With ‘Kudos,’ Rachel Cusk Completes an Exceptional Trilogy

Posted May 21, 2018 3:43 p.m. EDT

Here is the final book in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy of small, serious, flexible and emphatic novels that began with “Outline” in 2015 and continued last year with “Transit.”

What to call them? From Willa Cather’s Great Plains trilogy to Cormac McCarthy’s Border trilogy to Hilary Mantel’s yet-to-be-completed Thomas Cromwell trilogy, most of the best have had handles one could pick them up with.

At least one critic has suggested the Outline trilogy, which is not bad. We might also call them the Faye trilogy, after their protagonist. Since these books are almost entirely made up of conversation — even though Faye often elides her own side of the dialogue — someone may propose the Tête-à-Tête trilogy. A few things have changed for Faye, a British writer, since we met her last. She has remarried, after a divorce that made a blast zone in her life. Her two sons have become teenagers; one will be off soon to college, to study art history.

We learn these things as asides. The thrust of the narrative, as in each of the previous books, is talk — stories from people Faye meets while she travels and, in the case of “Transit,” has work done on her apartment.

Faye is a kind of moral conduit. Everyone she comes in contact with has a story to tell, often a very good one. These stories branch out like broccoli florets. One of Cusk’s speakers will frequently tell a story about a third or fourth person.

We rarely hear the questions Faye asks to evoke these narrations, but clearly she is a subtle and superhuman interviewer. Indeed one of the repeated themes in this trilogy, one that silently processes in the background, is how awful we are at meaningfully drawing each other out.

In “Kudos,” Faye travels to a literary festival in an unnamed, sun-chapped place that seems to be southern Italy. She talks to the man next to her on the flight; he speaks of dying pets and troubled children, the nature of lying and oboes, trivia he knows about pilots and medieval torture devices.

Faye speaks with her publisher, with assorted festival hangers-on, with interviewers, with an established writer friend. The publisher declares what he and his competitors desire most: “books that people could actually enjoy without feeling in the least demeaned by being seen reading them.”

Is “Kudos” among those books? Without a doubt. Yet I know readers who’ve been driven mad by Cusk’s refusal to deliver anything that resembles consecutive plot, or at minimum to give Faye a cancer scare, or something.

I somewhat understand the complaints of readers who want more than a 20-handed conversation piece, a series of unresolved chords. They remind me of Clive James’ daydreams of the books Henry James might have written if only he’d been to sea.

Others, and I am one, are held so rapt by Cusk’s cool scrutiny of the world that it’s as if she is navigating, without oxygen, the territory between the Third Step and the Summit Pyramid on Everest. She has that ability, unique to the great performers in every art form, to hold one rapt from the moment she appears.

There is a tidal pull that lingers just below the surface of “Kudos.” It’s clear that, in attending to her art, Faye has been a negligent parent at best. This book reports phone calls from each of her sons — she has missed one’s last day of high school, the other has landed in trouble — in which they ask, “When are you coming home?”

At one point, Faye thinks that the storytelling impulse itself “might spring from the desire to avoid guilt,” to “disburden ourselves of responsibility.” This novel is rife with stories suggesting that the most loving parents often produce the most boring kids.

Faye is interested in escape, in a woman’s ability to blow her life open if she wishes. (Friends are surprised she has remarried, that she has leashed herself to a new commitment.) Yet she is also interested in notions of sodality and fellow feeling.

Vexed and vexing conversations about Brexit emerge. Faye would almost certainly agree with Greil Marcus, who wrote in “Mystery Train” that the problem with community is that you have to live in it.

One character, a writer who has lost half his body weight — one question “Kudos” broaches is, how healthy and attractive should a writer strive to be? — says about Brexit: “It’s like the wife threatening to leave me every Friday night after she’s had a few.” Another writer says: “It was a bit of a case of turkeys voting for Christmas.”

As trilogies of recent vintage go, these books — all right, let’s call them the Outline trilogy — strike me as a stark, modern, adamantine new skyscraper on the literary horizon.

One can recognize Cusk’s achievement, and admire the crisp workings of her mind, while still deploring the slight increase, as this trilogy has gone on, in oracular and overblown statements. (“You have to live,” one character says. “No one can take that obligation from you.”)

Cusk’s series has been cited as a landmark work of so-called autobiographical fiction, or auto-fiction. And these books do somewhat parallel the details of this writer’s life.

Yet Cusk provides sly commentary on the notion that she’s writing anything that resembles a diary. She puts the words, of course, in anyone’s mouth but Faye’s, reminding us once again that it’s not what people say but what one hears that matters.

“There is no better hiding place” for deceptions, a man says, “than somewhere as close as possible to the truth, something all good liars know.”

Publication Notes:


By Rachel Cusk

232 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.