Towards the end of Rachel Cusk’s new novel Kudos, the narrator, a novelist, is interviewed by three journalists in a plush hotel in an old European city. The narrator has previously appeared in both Outline and Transit, the first two titles in this provocative and innovative literary trilogy, and she will be known to the eagle-eyed reader only as Faye. (I spotted her name once in Kudos’s 240 pages.) In this last instalment, Faye is attending a literary conference in an unidentified country that sounds a lot like Portugal, and apparently her fame as an English author is such that the local media is paying attention.
The first journalist begins his interview with a lengthy wind-up that addresses the issue of honesty in literature—Cusk relates this second hand in her inimitable form of reported dialogue—but he is never allowed to hear the answer to his extenuated question; he takes so long that his allotted time runs out and he is ushered away before the author ever has a chance to answer. Our narrator is then whisked into a makeshift studio where a television host delivers a detailed explanation of her own difficulties establishing a career in a sexist environment and her thoughts on the themes that female artists chose for their work. Meanwhile, her crew fiddles with cables. They never do solve their sound problem so the interview is abandoned.
The third journalist is more lucky; he’s a print reporter who does actually manage to ask Faye a question. But, like some politician coached about getting on message as fast as possible, Faye shifts the answer away from herself within a few sentences and begins talking about her teenage son. By this stage, the reader can only feel that Cusk is having a quiet but prolonged joke at both the narrator’s and the reader’s expense: Faye will never talk about Faye.
With this trilogy, Cusk has turned her denial of the autobiographical imperative in first-person narration into an exquisite if occasionally frustrating art form. She is using a literary device, sometimes known as the peripheral narrator, that does have its precedents. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby tells us little about himself. Another Nick, Nick Jenkins in Anthony Powell’s multi-volume A Dance to the Music of Time series, takes self-effacement to still further extremes, offering the most cursory information about his own circumstances as he observes a parade of colourful characters in British high society in the twentieth century. What is novel about Cusk’s work, however, is that the device is so thoroughly woven into what are, to judge from what we know of Cusk’s own biography, distinctly autobiographical themes.
Cusk is herself a divorced parent and successful novelist, as is her narrator who repeatedly encounters other working mothers—and a few fathers—who discuss the sometimes troubling, sometimes poignant reactions of their children to their various separations. These Europeans also make elliptical references to another source of instability, that of Brexit: one writer who the narrator meets suggests it’s a bit like the turkeys voting for Christmas. And, in the midst of all this, the characters also consider how they are shaping their own stories as they tell them: in short, they reflect on what it is to make art. That television host with the technical problems refers specifically to the art of Louise Bourgeois, a successful (and real) visual artist who depicts the mother as spider rather than Madonna. Kudos is a novel about what it means to be woman, mother, and artist in a shaky world.
In the trilogy’s first novel, Outline, the recently divorced Faye travels to Greece where she teaches creative writing and listens to lengthy monologues from each person she meets. Here, Cusk’s method was a revelation: meaning floated out of a series of deftly interwoven encounters that hinted at connections but never tied them off. In the second novel, Transit, that process bore heavy emotional fruit as Faye’s interlocutors increasingly reflected on the way adults treat children, in particular the children of divorce. By the time we reach Kudos, however, the style is threatening to become mere manner.
As Faye attends a literary festival somewhere in Germany before proceeding to the conference in what we guess is Portugal, she meets dozens of people. The novel is no longer a series of interconnected encounters with distinctive characters but rather a survey of the literary crowd: most of the characters are other writers, journalists, publishers, and the like. Only once is the indirect dialogue used to create a unique voice, that of the almost pathologically voluble teenage Hermann, who acts as tour guide during the first festival, an event organized by his mother. His monologue conjures up one of the novel’s most poignant figures as Cusk briefly abandons her characteristic distance to let voice and character merge for emotional effect. Hermann is an only child whose father died before his birth and whose mother remains single, and he confesses to Faye his youthful but highly sensitive considerations of their intense mother-son relationship.
Others certainly emerge as distinctive and sometimes sympathetic characters—there is the accommodating translator, Sophia, resigned to her role as handmaiden to writerly egos, personified by the aloof literary star, Luís, whom she is anxiously courting—but many seem like little more than satirical digs at the literary establishment. The reader can’t but help wonder: Who is that self-satisfied Irish writer who has sold his soul to the bestseller list? Or the earnest American author Linda, so hurtfully puzzled by the demands of the literary life? She provides a satirical account of a writers’ retreat run by an Italian countess in her castle, but the effect of the humour is distancing: one is as amused by poor Linda’s incomprehension as by the pretentions of the place described.
Similarly, when yet another interviewer tells Faye he has had a revelation—if he could only ask her one perfectly simple question perhaps he could achieve one of the mellifluous interchanges in which her novels specialize—you sense a joke at the expense of Cusk’s critics, who have noted that nobody actually talks the way her characters do. The journalist asks his banal question—what did Faye see on her way to the interview?—and inevitably her answer is never recorded. Unless we decide that all of Kudos is her answer.
Still, most readers of a novel are not persnickety critics and should not, therefore, be subjected to sharp rebuttals of criticisms of the author’s previous work. Nor, one hopes for Cusk’s sake, is every reader acquainted with the drubbing she took from the British media over her confessions about her divorce in her 2012 memoir entitled Aftermath. For all that Kudos may be the story of the oddly privileged life of a highly successful novelist, there is a powerful undercurrent of bitter retort in the book, both to journalists and to ex-husbands—the novel is filled with stories told by the female characters about the appalling behaviour of their exes and, in particular, the men’s attempts to turn the children against their mothers.
If Kudos rises above all this self-referential cleverness, it is because occasionally one gets a flash of what Cusk is actually risking here. A divorced mother and well-rewarded novelist herself, the Toronto-born writer, who lives in London and has made her career in the U.K., is a two-time Giller Prize nominee for Outline and Transit, has won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1993, and has been shortlisted for all the major British prizes. But prizes only applaud courage after the fact; the writer has to be brave alone in an empty room. In Kudos, Cusk is a writer openly remaking the novel’s form in a quest for honesty in storytelling, and a novelist wrestling with two themes: the role of the female artist and the role of the divorced parent. It is not because Cusk is deft, clever and—rather like her narrator—widely recognized and largely rewarded for previous work that Kudos is impressive. It is because the novelist is struggling.