Sea Change

Kudos BY Rachel Cusk. Faber & Faber. Hardcover, 240 pages. .

The cover of Kudos

FAYE HAS JUST BOARDED an airplane when Kudos, the third novel in a trilogy about her middle life, begins. She boarded, after lunch with a billionaire, another airplane at the start of the first novel, Outline. She was reading a spam e-mail from an astrology service predicting “a major transit . . . in [her] sky” when the second, Transit, began. Passenger flight explains these incredible novels. At first, for several pages, it’s hard to relax. Why must we be in this stifled, banal environment, with no room to think? How long do we have to sit here? The air cools, dims. Suddenly we are on a higher plane.

Transcendence is the only explanation, because what happens in the novels’ time is strictly material, grounded in an urbanity that seems predictable until nothing really “happens.” Faye, over the course of the trilogy, teaches writing for money, applies unsuccessfully for a loan, renovates the house she can afford, goes for lunches, dinners, walks, dyes her hair a new shade of brown. A writer herself, she “makes appearances” at literary events to promote her work, but we aren’t shown these appearances. Mostly she listens while other people tell their stories, interrupting but seldom to make the stories clearer—more accurate and pure—in her retelling.

The author of Faye’s life is Rachel Cusk, who since the age of twenty-six has been publishing books—mostly fiction—every two years on average and is now fifty-one. Her first memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (2001), tested the market for female fatalism. ( Instructions given to the babysitter, likened to preflight safety demonstrations, have “a certain pointlessness.”) Her third, Aftermath (2012), a treacherous account of separation and divorce from her second husband, the father of her two daughters, became a more cautionary tale about ambition for feminists. (Cusk’s first marriage lasted less than a year—a scrapped draft.) Reviewers mostly hated her for writing it, perhaps because it evinced what William Gass called the pettiest of human desires, the desire to be believed, even as she declined, in passive and high-flown language, to say what happened. Wordings like a “vow of obedience was broken” make her sound adulterous even before she starts relating to Clytemnestra. I read it with defensive intentions, sure of my taste for the vain and overstated, but failed to anticipate her personal definition of tragedy; upon realizing that the epigraph, taken from Aeschylus, was familiar because Bobby Kennedy quoted it the night Martin Luther King Jr. died, I just thought to myself: Unbelievable.

Before the release of Outline, in 2014, Cusk gave an interview to The Guardian in which she said that the consequences of Aftermath had been “creative death.” “For almost three years, she could not write, she could not read,” reported the interviewer. “It took two years to hit upon Outline’s outline.” Serious critics, enthralled, cited these two or three years of rebirth, usually before praising the new novel’s refutation of “story” or “narrative.” At one point, Faye hears a man’s account of his first two marriages and says, sounding more factual than judgmental, “this was a story in which I sensed the truth was being sacrificed to the narrator’s desire to win.” As a matter of fact, the time elapsed between the publication, on March 1, 2012, of Aftermath and the publisher’s announcement, on December 2, 2013, of a new Rachel Cusk novel, Outline, was twenty-one months. To have done what she did in that time is a feat more compelling than any defense she could offer for her memoirs.

“Cusk has torn up the rule book,” wrote Monica Ali in her New York Times review of Transit, “and in the process created a work of . . . great originality.” The first rule to go must have been the one about ignoring your critics. If Faye has no persona, that is how much persona would be left after excising, from a copy of Cusk’s public image, everything readers deplored. The clever, escapist heroine of Cusk’s third novel, The Country Life, wants to become “a pair of eyes in a jar”—presciently, a description of Faye. Writers have to improve themselves somewhat to become narrators and/or protagonists, but I have never read a work of so-called autofiction where the most fictional element, most changed from life, is the very person who’s supposed to represent the author; where the name is changed to protect her, her more than anyone. In Outline, Faye appears contre-jour—“against the day(light)”—as she would in a documentary, an anonymous source. She speaks as little as possible, with the cagey, barely-here affect of someone in a witness-protection program, moving slowly in European cities without her children. When asked what kinds of things she writes, she says it’s hard to explain. I would call it selfless autobiography, which doesn’t make sense.

Familiarity threatens in Transit, as Faye resettles on a London street where an old lover lives and bourgeois neighbors dine enviably, and friends ring up with distracting, fictive advice: “Whatever you do,” says one, “don’t have a relationship with your builder.” Of more concern are an elderly couple who live below her—in the basement—and loathe her for reasons unsurmised. Her sons call them “the trolls” because, she thinks, they are still “young enough to see morality in terms of character . . . as the fairy tales they’d read in childhood had taught them to do.” (They are also old enough to know that haters online are called “trolls,” whether or not they are definitively “trolling.”) The trolls provoke poor Faye into giving an impassioned speech to a man while on a date, saying that “evil could only be overturned by the absolute sacrifice of self,” a problematic feat since “nothing could give greater pleasure to your enemies.” The man replies, as he looks at the dinner menu, that it sounds like she’s got the situation under control. Is he making a joke?

