In the trilogy of intriguing novels that she completes with Kudos, Rachel Cusk has routinely subverted essential ideas of narrative and storytelling. Each book is made up of a series of monologues about both intimate and public concerns, which are delivered by passing characters and filtered through the lens of a deceptively impassive witness (a writer, Faye, whose sketchy personal details align closely to Cusk’s own).
On first encounter, the novels seem to have very little plot (arguably, the second book, Transit, has the most), but far from random, their episodic forward momentum makes them curiously hard to put down. In Outline, Faye travels to Greece to teach a writing course, and in Transit she moves back to London, newly divorced, to renovate a flat. The third book finds her attending two writer’s conferences, each in an unidentified European location at once faceless and unique. Kudos might be seen as Cusk’s response to Brexit—the specter of that controversial decision hovers over the novel, which in part is about impossible choices we must all eventually make about staying or leaving. There are also ripples of other contemporary discontents—the encroaching dissatisfaction of once-privileged white men, the perennial gender divide and the death of literature in our postliterate world.
On one level, Cusk lampoons the insular literary world, with its intellectual puffery and self-congratulatory prize giving (i.e. kudos), as she deviously exiles Faye to far-flung backwaters. But Cusk, like Faye, refuses to undermine the seriousness that lurks beneath the sometimes inappropriate, sometimes self-important, often uncomfortable observations of those she meets. “The human situation is so complex that it always evades our attempts to encompass it,” one characters says, and ultimately this truth is what Cusk tirelessly seeks to circumvent. In the end, one can’t help but hear echoes of E.M. Forster’s elusive advice: Only connect.