Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Kudos, completes the trilogy she began in 2014 with Outline and extended in 2016 with Transit. The cycle constitutes an artistic breakthrough and a triumph within this decade’s international turn to autofiction. The books are entrancing and compulsively readable even though they lack the conventional propulsive mechanisms of fiction: plots or even a discernible sense of progression.
Cusk’s is a peculiar sort of autofiction, one that suppresses the “auto” in favor of a form that bears some resemblance to oral history. These novels are anti-confessional — their narrator (and authorial alter ego), Faye, is the most reticent of their wide cast of characters — yet they consist mostly of compilations of others’ confessions. I laugh whenever a character tells Faye how nice it’s been talking to her and they must do it again. Cusk has learned that to listen is also to ingratiate.
But that’s also why it’s hard to think of Kudos and its predecessors as works of realism. They seem to take place in a fantasy realm where people are given to explaining the most intimate and dramatic episodes of their lives instantly, at great length, and with considerable eloquence to a casual acquaintance or complete stranger — i.e., Faye. Does she possess coercive psychic powers? Has everyone in these books except Faye ingested some disinhibiting substance? Why can’t we all live in such a world of frankness and emotional sophistication, if not exactly clarity?
Self-delusion, of course, persists. Faye is a reliable narrator, which can only be said to varying degrees of her interlocutors. The consistent degree of remove is a zone of judgment for the reader and the narrator. Faye listens, and mostly withholds her thoughts, although she says of one man early on in Outline: “The truth was being sacrificed to the narrator’s desire to win.” Winning is a way of claiming the illusion of personal redemption, if not victory over lost love and lost lovers. It’s something that, once said, doesn’t need repeating and could be applied over and over to characters across the cycle. Faye’s withheld skepticism becomes a source of these novels’ considerable fun.
The evenness of Cusk’s cool, detached style is a wonder. The prose of the Outline Trilogy is like a wide and placid lake. The reader is like a water-skier gliding along exhilarated by the combination of verbal tranquility and emotional intensity.
Because the majority of the action is relayed as recollection, whenever an event intrudes in the present action — a call from a distressed child, a stray insult tossed Faye’s way, an awkward attempt at a kiss — they ripple across the narrative like seismic spasms. Similar effects attend any disruption in tone.
In Transit there are three characters who are at work on refurbishing and soundproofing Faye’s new flat, and two of them are immigrants: the Albanian, Tony, and the Pole, Pavel. These characters commit comic malapropisms and speak in a not-quite-unbroken English. Otherwise, Cusk’s characters — mostly middle-class Britons but also Europeans encountered abroad, many of them writers or in publishing — speak Cusk.
Last month in the Times Dwight Garner remarked in his review of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood: “Heti’s semi-fiction, like that of writers like Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk and Teju Cole, among others, is dismantling our notions of what a novel should be. These writers prize voice over style.” Voice and style — can they be separated? A writer may not be able to escape her style, but a style can accommodate multiple voices. These writers are all stylists and the tension between style and voice is why we’ve flocked to them. Garner is right that Heti’s new novel is univocal: its style and voice fused and tending to mimic the tone of casual speech. Lerner’s and Cole’s novels are similarly univocal but executed in highly stylized voices conceived more for the page than for speech. In Cusk’s trilogy, there are many voices but with few exceptions these voices are filtered through Faye’s paraphrastic retelling of their stories, which doesn’t sound much different from the parts of their stories that appear in direct quotation — a game of punctuation whose rules are unclear and may turn out to be meaningless.
And how much meaning can we attribute to the stories Faye hears and retells, stories that accumulate by the dozens? Family unhappiness has infinite forms, and Cusk presents many variations of misrecognition, betrayal, divorce, and all manner of affection that turns into cruelty. In aggregate, they come to seem just that: variations.
If love is always doomed, as it is for most of Cusk’s characters, except a few of the more vapid ones, then what difference does it make to linger on the details? What’s the difference between the ex-wife who leaves a man for suspected infidelity and the one he leaves because she may have locked his son in the basement? To indulge in another metaphor of landscape, for all of Faye’s coldness, a subterranean stream of sentimentality runs under the analytic terrain of these books. It’s most obvious when characters go on at considerable (and often tedious) length about their pets.
