Sheila Heti — who are looking to trouble that relationship. This isn’t a matter of that well-known tool of the novelist, the “unreliable narrator.” In both Outline, her last novel, and Transit, which is technically a sequel, Cusk is trying, subtly but unmistakably, to disrupt the comforts of the novel.
In Outline, Cusk let readers know not to expect a tightly woven exercise in storytelling. We gather that our unnamed narrator is living in the aftermath of a divorce. Aimless, she ends up in Athens and somehow becomes the sounding board for a number of stories from other people about the dissolution of their own relationships. Things do happen to our narrator, even things that an ordinary plot-junkie novelist would consider exciting: she goes out on a boat with a strange man, for example. But even as these things happen, she is disconnected from the expectations others might have if they heard her story. She tells us so explicitly:
It struck me that some people might think I was stupid, to go out alone on a boat with a man I didn’t know. But what other people thought was no longer of any help to me. Those thoughts only existed within certain structures, and I had definitively left those structures.
Transit proceeds along similar lines, with even less concern for plot than its predecessor: instead of hearing people’s confessions about their feuds with ex-wives and parents, the narrator hears a lot of stories from others about being lost. The narrator, too, is of course lost; she’s living in a new house with complaining neighbors underfoot, and builders are ripping it up for a remodel. She is, like everyone she meets, in transit from one psychological place to another — the connection between the novel and the subject of its title is just that literal. In a particularly meta moment, our narrator — who is a writer — goes to a literary festival. There she listens to two men give a lecture about the costs of autobiographical writing.
And the blabbing, the telling, was the messiest thing of all: getting control of the language was getting control of anger and shame and it was hard, hard to turn it around, to take the mess of experience and make something coherent out of it.
Does all this blabbing sound a bit tedious? I fear that it does; I fear that this sort of book has nothing to say to vast swaths of humanity. There are, of course, people who spend a lot of time reading book criticism. Those people recognize some elements of what Cusk is doing as something called “autofiction.” She has fellow travelers in that: Chris Kraus, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Teju Cole, Tao Lin. You can overstate those writers’ commonalities, but some are discernible: Deliberately artless, often unapologetically boring, collapsing the distance between a narrator and an author, these books are said to seek to import more of what feels like “reality” into fiction. These writers want to push the limits of the novel’s possibility. Life is boring, the notion goes. Perhaps fiction should have some element of that aridity in it, too.
It’s not hard to see the intellectual allure of these ideas. But sometimes, as I read Transit, I had questions about whether or not any of this was really improving fiction in the way that the intellectual justification seems to imply. One does not get the impression, for example, that what Cusk is actually importing into the novel is unadulterated experience. What she is giving it is a lulling drift that almost no one ever feels in the ordinary course of a day, graceful passages that don’t really match up to what Joan Didion once called, in her own essay on the inconsistencies of storytelling, “the phantasmagoria of everyday experience.”
The offer made by that astrologer, after all, is not so different than the one a writer like Cusk offers her reader. Though mostly a vessel for other people’s stories in Outline and Transit, there is a certain elegance to the existence this narrator has. She does not seem to fear anything. She does not seem to want anything. And above all, she never seems uncertain about who she is or what she’s doing. Perhaps Cusk herself really feels that way. Perhaps she is a model of calm receptiveness. But in her own way she’s making the same fantastical promises that women with crystal balls make. Live through disaster, her books seem to say. Don’t worry, we’ll make it beautiful together.