Without Prior Knowledge

Rachel Cusk and Caille Millner
In Conversation

Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline, was published in 2015 to wide acclaim—it was listed as one of the New York Times‘s Best Books of the Year. It told the story of a woman, Faye, facing down a tremendous and terrible loss, through a series of monologues and conversations surrounding her. Transit, the second novel in the trilogy, uses a similar structure to delve even deeper into Faye’s psyche. Here, Rachel Cusk sits down with writer Caille Millner at Green Apple Books in San Francisco to discuss the nature of fiction, writing about sex, and childhood violence


Transit by Rachel Cusk
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Caille Millner: Before we get into the form of Transit, I wanted to ask you a larger question about the trilogy. In 2014 you gave an interview to The Guardian, and you said you had faced creative death after writing Aftermath, your memoir about going through your divorce. How did you come to embrace writing novels again?

RC: Golly. I thought I never would. I’ve never treated fiction as a veil or as a thing to hide behind, which perhaps was, not a mistake exactly, but a sort of risky way to live. And I guess I thought about other people’s processes and how even though they constructed something that said “this isn’t real,” you know perhaps they smuggled their reality into this sort of imagined structure—which is something I’ve never done. I always sort of thought that the memoir, the thing that says “this is real,” even if it’s as constructed as a novel, seems to me to do something for the reader that’s very different from a novel. But in the end it is an exhausting enterprise, and you’ll be criticized too much for it, and the criticism is personal even if the writing of it is not personal at all. So I guess it was that, of thinking, okay, maybe I’m going to reexamine the novel as something that can be made to soften the concept of reality, to find something halfway, I suppose, between “I” and “Not I.” Anyway, took loads of time to get to that point.

CM: The forms of Outline and now Transit are very distinct: they’re taking place over the course of conversations; there’s no plot; it’s just kind of semi-monologues from the narrator’s friends and acquaintances, and her listening to the stories of other people over a short period of time in her own life—kind of watching them construct their own identities. Can you talk a little bit about how you settled on this as a form?

RC: Well yes, following from what I just said, I thought, well, okay, I’m going to go back to the novel. To me the central problem with the novel as it still stands is that it’s a bit like London: it’s still a Victorian construct. And that problem has to do with prior knowledge that the novel has, that you enter this world in which things are known by somebody, and yet it’s supposed to look real. So where’s this knowledge coming from? And that’s almost, again, a Victorian, quasi-religious idea that there is some omniscience somewhere, that there is an omniscient narrator, God, that somebody knows what’s going on, and that there’s some meaningful narrative to all of this. So I thought, I’ve got to write a novel where there’s no prior knowledge at all, and having decided that, the form evolved itself, because once you write with that discipline—once you start writing thinking, “Nothing can be known in this text by the narrator”—everything has to be read from the surface. It is incredible how many sentences you can’t write. I’d say about one in fifty sentences, I thought, okay, that I can write, because that is completely, concretely taken from everything that anybody could see if they were walking past. They could see it or hear it.

CM: One of the things I’ve thought about a lot, in terms of what makes Faye’s voice so distinctive, is that she’s this very intelligent, wise character, who for whatever reason is not quite stable in terms of how she feels about herself and the world that she’s in—and so that was part of the decision you made, right?

RC: You know, if there is a background to the book it’s her background. All you know is that she’s lost a life that she used to have—she’s lost her family life, she’s lost her marriage—and so she’s lost numerous identities that are another version of prior knowledge, because it’s your story, it’s how you see the world, and you don’t realize that that’s what you took to be reality until you lose it. And so what she’s reduced to is not being able to say, “I am the wife of so-and-so, the mother of so-and-so, I live in this house, you can read these things about me and think you are getting some understanding about me by seeing what my life is,”—which is a completely false idea; it’s what only the person who’s actually living in the life thinks. So for her the only known is what can be known on the surface, and that is mostly what people say: the only way of knowing someone is actually watching them, and watching what they do and hearing what they say. It is a different fictional technique, but it is also a very different moral structure, a very different way of looking at the world—and it’s post-trauma, it’s a loss of belief in reality, or a realization that reality is something that you believed in, not something that actually necessarily exists.

