When Rachel Cusk returned to fiction in 2014 with the form-dismantling novel Outline, it was following the vitriolic reception, among women readers, of her non-fiction account of divorce. In Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, she wrote: “My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn’t be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth.” In an interview with The Guardian, Cusk was asked why “some women were so furious” with her non-fiction. Cusk’s response: “Well I’m tempted to think, because it was true!”
In Outline, Faye, who is also a writer and who is also recently divorced, commits an act of self-erasure, a pseudo-religious withdrawal. Loosened of self-stabilizing descriptors—wife, mother—Faye approaches the world clean. While in Athens to teach a class in creative writing, what she might have to offer her students is rarely reported; what’s on the page is what’s given back. Rhythm replaces plot progression, and the book becomes the sea, a tide of conversations with strangers whose tendency is for self-revealing monologues. The surprises arrive when what light these self-revelations throw off comes to shape Faye’s consciousness. In these moments we glimpse the mind behind the page.
Outline is a startling novel, and it won kudos from literary critics everywhere, but when Transit landed in 2017—a sequel—it looked a little like Cusk was capitalizing on a moment, stretching what had felt like an urgent, original approach—a bolt from the blue—past its limits, in pursuit of a higher page count and greater impact, perhaps to rival the fattest auto-fiction on the market, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume self-excoriating novel, My Struggle.
Transit was funnier than its predecessor, but less surprising. What about the scene in the hair salon with the slapstick ending? What about all the kids crying at the end? Worst of all, Faye falls in love! For a novel sequence about narrative breakdown, it seemed as if an awful lot was happening.
So when it was announced that a third book would be published to complete what is now billed, retroactively, as “The Outline Trilogy,” it seemed likely that what had begun as a shocking, anti-narrative meditation on drift, would end up telling the same old story of redemption and renewal through suffering, that we’ve heard before. Nothing new, after all. Just the new normal.
Kudos, thank goodness, is something else.
“If you were unfamiliar with the political situation,” Cusk writes, “you might think you were witnessing not the machinations of a democracy but the final surrender of personal consciousness into the public domain.” Cusk has already spent two novels and a memoir depicting the slipperiness of personal consciousness. What she does in Kudos that is capital-N New is to walk this consciousness into the public square, right now. Not only does it begin in the middle of things and end in the middle of things, it’s about the middle of things. England is drowning in yard signs—Leave! Remain!—and the world is losing its mind! The conversations go macro, analyzing those values—like truth, justice and equality—that underpin Western society, those values that today look less stable and more susceptible to collapse than ever. Turns out, no one’s better at describing the current international crisis of disunion than a divorced woman.
“My older son had once made a copy of that painting on the wall,” Faye says, referring to a reproduction of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, which depicts the severed head of Saint John served on a silver platter—one solution to the issue of gender inequality. She’s out to dinner with her publisher and her publisher’s friend. All three of them are divorced. Faye is, to their astonishment, remarried. Their conversation involves some commiserating over the vengefulness of former lovers, a vengefulness the women have had a tendency to reciprocate and, on occasion, to provoke. Faye is looking at the painting. “My older son had once made a copy of that painting on the wall, except that he had left out all the detail and merely blocked in the forms and the spatial relationships between them. What was interesting, I said, was that without those details and the story to which they were associated, the painting became a study not of murderousness but of the complexity of love.”
The same could be said of these novels.
Later, Faye’s on the phone with her son. He misses her. “You can’t tell your story to everybody,” she says, trying to calm him down after a dramatic night. “Maybe you can only tell it to one person.” It would seem Faye is the person to whom you can tell it, and the person to whom everybody does. She listens, we listen, and the book moves on.
In the final pages, Faye abandons society for the sea. Relieved of the burden of listening, restored to a greater body, she is briefly a deity.
“The point was that this darkness,” Cusk writes in Aftermath, “this darkness and disorganization were not mere negation, mere absence. They were both aftermath and prelude. (…) Civilization, order, meaning, belief: these were not sunlit peaks to be reached by a steady climb. They were built and then they fell, were built and fell again or were destroyed. The darkness, the disorganization that succeeded them had their own existence, their own integrity; were betrothed to civilization, as sleep is betrothed to activity.”
Cusk dims the lights. The waves fall and rise.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pp