Freedom — its boundaries, its fantasies — is the provenance of “Kudos,” the new and final novel of Rachel Cusk’s austere, critically acclaimed triptych, following closely on the heels of “Outline” and “Transit.” These crystalline and exquisitely elliptical works have helped define the genre of autofiction, self-referential novels in which protagonist and author blur and merge.
About halfway through “Kudos,” the narrator, a writer named Faye, happens upon an older woman while waiting in line for dinner at a gala. As is typical of a Cuskian interlocutor, the woman, a literary type named Gerta, is no sooner encountered than she begins to speak at length, an enigmatic, far-reaching monologue encompassing history, identity, family, beauty, fate and, perhaps especially, the concept of freedom. “It may be the case,” Gerta tells Faye, “that it is only when it is too late to escape that we see we were free all along.”
The novels follow Faye, who, like Cusk, is a writer, divorced, and the mother of two children, as she goes about the deceptively pedestrian business of her life: teaching, attending literary events and dinner parties, remodeling a London fixer-upper, visiting with friends. Traditional elements of plot are rejected. Instead, Faye simply meets people — billionaires, immigrant workers, students, ex-lovers, even a dead ringer for writer Karl Ove Knausgaard — who inevitably begin to speak. Their stories, filtered through Cusk’s coolly detached, narcotically gorgeous writing, attain a kind of exalted impersonality. Although some readers may bristle at Faye’s narrative reticence — she comes at us obliquely, bent by the gravity of others’ voices — hers is a cruelly clear-sighted descriptive prowess capable of stripping her subjects bare. Like a pane of protective glass, the stark transparency of her prose contains — if only just barely — a beautiful and deadly animal.
Fellow writers are the unwitting victims of that finely honed awareness in “Kudos.” The book opens, like 2014’s “Outline,” on a plane. Faye is travelling to an unnamed Southern European capital, recognizable as Lisbon, to partake in a literary conference. As in the previous novels, setting is a mere staging ground for the densely unfurling stories she elicits from others. The world of “Kudos” is one marred by fissure and the existential negotiations it compels. Many of the people she encounters at the conference trail lives that have been upended, often by divorce. They live somewhere between the fiction of the life they wanted to believe in and the reduced reality of their present circumstances. “A degree of self-deception,” a publisher tells Faye, “was an essential part of the talent for living.” How those deceptions manifest in human life — most often as vertiginous, even unwanted freedoms — animates the novel.
As with much recent British fiction, most notably Ali Smith’s “Autumn,” Brexit is conspicuously present here, often anxiously foregrounded. “You British are thinking of asking for a divorce,” Gerta says. She believes it will be a great mistake, though, she adds, “perhaps it always is.” Much like the people Faye meets who find their post-separation lives arid and brittle, England, Cusk seems to suggest, may discover it is even less free alone than when hemmed in by its ostensible obligations. Registers of loss and disillusion are blended, from the individual to the national and back again. The resultant aura of precariousness feels intensely and unmistakably contemporary.
That sense of the hazards of contemporaneity — anomie, technological apprehension, the anxiety of travel — is one of the great mimetic feats of “Kudos.” Cusk shares something of Don DeLillo’s ambient dread, though she sands the edges of her paranoia until they are smooth and contoured. Still, there is an undertow of nervy disquiet. Faye speaks of a quality that “could almost be called suspense,” one that is “generated by the belief that our lives were governed by mystery, when in fact that mystery was merely the extent of our self-deception over the fact of our own mortality.” As in no other book in the trilogy, the intimation of death is present in “Kudos,” the little deaths that lurk behind glowing screens and talking faces, behind art and automation.
To ascertain meaning from such powerfully ambiguous novels requires a measure of readerly improvisation. Is Cusk implying that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t with regard to the entanglements of our lives? That freedom itself is merely an inverted, but no less constricting, entanglement? She does not say. Like all great art, this novel consistently eludes us in leaps of grace and daring, though never without suggesting the rudiments of a path, a new way forward.
During an awkward dinner at the conference, a writer named Linda tells Faye of her experience reading the now-unfashionable German writer Hermann Hesse. One of his characters, she says, is sitting by a river, observing the interplay of shadow and light over the water, when suddenly “he realizes that he’s looking at something he can’t describe and that no one could describe using language. And he sort of gets the feeling that what he can’t describe might be the true reality.” That “something” has coursed through the narrative tissue of the Faye trilogy, a clean, cold energy that braces and confounds. Modern life has rarely been articulated with such compression and epigrammatic precision. These are texts, finally, to read and revisit, lean, oracular, irreducible.
As “Kudos” concludes, Faye swims out into the ocean, suspended in the swell of the waves. Looking back, she sees a man who has begun to ostentatiously urinate into the water, “a fat, glittering jet, like a rope of gold he was casting into the sea.” Armed only with her sustained ability to notice — the very engine of Cusk’s towering literary achievement — Faye neutralizes his obscenity: “I looked into his cruel, merry eyes, and I waited for him to stop.”
Illingworth is a writer in Southern California. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Paris Review, and the Times Literary Supplement.