This short, sharp, compulsively readable book completes a trilogy that has won Rachel Cusk her share of kudos — in the original sense, as a character explains, connoting “the broader concept of recognition or acclaim.” Like the earlier volumes, “Outline” and “Transit,” this one features a narrator, Faye, a British writer and divorced mother of two children — like Cusk, whose memoir of her acrimonious divorce, “Aftermath,” earned her, perhaps, more opprobrium than plaudits from British critics.
The trilogy concluding with “Kudos” seems something of an aftermath itself in that the writer, having had her say in a very big way, has fallen virtually silent. Her story instead is composed almost entirely of what the people she encounters have to say, conversations and interviews that mostly become monologues. And these speeches, which seem to unfold naturally, are actually brilliant, perfectly controlled performances through which Faye — quoting and paraphrasing — travels from point to point, creating a narrative where none, in any conventional sense, exists.
Like “Outline,” “Kudos” begins with Faye in an airplane on her way to a literary event, with a seatmate all too eager to unburden himself. As he assumes “the genial mask of the raconteur,” Faye has the impression that “these were stories he’d told before and liked to tell. … The skill, I saw, lay in skirting close enough to what appeared to be the truth without allowing what you actually felt about it to regain its power over you.”
In the course of the literary festival, which takes place in an unnamed seaside city that is terribly hot, Faye is treated to disquisitions from other writers, her editor, her publisher, a young man who guides the “delegates” from place to place, her translator and, most comically, interviewers who exhaust all their time talking about themselves.
There is something almost surreal, and ultimately funny, about how one character after another meeting Faye has definite opinions on questions of interest to her — about freedom, illusion, power, literary ambition, familial and marital relations (everyone is divorced) — and an uncanny ability to articulate them. And in the speech of each of them is Cusk’s neat prose, conjuring a life in a few words (“Our children and grandchildren come to stay, she said, always with their great mountains of plastic equipment and their special foods and electronic games”) or nudging them, as if naturally, to dubious aperçus (“the one thing you can say about people … is that they’ll only free themselves if freedom is their own interest”).
Along with recognition or acclaim, “kudos” in its original form is “suggestive of something which might be falsely claimed by someone else.” Whatever her interlocutors might say, it is Faye’s story, to Rachel Cusk’s honor and glory.
Ellen Akins is a Wisconsin-based writer and writing teacher. ellenakins.com
By: Rachel Cusk.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 240 pages, $26.