But without this strain of sentimentality the books would be glacial.
Kudos begins with a man telling the story of his family and their dog, “probably the most important member of their family,” a giant muscular beast given to chasing sheep and deer. After he kills a fawn, the man beats him to discipline him. The man, sitting next to Faye on a flight to Germany, has just buried the dog, dead of cancer, and has the dirt from the job still in his fingernails.
The brutality of this story is an allegory for the savagery of family relationships in general. The man’s fingernails are the last we see of him. He’s detachable from the rest of the novel, if not disposable, as are the vast majority of Faye’s interlocutors. There’s the initial physical description — sometimes admiring, sometimes withering, either way possibly leaving the image of a saint, a harlequin, a mutant, an ogre or a ghoul in your mind — the plunge into family history, and before the flight even lands — poof! — he’s gone, not to be heard of again.
Whether or not the detachability of Cusk’s characters signals the atomization of our age — certainly these novels have little to say about life online, although Facebook and smartphones aren’t left out — it’s certainly a defining aspect of their portrait of the life of a middle-aged, middle-class, critically acclaimed but not mega-selling writer. The family stories of the Outline Trilogy have a way of bleeding into each other, but the testimonies to do with literature and publishing make for a dreary sociological gallery. Kudos is set at a literary festival in Germany and a literary conference in Portugal. Outline is set in Greece where Faye has traveled to teach creative writing for a week. Transit has both creative writing students and a literary festival in the English countryside.
The privilege (or plight) of a writer like Faye (or Cusk) is to spend a lot of their lives on the jet-fueled merry-go-round of the international paraliterary circuit, a string of nights spent in hotel rooms and borrowed apartments. That such a way of life should become the subject of our literature is inevitable, even if its necessity is dubious. The writing class is a space that allows for some idealism, but the literary festival is a zone of cynicism, vanity, and commerce.
Faye sparks most her students into telling the sorts of stories about their lives she likes to retell, with one exception: a student in Outline who calls her “a lousy teacher” for not instructing the class on the exercise of the imagination. This is of course a metacommentary on the trilogy itself, as are the counterexamples of variously famous and wealthy writers encountered on panels and in lobbies: sellouts, preening self-styled prophets, and pseudo-Knausgaards.
Who could love a literary festival? They’re neither satisfyingly literary nor satisfyingly festive. Most successful authors these days have outgrown hedonism (if not, like one of Cusk’s hacks, put on a Fitbit), and reading is something best done in doors and alone. Attendees gaze on the fleshy spectres of solitary people doing the opposite of what they do best. Writers deliver their stump speeches at a register somewhere between public therapy, stand-up comedy, and infomercial. Organizers can take pride in a series of events executed without injury, scandal, or rain delay. Journalists arrive to interview authors full of their own facile theories. Publishers proudly pronounce that the writing most revered doesn’t sell and how foolish it would be to resist that truth. Of the Outline Trilogy, Kudos pours the most acid on the literary world and that’s why it’s my favorite. Readers more interested in real estate and food will prefer Transit.
Equanimity is the governing mood of this trilogy, three books in which passion has been exiled to the past tense. That goes for literature too. Faye tells us how she’s come to think of it in Outline:
As it happened I was no longer interested in literature as a form of snobbery or even of self-definition – I had no desire to prove that one book was better than another: in fact, if I read something I admired I found myself increasingly disinclined to mention it at all. What I knew personally to be true had come to seem unrelated to the process of persuading others. I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.
Indeed, these books make no effort to persuade. They simply conjure beauty out of the least likely materials. Even after the details of the stories told in these novels fade from the mind (and they fade quickly, seemingly by design) the sense of their beauty lingers. The memoir of divorce Cusk published before Outline was called Aftermath. These books have an afterglow. Their catalogue of family and romantic miseries suggests, inadvertently, that it when it comes to love, if not literature, forgetting is the best of all things.