Home Is Where the Art Is

Transit BY Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. . .

Transit, Rachel Cusk's cerebral and very charismatic new novel, begins like so many of the best stories: with an act of foolishness. Our narrator, fragile, aptly named Faye, goes into debt to buy a crumbling flat. She sends her children to live with their father and embarks on an expensive renovation, infuriating her neighbors, and living for a lonely season in a sort of mausoleum. "Everywhere I looked I saw skeletons," she says, "the skeletons of walls and floors, so that the house felt unshielded, permeable, as though all the things those walls and floors ought normally to keep out were free to enter." The damp enters, and doubt, and the mephitic smells of cooking from downstairs, and above all, voices—of neighbors, of the past. Like Outline (2014), its predecessor in a planned trilogy (and also narrated by Faye), Transit is mostly a book of monologues by the people Faye encounters. "It's these single-skin buildings," her builder says, surveying her flat. "Every sound goes right through them."

Welcome to Cuskland, where we're all single-skin buildings and undefended by design. If this sounds an awful lot like the Greek myths—where we, mortals and gods alike, are the determined architects of our own suffering—it's meant to. Mythology suffuses Cusk's work, peeking through like pentimenti; we catch shimmers of Ovid and, repeatedly, the story of Medea. And Faye's house is the manifestation of the psychological terrain the writer has long explored. Over the course of nine novels and three memoirs, she has laid bare the scaffolding of bourgeois family life, stripped it down to its joists and beams and rot, exposing the hollow pieties and stubborn sexism that's wormed its way down to the foundation. Her most famous, and best, book remains A Life's Work (2001), scandalous and beloved for its blunt evocation of early motherhood and, specifically, what happened when she and her husband traded traditional roles—him assuming primary care of the children and her financially supporting the family. In 2012 she published a sequel of sorts, Aftermath—an account of her divorce that mapped the story of her marriage onto the story of Clytemnestra—to some of the most cheerfully malicious reviews in recent memory. She was taken to task not only for her writing but for her character, for exploiting, some said, her husband and children. For years Cusk was unable to read or write. Fiction came to seem "fake and embarrassing," she said in an interview: "Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous. Yet my mode of autobiography had come to an end. I could not do it without being misunderstood and making people angry." She became inspired by the autofiction of Karl Ove Knausgaard, however, and these recent novels are a recasting of the events portrayed in Aftermath, featuring a newly divorced writer stepping uncertainly into freedom.

But where Aftermath was heated and meandering, these books are cool and controlled—and, excitingly, suggest a new path not only for the novel but for the heroine. Just as Elena Ferrante's decision to keep her identity private kept public attention trained, at least for a time, on her work, not on her person, so too does keeping Faye a cipher allow Outline and Transit to hinge on her restless, roving intelligence, not on her romantic entanglements or maternal responsibilities—her sons are present in both books only as disembodied voices on the telephone. But Cusk is a great poet of contradictions, and these novels, with their fractal soliloquies, their deep and unfolding wisdom, reveal how at our most solitary, especially at our most solitary, a chorus of voices inhabits us.

Outline stutters on occasion, and can feel a little coy about its conceit—there's a riff, for example, on how consoling Faye finds the headless statues in the Agora in Athens. But in Transit, Cusk writes with relaxed authority; how seamlessly the stories she hears overlap, the themes echo, the novel uncoils. Faye is still elusive, but she reveals herself to us a little more. In Outline, she was unmoored—traveling through Greece, trying, in the wake of her divorce, to lead a life unmarked by self-will. She was muted, tightly withheld potential—a seed. In Transit, she sets down roots, establishes a home. And it becomes clear that she's not merely absorbing the stories of others but provoking them: There are particular stories she nudges them to tell her. "I like it that you ask these questions," a character says. "But I don't understand why you want to know." What does Faye want to know?

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, New York, 1979, C-print, 3 3/8 × 3 1/2". Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.

