When There’s Nothing Left to Burn, Set Yourself on Fire: On Rachel Cusk’s ‘Kudos’

May 24, 2018 | 4 books mentioned 5 min read

The third and last installment of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy opens on familiar ground—in the air, where the first book began. Again our narrator Faye finds herself seated next to a man. He’s just as chatty as the first guy (as if any of her characters aren’t born soliloquists), but he’s far less comfortable. In fact, he’s struggling to get his long legs to fit in front of him. This is how it must have felt to write the book’s teaser copy.

A woman writer visits a Europe in flux, where questions of personal and political identity are rising to the surface and the trauma of change is opening up new possibilities of loss and renewal.

A woman writer? A Europe in flux? I imagine a feminist superhero-cum-Brexit blockbuster. Like a seat in economy, the marketing synopsis is a space too standardized to accommodate all, and the Outline series became an unlikely “hit” (as much as the word can apply to an unapologetically literary novel) for being so uncategorizable. Autofiction? Maybe, but it doesn’t subvert or turn away from more conventional books as much as it combusts them. The word is Cusk’s actually, and not even her own oeuvre is spared.

When I mentioned Cusk to a British colleague, it was as if we were talking about two different writers. I thought at first it was cultural (us Yankees being so distinct as to demand a redesigned cover; in fact I came to Outline only for its beautiful U.K. design, and would likely have never read for the notebook paper-inspired U.S. version). But it turns out she’d just stopped reading Cusk when I’d started. She knew Cusk as she was in a former life: a novelist and memoirist who brought stylized, aphoristic, and acerbic (edging on bitter) prose to the topics of motherhood, marriage, and family.

covercovercoverIt’s hard to describe Outline, Transit, and Kudos to the uninitiated without calling it a series of short stories. And perhaps that’s what they are, except the tales are spoken to Faye in real-time (who’s now at a literary conference in an unnamed European country) by protagonists who are all impossibly eloquent, open, and earnest. Their voices can come close to converging—not unlike the characters of Anomalisa, whose lines are all read by Tom Noonan—but they’re saved by their stories’ distinctness and depth. And, of course, Cusk’s brilliance. If she’s found her novelistic structure it’s because it allows her to overwhelm the reader with profound insight only to, a few pages later, reach new heights on an entirely new topic. In just the first third of the slim novel, we hear full-fledged stories from the following (insert the most tepid of spoiler warnings): the man on the plane who’s had to bury the cancer-ridden family dog; Faye’s publisher who delights in having found the market’s sweet spot (writers that are ostensibly literary but actually readable); a deadpan author who’d been trapped in a writers retreat designed to give the villa’s owner a sense of culture; and an interviewer who admits to trying to provoke Faye’s envy at an earlier encounter, before detailing her own jealousy of a friend’s gilded marriage (this contains possibly the most flagrant offense of burying the lede I’ve ever read, which I won’t reveal for its narrative virtuosity).

If it doesn’t sound like Cusk is inventing anything new, it’s because she isn’t. These are fundamentally the same narratives she’s built a career on, except they’re shrunken, distilled, and told not by her but to. What she’s doing, in other words, is what Faye’s publisher suggests is the key to a book’s (commercial) success:

‘People enjoy combustion!’ he exclaimed.

In fact, he went on, you could see the whole history of capitalism as a history of combustion…Whether or not it looks like preservation,’ he said, ‘it is in fact the desire to use the essence until every last drop of it is gone. Miss Austen made a good fire,’ he said, ‘but in the case of my own successful authors it is the concept of literature itself that is being combusted.’

His eureka moment is sparked by Faye’s own metaphor: “In England, I said, people liked to live in old houses that had been thoroughly refurbished with modern conveniences, and I wondered whether the same principle might be applied to novels.” Indeed.

If Cusk is explaining (or explaining away) her own feats, she’s also asking us what modern conveniences her new genre has wrought. We get a generous clue in the title—rather, when it appears in the book. Faye is being led on a tour by Hermann, an unusual young man who talks about an enormous architectural snafu, public space, his mother, and gender dynamics before this:

To return to the subject of the college’s award, he said, the name of they had chosen for it was ‘Kudos’. As I was probably aware, the Greek word ‘kudos’ was a singular noun that had become plural by a process of back formation: a kudo on its own had never actually existed…[it also suggests] something which might be falsely claimed by someone else. For instance, he had heard his mother complaining to someone on the phone the other day that the board of directors took the kudos for the festival’s success while she did all the work.

If you take Cusk for a political writer, which wouldn’t be wrong, there are plenty of ways to render the passage into concepts of commonality, identity, and appropriation. The stories in Kudos have a lot to say about literature’s use and misuse in the 21st century, and, more so, women’s. Her splashes of second-wave feminism are not epiphanies, but they’re fresh enough in the context of a literary world busy on succeeding schools. We hear of lives ruined by society’s imbalances, carried by a tone somewhere between call-to-action and eulogy. (The book ends with a haunting image of a man looking at Faye “with black eyes full of malevolent delight while the golden jet poured unceasingly forth from him.”) This all may be what Cusk has chosen to fill her form with in the finale, but what’s made the series from the beginning is that form itself.

Whether through fiction or memoir, her work has always been personal, continuously illuminating the questions of her own life. The Outline trilogy is no different, just in its own combusted way. And in the kudos passage, we finally have a sketch of the chemistry behind it. To recap: “kudos” is something that appears plural but is truly singular. It’s also taking what is not yours. In Kudos, we have many (barely differentiated) voices all written by the same hand. We also have an outline of the narrator, a first-person built on the stories of strangers—in other words, an exchange of narrative ownership.

If the nature of identity has us cast on other people, seeing ourselves only by how we look on each of them—like kudos, a singular noun becoming plural—Cusk reverses the process. What’s taken for granted in any first-person novel or memoir is now suddenly missing, and what we get in return is a revelation: a character defined as the reflective surface all others cast themselves onto. And why not start outside in? As Cusk says, “A kudo on its own had never actually existed.”

is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. He's been previously published in Los Angeles Review of Books, VICE, McSweeney's, The Rumpus & more. He works at Meural, runs the literary bookstore 0s&1s, and founded the satire magazines The Neu Jorker and Paul Ryan. Find him on Twitter at @ailipstein.

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