CM: Kind of along the lines of trauma, one thing I noticed about Transit, at least compared to Outline, is there’s a lot of coiled violence in this particular book. There’s a scene in the hairdresser’s which ends with a boy shattering the shop’s glass shelf that holds all the shampoos and conditioners. There’s these horrific neighbors who live downstairs, and there was a scene where one of them was looking at Faye and trying to decide if she wanted to spit on her or not. And at the very end there’s this child at the dinner party throttling her mother, you know, playfully, but children’s violence towards their parents is a very visceral kind of feeling—

RC: Well that’s parents’ violence towards their children, by not respecting them, which is sort of what it boils down to. It’s the reason for a sequel—I mean, Outline said you can be nobody, you can be merely an observer of what happens in front of you and not have to put all of that information into a moral structure—not have to make a story out of it, a story of yourself or a story of anybody else. And that was all very well, but unless you’re then going to dissolve and go up in a puff of smoke, you know, something does have to happen next because you wake up the next morning, and the next morning, and the next morning—and so what this book is about is that process, of how you then reattach yourself to life. And part of that is accepting violence, or re-engaging with it, re-engaging with the things that can hurt you. Outline is the essentially defensive position of saying, Well you can’t hurt me, because I don’t exist anymore. This is a process, and there’s a third novel which, again, begs another novel, and so at some point hopefully I’ll arrive and realize I’m finished.

CM: And to take a totally different tack on this, another interview I read with you said you were working on a sequel to Outline, and that you hoped to meet a challenge you had set to yourself to write about sex. So, spoiler alert you guys, there’s no sex in here.

[Laughter]

RC: I didn’t get there. It might have to be four . . . Actually there’s some elements of the book that you’ve identified about children and violence which took up quite a long time and which really took the place of sexuality. Because I thought, what are the roots of sexuality? And I started thinking about it so much from the beginning that I sort of got stuck there, with those themes. The desire to write about female sexuality came from a more generalized feeling I had that, again, is about this sort of quasi Victorian-ness, and just thinking about D. H. Lawrence and how free he was, and how partly this form has made me feel very free and so, I thought, perhaps it will be easy for me to move into that area, and it wasn’t. I got very compelled by childhood instead . . .

CM: It’s interesting you mention D. H. Lawrence because of course when I think about him I immediately think, “He wrote about sex all the time, and nobody does that anymore.”

RC: The thing that interests me about Lawrence is that his life was remarkably devoid of sex, and it was short and miserable and he died horribly of tuberculosis at the age of forty-five, and his life with Frieda Weekley was rebarbative and unhappy. So it all came from his observation of his mother, and it wasn’t anything that he particularly lived, it was him working out something about her and about repression and nurture. In The Rainbow, Lawrence has to go so far back to be able to describe the sexuality of a contemporary woman. He has to cover a century of social and environmental development to get there, because he’s not proceeding from merely a place of honesty or of some autobiography. So I suppose that’s another element.

CM: Okay: sex, violence, um . . .

RC: What’s the other one? Rock ’n’ roll!

CM: Maybe that’ll be the third book in the trilogy. But actually there was one other thing I was wondering about the two books, which is that you use Faye’s name on only one occasion in each of them, and it’s quite late in the book both times, and when it happens it’s this very powerful, almost telescopic effect. Why did you choose to use her name and why where you did?

