By Rachel Cusk, from Transit, a novel that was published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Cusk is the author of eight previous novels, most recently Outline (2014).
An astrologer emailed me to say she had important news 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. I had suffered sufficiently to begin asking certain questions.
The sad fact, she said, was that in this era of science and unbelief we had lost the sense of our own significance. We had become cruel, to ourselves and others, because we believed that ultimately we had no value. What the planets offered, she said, was nothing less than the chance to regain faith in the grandeur of the human: how much more dignity and honor, 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.
It seemed possible that the same computer algorithms that had generated this email had 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 human herself. 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, 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 mechanized 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 to no one person, that it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere: he recognized 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 on 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 realized 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 center 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 overinflated 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 excite 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 put up with it. He had had clients who had shared the most gruesome intimacies with him one week and then walked past him in the street the next without the slightest sign of recognition; he had seen couples who had sunk to the depths before his eyes, now going obliviously about their business in the neighborhood. Only in the very completeness of their oblivion did he sometimes detect a hint of shame. In the early days of his career he had found such incidents upsetting, but luckily experience had taught him not to take it to heart. He understood that for them he was a figure conjured out of the red mist of their desire, an object, so to speak, of transference. Yet the desire itself continued to bewilder him. Sometimes he concluded that people only want what it is not certain they can have; at other times it seemed to him more complex. Frequently, his clients would admit to feeling relief that their desire had been thwarted: the same people who had stormed and wept like frustrated children because a property was being denied them would be found days later sitting calmly in his office, expressing gratitude for the fact that they hadn’t got it. They could see now that it would have been completely wrong for them; they wanted to know what else he had on his books. For most people, he said, finding and procuring a home was an intensely active state; and activity entails a certain blindness, the blindness of fixation. Only when their will has been exhausted do the majority of people recognize the decree of fate.
We were sitting in his office while this conversation occurred. Outside, the traffic moved sluggishly along the gray, dirty London street. I said that the frenzy he had described, rather than arousing me to compete, extinguished any enthusiasm I might have had for house hunting and made me want to walk immediately away. Besides, I didn’t have the money to engage in bidding wars. I understood that in the market conditions he had described, I was therefore unlikely to find anywhere to live. But at the same time, I rebelled against the idea that creative people, as he had called them, should allow themselves to be marginalized by what he had politely described as their superior values. He had used, I believed, the word “imagination”: the worst possible thing for such a person was to quit the center as an act of self-protection and take shelter in an aesthetic reality by which the outside world remained untransfigured. If I didn’t want to compete, I wanted even less to make new rules about what constituted victory. I would want what everyone else wanted, even if I couldn’t attain it.
The estate agent seemed somewhat taken aback by these remarks. He had not meant to imply, he said, that I ought to be marginalized. He simply thought I would get more for my money, and get it more easily, in a less overheated neighborhood. He could see I was in a vulnerable position. And such fatalism as mine was rare in the world he worked in. But if I was determined to run with the pack, well, he did have something he could show me. He had the details right in front of him: it had just come back on the market that morning, the previous sale having fallen through. It was a council-owned property: they were keen to find another buyer straightaway, and the price reflected that. As I could see, he said, it was in pretty poor condition — in fact, it was virtually uninhabitable. Most of his clients, hungry as they were, wouldn’t have touched it in a million years. If I would permit him to use the word “imagination,” it was beyond the scope of most people’s; though admittedly it was in a very desirable location. But given my situation, he couldn’t in all conscience offer me encouragement. It was a job for a developer or a builder, someone who could look at it impersonally; the problem was the margins were too small for that kind of person to be interested. He looked me in the eye for the first time. Obviously it’s not a place, he said, where you could expect children to live.
Several weeks later, when the transaction was concluded, I happened to pass the estate agent in the street. He was walking along on his own, a sheaf of papers clutched to his chest and a set of keys jingling in his fingers. I was careful to acknowledge him, remembering what he had said, but he merely glanced at me blankly and looked away again.
The encounter was in early summer; it was now the beginning of autumn. The astrologer was insisting that cruelty has its origins in the belief that we have no value. Her remarks reminded me of the estate agent, whose behavior had seemed to prove that whatever we might wish to believe about ourselves, we are only the result of how others have treated us. There was a link in the astrologer’s email to the planetary reading she had made for me. I paid the money and read what it said.