If listening is an art, then the narrator of Rachel Cusk’s new novel, “Transit,” is a virtuoso. Faye, a writer, has recently returned to London with her two sons following a divorce. As she goes about rebooting her life, she listens to contractors, builders, old boyfriends, cousins, hairdressers, students, fellow writers, panel chairs, real estate agents, prospective love interests and more. Indeed, as in Cusk’s last novel, “Outline” (2015) — set in Athens, and also narrated by Faye — the majority of this hypnotizing new offering is composed of the sometimes pages-long speeches of Faye’s interlocutors, who seem, once they have started talking, either unwilling or unable to stop.
Sometimes, as in the equal parts hilarious and unbearable case of a logorrheic fellow writer named Julian, the speakers are already blabbing away when Faye encounters them, and all she has to do is sit back and let them talk. With others, like an initially reticent male student in Faye’s creative writing workshop, a bit of prompting at the outset is required and then a story pours forth. Still others, like a group of women Faye encounters at her cousin’s house, require something resembling ongoing engagement from Faye to continue speaking. But speak and speak and speak they all do.
If this sounds like a recipe for sleep soup, rest assured: It is anything but. This is because everything in the novel is filtered through Faye, and Faye is as funny and moving and ruthlessly articulate as she is good at paying attention. She is also up to something. At first, we might be forgiven for imagining that her central aim is satirical: to expose the many quacks and mansplainers who cross her path and the quirks of contemporary life that come to mind.
This is certainly part of the calculus in and great pleasure of “Transit”: “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.”
But Faye doesn’t just offer funny send-ups and skewerings of the computer-generated astrologers, ex-boyfriends and nasty neighbors who importune her; we also hear from people she clearly loves, like her sons, or those she feels both empathy and disdain for, like a female student obsessed for odd reasons with the painter Marsden Hartley. Listening, and then reporting — to the page, to us — what she has heard, is a way of being for Faye, one she is actively, interestingly pursuing. As she says deep in the novel, “I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible.” One suspects that Cusk has too.
Many of the things she finds out are strange and striking. Once she has gotten her workshop student to speak, we discover that he is not just the innocuous, empty bumbler being dominated by a fellow student that he first appears to be. His pride and joy is a handsome dog, a Saluki, a breed renowned for its grace and ability to follow instruction and act as one with its pack. As he observes, about the day he first goes to pick it up and finds it among its fellows, “Whenever their trainer passed, the nine long, elegant noses would lift in perfect synchronicity and follow her movement like nine compasses.” The student goes on, in the wake of the subtlest prompts from Faye, to speak with depth and passion, channeling in turn, as Faye does his, the voice of the breeder, who first encountered the dogs on a beach in Oman: “There, running along the sand beside the frill of surf, was a pack of dogs. Their silence and lightness and speed was such that they appeared almost to be some kind of hallucination.”
Another notable interaction also takes us far from the autumnal gloom of London. Conversing with one of the builders working on her new apartment, an otherwise laconic man named Pavel, Faye learns that he has built a house in a forest in his native Poland. “The house had enormous windows, he went on, that went from the ceiling to the floor. In every room — even the bathroom — the forest was so visible that you almost felt you were living in the open air.”
Like Pavel’s, the house of fiction is made from materials both transparent and opaque. We don’t know, of course, what Faye, a fiction writer, is choosing to leave out or to underplay or invent in her reconstructions. She makes no promises to us. Nor does her creator, Cusk, whose life looks from a distance to have more than a little in common with Faye’s. This is fictional autobiography or autobiographical fiction that refuses to name — and thereby limit — itself.
A concomitant desire to understand or at least illuminate the mechanisms and limits of freedom moves insistently through the pages of “Transit.” It is not for nothing that Faye’s new apartment, whose floors and walls are being ripped out and replaced, sits at the center of the book. Faye’s interest transcends the very real concerns of how to balance feeling simultaneously unmoored and liberated of someone rebuilding her life after the messy breakup of a marriage. It seems clear that Faye has been thinking about and listening for useful information on this subject for a good while.
When, in the relatively rare moments that Faye reveals what she has been moved to think about all she is taking in, she never draws easy conclusions, or offers explicit judgment, so we are free to draw and make our own. This kind of freedom is no small gift. It is hard to have to wait for Cusk’s next novel to see where Faye’s listening, and readouts of it will take her, and us, next.
Laird Hunt’s new novel, “The Evening Road,” is out in February.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 272 pp., $26