RC: Well I suppose I felt there was this sort of punishment and reward system, that I was aware the book was difficult to read, and I didn’t know whether anyone would be able to sustain their interest in something that’s so not a story and where you can’t get into a character as you’d get into a taxi, you know, and go for the ride. In the story of the book there’s no one to attach yourself to, there’s nobody for you to believe in and no place where you can escape from yourself, and that felt like a fairly punishing line. And I suppose at a very particular point in the book I thought it would be useful to remind the person reading it that they had actually managed to get this far. [Laughter] The character has a name. It does seem that it has that effect, that everyone’s sort of like, Oh my god, I completely forgot that I’ve done without this thing all this time. And it partly also came from how a lot of the book is about “writing,” in inverted commas, and what that means to people, and teaching writing and studying writing, if you’re not a writer—because a writer is a sort of stigmatized person, and I think the desire to write is very, very, very different—but a lot of what happens is that desire to write, which I think is a very interesting contemporary manifestation of the soul and soul’s search for fulfillment and meaning. But it very often starts with the student, who has this very high spiritual sense of what writing might be, writing the sentence, “Jane stood in her kitchen and stared out the window.” It really is amazing, in the creative writing situation, how many things begin with a sentence like that—and it’s all about Jane, and the name “Jane,” and Jane is just named and because you give her a name everyone’s supposed to believe in her, and the student often doesn’t quite understand why you can’t believe in Jane, having said she exists. So not naming the narrator is partly an avoidance, I suppose, of the rules of writing as, possibly, they might be taught. You would never teach someone to write this way . . . it’s everything you shouldn’t do.

CM: Now that you’ve mentioned writers and writing, there’s another scene in Transit that I was curious to ask you about, which is the writing conference. For those who have not read it yet: the narrator is on stage with two other writers who both write memoir—two men who write memoir. And they both give these very long, very fascinating, self-serving explanations about why they write personal narrative, and the reasons are almost completely opposite from each other. You’ve talked a lot about how personal writing has taken a lot out of you, but what have you observed in terms of other writers, or what drew you into writing that particular part of Transit?

RC: Malice. [Laughter] And in fact I got a very funny email from a writer friend of mine the other day saying that she had read that scene and she said, I didn’t realize until I read it that I loathe doing those things and now I’m never going to do one ever again. And part of what is to be loathed is the ability of other writers to perform themselves, and I think that is what has become a uniquely contemporary phenomenon—although probably there have been other periods in history, before I say that—but my idea was that you published the book because it was really obvious you didn’t know how to speak to people [laughter] or how to actually participate in social things; instead you went into a room and wrote a book, and gave them your book. And so I was very surprised to see how much this performance of oneself as a writer—how much other people had thought a lot about that and enjoyed it. I mean one of the people in this scene doesn’t particularly intend to write another book but he sees it as his moment in the sun, that while he’s getting this attention he’s going to enjoy it and wring every last drop out of it. So I suppose it’s that idea of attention, of receiving attention, that has taken me a long time to understand. And it seemed to fit with the themes of childhood and children and what kinds of attention we give them and what we think about the kinds of attention we give them and how they respond. The writer in the public situation seemed to me to be quite a child-like, performative role. But yeah, some of it was just . . .

CM: Malice is fine too. Malice works. [Laughter] Anger is a good motivator. Before we go to the audience, any hints about what we can expect from the conclusion of the trilogy?

RC: Peace. Peace is the destination, so let’s hope I can get there fairly quickly. Without wasting too much of people’s time, but yeah. [Laughter] No, Faye has to find—well, peace has to be found at the end of all this. So there’s trauma and there’s a re-engagement with the idea of living entailing suffering, and I suppose the thing I’m really interested in now and writing about—because I’m in the middle of writing the third one—is the idea that there’s a value to suffering. And that suffering, it’s this sort of Greek concept, you suffer unto truth—and what is the value of suffering? That’s the question.

CM: Do you believe there is one? Some people would argue that there’s actually no value in suffering.

RC: Well that’s the question I’m going to ask. Another, nicer way of putting it is that you learn through experience rather than that you suffer unto truth. But do you? The third book is called Kudos, and it’s this idea of “kudos,” of acclaim, honor, or esteem. Do you get kudos for having suffered? And if you do, what would the nature of it be? And is it peace, as I suspect, is it wisdom? Those are my questions.

Transit by Rachel Cusk

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Rachel Cusk is the author of three memoirs—A Life’s Work, The Last Supper, and Aftermath—and several novels: 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; The Bradshaw Variations; and Outline. She was chosen as one of Granta’s 2003 Best of Young British Novelists. She lives in London.

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