Monday, October 30, 2023

the last book I read

Transit by Rachel Cusk.

We are back in the company of the protagonist of Outline. Or, rather, not really in her company, since one of the defining features of Outline was that the story was told primarily through the narrator's interactions with other people and in general we learnt more about them than about her.

You'll recall that in the first book our narrator (a writer) was heading abroad to deliver a writing course, partly as a means of escaping her disastrous domestic life including the recent collapse of her marriage. In Transit she has returned to the UK and is attempting to pull the frayed ends of her life back together, principally by buying a new house in London and having it extensively renovated. 

You'll also recall that in the first book we were invited to construct a picture of the protagonist by some sort of process of deduction from a series of episodes largely featuring other people. So here we get a series of episodes of varying length featuring:

  • the narrator's ex-lover, Gerard, who she runs into on the street shortly after moving into her new house, and who by contrast with her has lived in exactly the same house since he was a boy;
  • her neighbours in her new house, in particular the older couple who occupy the basement flat and who pound on the ceiling with a broom handle at the slightest sound from above, something you'd have assumed only happened in 1970s sitcoms;
  • the series of builders she employs to renovate the place, principally a couple of Albanians who are responsible for most of the work, most of it loud and invasive and destructive, which doesn't go down too well with the neighbours, as you can imagine;
  • her hairdresser, Dale (gay, obviously), struggling to make the transition from out-every-night fabulousness to middle-aged domesticity in front of the TV with the slippers on;
  • two fellow writers, Julian and Louis, at a literary event;
  • a writing student, Jane, in possession of a gargantuan set of notes for an unwritten novel featuring American painter Marsden Hartley but with no idea what to do with them;
  • her friend Amanda, trying to persuade her on-off live-in lover Gavin to commit to some sort of permanent relationship;
  • finally, a lengthy set-piece over dinner at the house of her cousin Lawrence, who has recently left his wife to set up house with another woman, Eloise, and which is punctuated with several awkward moments mainly prompted by various children who have been allowed to stay up and participate in dinner with the adults.

As with the first book, the idea is that these episodes cast some sort of reflected light on the narrator's own life, which at a surface level mainly consists of book promotion duties, overseeing house renovation activities and fielding occasional phone calls from her two sons, who are staying at their father's house while their mother's is uninhabitable. I'm not sure that they really do that - her motivations for any of the things she does are as opaque at the end of the novel as at the start; we never get any sense of what prompted the break-up of her marriage, for instance. 

So on the one hand the narrator is dimly glimpsed, inscrutable and, most unforgivably of all, seemingly completely devoid of humour of any sort - some of the reviews specifically use the word "funny" in relation to the writing but I emphatically don't see it. On the other hand the little sketches and anecdotes by which we get our glimpses into her life are so brilliantly written (with the exception of the climactic dinner-party one, which goes on a bit) that it's relatively easy to forgive. Once again her name, Faye, is mentioned exactly once (caveat: I haven't checked definitively) during the course of the book, in this case by a man who she goes on a dinner date with, has a conversation with resembling in no way whatsoever how actual humans speak to each other, and who she may be embarking on a relationship with, but it's couched in such vague terms it's hard to tell.

Overall this is probably a better book than Outline, although it doesn't have that book's advantage of the stylistic tricks being fresh and new. The trilogy is completed by Kudos, which will probably be about right as much more in the same vein might start to tip the balance from admiration at the writing to annoyance at the narrator's self-absorption and humourlessness and lack of inclination to seize control of her own narrative.

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