Book Review: “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk

Book review of the third instalment in Rachel Cusk’s elegant and beguiling trilogy

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Title page of “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk. Photo by C P Jones

It is no small praise to say that an author has discovered a new manner of writing novels. In her recent trilogy of novels, the last of which is titled Kudos, Rachel Cusk appears to have overcome the confines of first-person subjectivity, unearthing an approach that may point a way to untrodden pastures of narrative fiction.

Reading Kudos I was repeatedly drawn to make such heightened judgements. From page to page, as the narrator meets characters who disclose ever-more penetrating stories about their own lives, I felt compelled to praise its formal clarity as utterly original. And then, a page or two later, I backed away from my thoughts as overestimation. Brilliant and yet slight, encompassing and yet distant; something just wasn’t sitting right.

It has happened to me, on occasion, that a perfect stranger will tell me about their lives in enormous and unwarranted detail. It can happen in a cafe or in the queue at the supermarket. Being completely unprompted, they talk with a candidness that makes no real sense to me, except to illicit the reaction that I should probably get away as quickly as possible.

For Faye, the narrator of Kudos, these types of encounters seem to happen on an hourly basis. Everyone talks. And since the dialogues are so one-sided, you begin to wonder if huge chunks have been omitted in Faye’s retelling. She appears to listen with inordinate patience as the stories she is told unfurl over the duration of pages, with an eye for the person’s clothing, hair and expressions, and an ear that understands and remembers even if it doesn’t always concur.

Moreover, when a person over-spills their life story to me, they usually do so with negligible coherence. Instead, they offer up whatever thoughts happen to be pushing at the edges of their minds at the time. In the world of Kudos, nobody speaks so haphazardly. Nobody begins a tale without also appearing to know that, in a few minutes time, they will be revealing a jewel-like truth about life itself, about parenting, writing or the making of art.

Kudos is the third installment of a trilogy that began with Outline in 2014 and Transit two years later. For Faye, the world exists as a compendium of other people’s ordeals. A character in Outline describes what seems to be the tenet of Faye’s own identity:

…in everything he said about himself, she found in her own nature a corresponding negative. This anti-description, for want of a better way of putting it, had made something clear to her by a reverse kind of exposition…

In Kudos, we find Faye travelling to a European city where she (being a writer) is attending a literary event. She meets other writers, publishers and journalists in real-world places, mostly transitory and public, such on a plane, in hotel lobbies and restaurants. All through, the sense that the narrator is both present and absent, as if disembodied from society whilst — being a semi-famous writer with journalists wanting to interview her — deeply embedded in it, threatens to trouble the coherence of the work. How, one wonders, is Faye so demure and yet so accomplished?

Yet this very distancing helps to keep the storytellers we meet in sharper focus. The countless passages in which characters are able — and unerringly willing — to articulate crucial personal truths about their lives, are written with a deft use of language and not a small degree of profundity. Within what one reviewer has called “the infinitesimal openings of small talk”, stories of cruel and sublime experiences emerge. Here is one such character, speaking about the confines of her marriage:

The truth was that I had long wondered what might lay outside the circumscribed world of my marriage, and what freedoms and pleasures might be waiting for me there: it seemed to me that I had behaved honourably towards my family and my community, and that this was a moment in which I could, as it were, resign without causing anger or hurt and get away under cover of darkness. And a part of me believed that I was owed this reward for years of self-control and self-sacrifice…

Later in the novel, another character speaks of the expectations of feminine attractiveness:

For while at university, I sat as a life model for the art students, she said, partly to make money and partly to get this subject of the female body out into the open, because it almost seemed to me that even by clothing myself I was inviting the mystery to take route there under my clothes, and to weave the web of subjection in which later I might become trapped.

What the interlocutors invariably describe is a sense of alienation: a circumstance in which they are trapped, be it a marriage, a family, a profession, or indeed a biological sex, along with their attempts to disentangle themselves from it. What emerges from each tale is a physiological need which is invariably interpreted by each character as a prerogative — the right to feel that justice has been achieved or else too easily surrendered.

Beautifully and patiently written, when one comes across passages like these, ideas and insights fire in your mind like starting guns and offer a thrilling combination of entertainment and nuanced edification.

And then, just as you are being carried away by the thought, you have to reign yourself in again, to remain in-touch with the principles of reality that a naturalistic novel must always abide by. The ground beneath your feet is not stable, you realise. Do people really to talk like this?

Had the novel offered a more realistic — no, let’s say conventional — mode of dialogue, then Faye’s presence as the thread that runs through it would be far more foregrounded. As it stands, she more or less disappears, and becomes the oddest of things, a narrator without a voice, a lead-character without definition.

And so the brilliance of the work becomes its main problem. Is the narrator’s absence a means of signifying some cruel aspect of modern existence or is the matter a more mundane one?

For at numerous points I felt I had glimpsed the method of the construction — I saw the scaffolding, as it were — and realised that these stories were nothing other than Rachal Cusk’s thoughts and experiences placed into the mouths of other people. Was I not, in fact, reading the product of a series of intense writing moments now worked up into a compilation of intelligent tales with the appearance of a novel?

I have no idea if this is an accurate reading, but seen in this way the novel suddenly deflates into a less upright entity. It feels like no more than a series of personal essays with all the restraints of subjectivity firmly back in place. Or should that last sentence read, “It feels like no less than…” since, however the novel is taken, the writing remains penetrating and erudite. And what more could a reader want from a book?

Christopher P Jones writes about art and other things at his blog.

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Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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