Next up on our special Giller Prize edition of The Chat, I’m in conversation with Rachel Cusk, author of Transit.
Of Transit, the jury writes: “Rachel Cusk’s elegant, witty and brilliantly realized novel, Faye, a writer, moves to London with her young sons and purchases a dilapidated apartment. On this deceptively simple scaffolding, Cusk constructs a series of finely observed and complex stories about people whose paths intersect with the narrator’s. The result is a book which is simultaneously intimate and expansive, alight with wisdom and humour, an exquisitely poised meditation on life, time, and change.”
Rachel Cusk is the author of three memoirs—A Life’s Work, The Last Supper and Aftermath—and her novels include Saving Agnes, winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award; The Temporary; The Country Life, which won a Somerset Maugham Award; The Lucky Ones; In the Fold; Arlington Park; and The Bradshaw Variations. She was named among Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. Her novel Outline was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2015. She lives in London, UK.
THE CHAT WITH RACHEL CUSK
Trevor Corkum: We last spoke two years ago, when Outline was named a Giller finalist. How does it feel to have Outline’s companion, Transit, also shortlisted for the prize?
Rachel Cusk: It feels like a tremendous confirmation, of my own identity as much as anything else—both personal identity and an identity as a Canadian woman writer. To be tentatively considering myself in the light of that heritage is a great privilege.
TC: How did Transit come to life?
RC: It came out of Outline and what seemed to me the necessity for answering certain questions that it raised. Outline describes a state of increasing detachment from the contract for living, yet the narrator does live. In Transit I wanted to examine the terms of that survival and what kind of future it suggested.
In Transit I wanted to examine the terms of that survival and what kind of future it suggested."
TC: Faye remains an enigmatic narrator, though we learn more about her romantic past and current family obligations (plus her nightmare neighbours). Once more, we learn about her through oblique observation, an accrual of impressions through her conversations with others. What did you find most challenging in writing Transit?
It was interesting to write about her in her own setting, as it were, since much of what I challenged in Outline were the pernicious aspects of identity that are located precisely in a concept of “home.”
TC: What’s a question no one has asked you about the book that you wish they would ask? How would you respond?
RC: It’s surprised me that there hasn’t been more awareness of its central theme, which is children and the false morality that is displayed in so many of our dealings with them. I think I would point to the last chapter of the novel as the expression of my own views about the true nature of responsibility.
TC: Can we expect a third novel about Faye?
RC: There is another novel in the pipeline, though the links between these books in terms of traditional narrative are loose. It’s the form itself that has become continuous, and that has allowed me to express myself in a new way.
Excerpt from Transit
An astrologer emailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future. She could see things that I could not: my personal details had come into her possession and had allowed her to study the planets for their information. She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky. This information was causing her great excitement when she considered the changes it might represent. For a small fee she would share it with me and enable me to turn it to my advantage.
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 ought to defy explanation. She understood that many people closed their minds to the meaning of the sky above their heads, but she firmly believed I was not one of those people. I did not have the blind belief in reality that made others ask for concrete explanations. She knew that I had suffered sufficiently to begin asking certain questions, to which as yet I had received no reply. But the movements of the planets represented a zone of infinite reverberation to human destiny: perhaps it was simply that some people could not believe they were important enough to figure there. The sad fact, she said, is that in this era of science and unbelief we have lost the sense of our own significance. We have become cruel, to ourselves and others, because we believe that ultimately we have no value. What the planets offer, she said, is nothing less than the chance to regain faith in the grandeur of the human: how much more dignity and honour, how much kindness and responsibility and respect, would we bring to our dealings with one another if we believed that each and every one of us had a cosmic importance? She felt that I of all people could see the implications here for improvements in world peace and prosperity, not to mention the revolution an enhanced concept of fate could bring about in the personal side of things. She hoped I would forgive her for contacting me in this way and for speaking so openly. As she had already said, she felt a strong personal connection between us that had encouraged her to say what was in her heart.
What the planets offer, she said, is nothing less than the chance to regain faith in the grandeur of the human: how much more dignity and honour, how much kindness and responsibility and respect, would we bring to our dealings with one another if we believed that each and every one of us had a cosmic importance?"
It seemed possible that the same computer algorithms that had generated this email had also generated the astrologer herself: her phrases were too characterful, and the note of character was repeated too often; she was too obviously based on a human type to be, herself, human. As a result her sympathy and concern were slightly sinister; yet for those same reasons they also seemed impartial. A friend of mine, depressed in the wake of his divorce, had recently admitted that he often felt moved to tears by the concern for his health and well-being expressed in the phraseology of adverts and food packaging, and by the automated voices on trains and buses, apparently anxious that he might miss his stop; he actually felt something akin to love, he said, for the female voice that guided him while he was driving his car, so much more devotedly than his wife ever had. There has been a great harvest, he said, of language and information from life, and it may have become the case that the faux-human was growing more substantial and more relational than the original, that there was more tenderness to be had from a machine than from one’s fellow man. After all, the mechanised interface was the distillation not of one human but of many. Many astrologers had had to live, in other words, for this one example to have been created. What was soothing, he believed, was the very fact that this oceanic chorus was affixed in no one person, that it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere: he recognised that a lot of people found this idea maddening, but for him the erosion of individuality was also the erosion of the power to hurt.
It was this same friend – a writer – who had advised me, back in the spring, that if I was moving to London with limited funds, it was better to buy a bad house in a good street than a good house somewhere bad. Only the very lucky and the very unlucky, he said, get an unmixed fate: the rest of us have to choose. The estate agent had been surprised that I adhered to this piece of wisdom, if wisdom it was. In his experience, he said, creative people valued the advantages of light and space over those of location. They tended to look for the potential in things, where most people sought the safety of conformity, of what had already been realised to the maximum, properties whose allure was merely the sum of exhausted possibilities, to which nothing further could be added. The irony, he said, was that such people, while afraid of being original, were also obsessed with originality. His clients went into ecstasies over the merest hint of a period feature: well, move out of the centre a little and you could have those in abundance for a fraction of the cost. It was a mystery to him, he said, why people continued to buy in over-inflated parts of the city when there were bargains to be had in up-and-coming areas. He supposed at the heart of it was their lack of imagination. Currently we were at the top of the market, he said: this situation, far from discouraging buyers, seemed actually to inflame them. He was witnessing scenes of outright pandemonium on a daily basis, his office stampeded with people elbowing one another aside to pay too much for too little as though their lives depended on it. He had conducted viewings where fights had broken out, presided over bidding wars of unprecedented aggression, had even been offered bribes for preferential treatment; all, he said, for properties that, looked at in the cold light of day, were unexceptional. What was striking was the genuine desperation of these people, once they were in the throes of desire: they would phone him hourly for updates, or call in at the office for no reason; they begged, and sometimes even wept; they were angry one minute and penitent the next, often regaling him with long confessions concerning their personal circumstances. He would have pitied them, were it not for the fact that they invariably erased the drama from their minds the instant it was over and the purchase completed, shedding not only the memory of their own conduct but also of the people who had had to put up with it.
Excerpted from TRANSIT. Copyright © 2017 by Rachel Cusk. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.