Midway through Transit, one of the Polish builders working on Faye's flat stumbles
on a word. Instead of "homesick," he says "homestruck." There are about thirteen mostly one-sided conversations in Transit, all of them hopelessly homestruck; every character seems coterminous with the spaces she inhabits. "It's like being on an operating table," one says of a home renovation. "You've been opened up and now there are men working in there and you can't move until they've fixed you and sewn you together again." Faye's own home is not merely crumbling; it is sick, even dying. The walls are raddled, "covered in thick paper with a rash-like raised design." The wallpaper unfurls in tongues, and the shelves wobble like teeth. The houses are like people, and the people are like houses. A fellow writer describes himself as a "cupboard rammed full with junk: when he opened the door everything fell out." Faye's interlocutors are mostly real-estate agents and builders and the daughters of builders. Their conversations deal with divorce and exile, how difficult it is to make a home and how swiftly it can be lost. Every character craves and dreads protection, craves and dreads exposure. In interviews Cusk has said that the "foundational ordeal" of her life was being sent to boarding school at age eleven. "It formed my character more than almost anything else," she says. "I seem to be driven to get expelled and disapproved of and yet I want to belong and be safe and be part of everything—I have been a prisoner of that dynamic all my life."

This dynamic isn't merely a domestic crisis but a crisis of form. "The real difficulty and beauty of middle-age is that you are trapped in a form, and that form is your family," she has said. "The parameters of that form are very fixed, and you can't go outside them because if you do you have violated family life and you have ruined it. So you have to express yourself within this confined structure if you want your life to be beautiful." Expressing oneself means to shore up a set of mutually agreed-upon convictions, for there is nothing natural or inevitable about the family to Cusk; it is "a system of belief, a story." And story and truth are not so easily reconciled. Aftermath begins with this very idea: "My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn't be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth."

The truth Cusk suggests her husband is evading—responsibility—is the central preoccupation of Transit. Are we the authors of our happiness and misfortune? Or are we purely at the mercy of other people—or even of something more numinous? Although generally a gloomy writer, Cusk stages this question with some humor. Many of Transit's homestruck characters embark on quixotic home-improvement projects: Two live in completely glass houses, open to the world; an ex-boyfriend of Faye's becomes possessed of a desire to see straight through his home and knocks down all the walls. For a time, all three get the lives they think they want but remain baffled; their homes may be transparent but their own impulses remain opaque—a situation Cusk understands. "I feel a certain sympathy for Oedipus," she wrote in Aftermath. "We lack knowledge of the very things that drive us to our fate. We do not fully know what it is that we do, and why. . . . Yet he was punished for these acts as though they had been conscious." This is a peculiar, undeniably self-exculpating remark—especially in a memoir about ending one's marriage—but it's a position she's been reconsidering and refining in her recent novels.

Newly separated in Outline, Faye espouses "the virtues of passivity." But in Transit, an imperceptible yet tectonic shift has begun to take place. "That idea—of one's own life as something that had already been dictated—was strangely seductive, until you realised that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy," Faye says. By renovating her house, by creating even this small disturbance in the universe, she awakens "a beast sleeping in its lair": "I had started to desire power, because what I now realized 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." That passivity she'd clung to as a state of abeyance and neutrality comes to seem dangerous. Toward the end of Transit she defines evil as surrender, "the relinquishing of effort."

But this is, of course, just a new story, the latest story Faye has come to tell about herself. And a story is just another kind of form or structure, a skin, a home we inhabit—even a sanctuary, as John Berger would describe it. We can outgrow stories just as we outgrow homes; we can tinker with them. Or, if we are very lucky, if we are like Faye, we can overhaul them entirely, so that they no longer constrain us but become something with which we can mark time. Transit ends on a beautifully open-ended note. Faye sets out, determinedly, very early in the morning. She doesn't tell us where she is going, but there are intimations of a new romance, a new relationship on the horizon. Reset the clocks. Another story has already begun.

Parul Sehgal is senior editor at the New York Times Book Review.