The third in a trilogy of novels that describes the various encounters of a protagonist who shares many attributes with her author, Kudos marks the completion of a turning point in Rachel Cusk’s prolific bibliography – and a quietly exhilarating renovation of the novel form. A more bluntly enterprising author might have opted to publish this body of work in a single volume, the mammoth tome being a token herald of literary magnitude. That Cusk chose this less intimidating, tripartite delivery system is, however, appropriate to her strikingly reticent narrator’s unimposing presence. It’s also smart about how we assimilate innovation. We take on Outline, Transit, and Kudos not as a colossal challenge to our sensibilities but, rather, as a series of missives from a mind rigorously focused on looking outward rather than inward.
Faye, named only once in each of these volumes, is a magnet for the garrulous. A writer, divorcee, newlywed, and mother, she is always in transit yet continually drawn into conversations in which she seldom discloses much of her biography, opinions, or state of mind. Which is not to say that we never get a handle on her. On the contrary, what Faye choses to report, and the temperament of her close listening, is distinctive and revelatory. As alluded to in the first novel’s title, we form an idea of who Faye is in contrast to all that’s around her.
In Kudos, Faye attends a literary festival in a European city that’s never specified and seems to shift geographically over the course of the novel. (The distractingly hazy setting, along with the lack of attention to the rhythms of people speaking in a second language, constitute the novel’s two flaws.) She meets many others in her industry, such as her local publisher, who rescued his ailing house with a lucrative line of Sudoku books and who believes the age of “difficult” literature has faded. There is an air of cultural erosion throughout Cusk’s novel and thwarted gratifications abound. A circular hotel defies easy navigation, a church cannot be entered, and every interview is terminated before the subject gets a word in. Kudos is in part a comedy of echo chambers, of people ostensibly seeking knowledge from others but who finally just reiterate their own platitudes.
Faye repeatedly encounters people alienated from spouses, parents, and children. Meanwhile, she praises her own son for dealing effectively with a frightening situation. There is a moving moment in which he calls to express his loneliness. We detect an ambivalence in Faye – parallel longings for the domestic and the exotic, tradition and iconoclasm, familial responsibility and adventure. “Suffering had always appeared to me as an opportunity,” she says, though whether with conviction or as a means of coping with disappointment is left for us to determine.
Among Kudos’ most spellbinding passages is a variation on the interview motif. Faye meets a journalist she has encountered before, a woman from a quaint village where church bells ring out of the bucolic silence each quarter-hour, offering “a life lived inside the mechanism of time.” The woman’s seemingly perfect existence has lingered with Faye, who often thinks of her enviously when “driven to extremity by the suspicion that some knowledge was being withheld from me whose revelation would make everything clear.” This time around, the woman reveals fissures in her carefully constructed facade and in so doing also reveals the ways that she, like Faye – like Cusk – uses lacunae to determine a story’s tenor.
Cusk’s modus operandi has precedents. W.G. Sebald was a master of autofictions brimming with catalogues and travelogues, roaming archives of histories, geographies, and individuals in which the narrator continually elides his own story. Or the work of Italian author Natalia Ginzburg, of which Cusk herself writes, “You come away from it feeling that you know the author profoundly, without having very much idea of who she is.” Cusk notes how the narrator of Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon “withholds her own thoughts and feelings while her observations of those around her pour forth.” While Family Lexicon is in every other way a very different novel, it can hardly be lost on Cusk that such praise can be directed at Kudos without altering a word.
What makes Cusk’s trilogy feel so new are its particular set of moral concerns, its seamless narrative architecture, and the degree to which it pushes its underlying conceit without being severe or losing the thread of its character-driven story. It is indeed a kind of magic, the way Faye remains opaque while giving such unique shape to these novels through sheer force of will. Kudos’ final scene, involving a rough, vast sea contaminated by yet another interloper, is exquisite in the way it expresses Faye’s particular existential condition. “I hope you make good use of your freedom,” a fellow writer tells her. All we know for certain is that she’s trying her best.