In 'Transit,' novelist Rachel Cusk tells story of rebuilding a house and a life

Arts

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now resuming our weeklong series on books, we turn to a novel that upends the traditional narrative.

Jeffrey Brown has this addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: A family falls apart. A woman and her two sons are preparing to begin a new life. That's the simple outline of "Transit," a novel gaining acclaim for its writing and for its approach to storytelling.

It's the second in a planned trilogy.

Author Rachel Cusk joins me now. Welcome to you.

RACHEL CUSK, Author, "Transit": Hi.

JEFFREY BROWN: I purposefully wrote that introduction to say a woman prepares to start a new life, instead of she's starting a new life.

My sense is that we're sort of in the middle, or in transit, so to speak. Does that seem right to you?

RACHEL CUSK: Yes, I mean, the title of the novel is very suggestive of that.

I mean, she's trying to reattach herself to life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Literally.

RACHEL CUSK: Yes, for her children, and that being a very, very sort of difficult and long-drawn-out process practically and psychologically.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, there's the literal rebuilding of a house and then there is the rebuilding of a life. So, change, or the desire, or the question of whether it's really possible is one of your themes.

RACHEL CUSK: Yes. Yes, and also how — how you choose what will reflect you.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean?

RACHEL CUSK: The book deals with the sort of collapse in middle life of these rather institutionalized ways of being, marriage, parenthood, and to exit from those things suddenly is a — can represent a great loss of personal reality.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, construction of a house and construction of a life and construction of a novel.

This is a novel in which we learn about the main character, Faye, through the encounters she has with people in her daily life. And that's about it, right, no back story, no development, no plot in the normal sense, if I can use that word.

RACHEL CUSK: I guess I tried to write a novel that honored the plotless-ness of life itself, and…

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that how you thought of it, the plotless-ness of life itself?

RACHEL CUSK: A little bit.

I mean, again, it's this theme of loss of meaning, loss of personal reality that made me reexamine, I suppose, the novel as a form and to realize how much it's still in a sense rooted in a quasi-Victorian idea of storytelling, and that relies on an awful lot of prior knowledge and omniscience, you know, the idea of a narrator who is a sort of godlike, all knowing sort of presence…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

RACHEL CUSK: … who has fate, the story, the ending, the things that are going to happen completely in their hands.

And I think there's a degree to which humans sort of believe that that presence exists also in their own lives, that there's some narrative that is your life, your story, that somebody somewhere is shaping or controlling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

RACHEL CUSK: And the realization that that's not so, which, as I say, might be a midlife crisis, it might be depression, it might be divorce, but, anyway, the feeling that things are not going as you sort of planned or wanted, that I guess caused me to really try and find a new way of constructing a book.

JEFFREY BROWN: In each chapter, for example — you were talking about constructing a house.

So, Faye meets with a builder, right? And it's all a conversation. But in that conversation, there is a real story that unfolds through the builder about his life, about changing London, about all kinds of things.

RACHEL CUSK: Well, in the end, you know, I wanted to write a novel that, as I say, had no prior knowledge in it, that anyone walking past could see and hear, you know, the same things that the novel sees and hears.

And, you know, at the heart of that is my true belief that there is a story, there is a form, and it's a form that human beings have an absolutely innate grasp of. They know how to tell stories about themselves, the story of themselves. It's the thing that you're taught to do, you know, from the minute you can speak, and you come home and tell your parent what your day was like at nursery.

And you realize that certain things you say may — if you say this thing, people laugh. If you say that thing, they don't quite understand you. And so we're honing that from the beginning. And that, to me, is the story. That's all there is.

So, that's sort of what the book is. It's a sort of patchwork quilt, I suppose, of those narratives.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the novel is "Transit."

Rachel Cusk, thank you very much.

RACHEL CUSK: Thank you.

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