But in Kudos she is superb, undefeated. Cusk allows her narrator’s preternatural reserve to take on the air of fine, mystic judgment. Faye walks into a hotel bar and hears, from an executive at her publishing house, that she looks “nothing like” her author photo, doing away with identity, anxiety. The novel’s funniest lines, delivered secondhand by another, more popular woman novelist: “Why should her photograph be accurate? So that she could be identified by the police?” Faye wonders whether it is evil to grant the “wrong person” recognition. She is interviewed by a young but bald critic:

The question he wished to discuss with me, he said, was the question of whether I believed there was a . . . kind of honesty . . . to which no moral bias could be ascribed, that is interested neither in debunking nor in reforming, that has no compass of its own and can describe evil as dispassionately as virtue without erring on the side of one or the other, that is as pure and reflective as water or glass. . . . Could a spiritual value be attached to the mirror itself, so that by passing dispassionately through evil it proved its own virtue, its own incorruptibility?

Before she can answer, her editor’s assistant—a woman whose previous job as an airline stewardess comes in handy—announces that time is up and takes him away as Faye sits silent, queenly. She speaks a little more now and to more people, though not to her peers, whom she can’t quite see as her equals, so that her silences, like this one, feel more performative or simply pointed. It gives me the chilly, perverse feeling of Janet Malcolm sitting quietly on the couch in Psychoanalysis while the shrink talks and talks, utterly squandering his anonymity.

Occasionally, the interlocutors speak outside of quotation marks but in first person, lapses that in the first novel seemed possibly accidental or capricious but now seem purposive. First person is not, for instance, given to the critic above, but it belongs naturally to the blonde female presenter who is to interview Faye for television. She looks to Faye like a “studious princess” and talks to fill time while the male technicians try in vain to get the sound or something working. “She was hoping our conversation would focus on the problem of recognition for female writers and artists: perhaps I had some thoughts . . .” Faye begins without having any thoughts, and ten pages later the younger woman has said it all:

In my own case, she said, I have fought to occupy a position where I can . . . adjust the terms of the debate to an extent by promoting the work of women I find interesting. But increasingly, she said, this position feels like I am standing on a small rock in the ocean that is getting even smaller by the minute as the water rises. There has been no territory marked out, she said, and so there is no place where I can take a step and find myself still on dry land. It perhaps remains the case, she said, that for a woman to have a territory, she must live as [Louise] Bourgeois’s spider, unless she is prepared to camp on male territory and abide by its terms.

A feminist novelist praises Luis—a vaguely Portuguese Knausgaard, the way Louis in Transit was a vaguely French Knausgaard—for his work’s enraptured attention to domesticity and daily life, that is to say, perhaps, his successful invasion of what used to be no man’s land. “I write about what I know, Luis said, shrugging and looking over our heads at something in the distance.” Writers always say that. The effect is the point: An “I” becomes interchangeable in a modernist way, a little like in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, except that what we are hearing is speech—not thought for oneself, thought that acts on others—whether direct or in paraphrase. All of it sounds more or less alike, a kind of elite, timeless demotic you won’t hear anywhere else.

IN AFTERMATH, Cusk went to the dentist for a tooth extraction necessitated by the “crooked shape of the root,” which has “grown at a right angle to itself halfway down,” signifying moral responsibility:

Why had it assumed that shape? It was difficult to know, the dentist said. It may have been bent by the pressure of other forces, but there appeared to be an aspect of fate to it too, the response of its own nature to the available conditions. To an extent it had simply chosen to go in that direction. One could not entirely blame the positioning of the other teeth, the spatial properties of the jaw, the condition of the gums; no, the tooth itself would have to answer for its doomed character. It had been in some ineluctable sense wayward, and now it had put itself beyond reach. A straighter root, however diseased, could have been redeemed. Superficially the condition of this one was not so bad, but form is destiny; form, not content, that which is shaped and therefore shapes its own fate.

Six years later, in Kudos, Faye observes another woman’s features:

She turned her head, still smiling, and looked down the hill towards the city, where cars were moving in swarms along the roads beside the river. The distinctive shape of her nose, which from the front slightly marred her fine-featured face, in profile attained beauty: it was upturned and snub-ended and had a deep V in its bridge, as though someone had drawn it with a certain license, to make a point about the relationship between destiny and form.

Aristotle said in his Poetics that felicity for metaphor is a sign of genius, genius entailing the ability to draw out likeness from unlike things. Cusk, prone to both simile and conceit, might at one point have been gratified by this notion. But one of the Greek words—ευφυία—associated with genius has another meaning: “a natural goodness of shape.” Which is to say, form. Cusk has taken on what Gass calls the artist’s task, to make “something inherently valuable in itself.” Gass believes that form is the artist’s priority, and says, “I am happy this is an old-fashioned view. I am happy it is Greek.”

Cusk writes to define her own aesthetic. On page two of Kudos, we see from the plane’s window what she’s doing:

Outside a haze stood over the flat grey landscape so that it seemed to merge with the overcast sky in horizontal bands of such subtle variation that it almost resembled the sea.

Subtlety. Variations. A form that almost resembles formlessness allows her to do the hardest thing in writing, irrespective of genius: to say what is there. As Rhoda sighs in The Waves: “‘Like’ and ‘like’ and ‘like’—but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?” Trying to define Cuskian, I think of the painter Agnes Martin’s Buddhist phase in Taos, New Mexico, and the composer Éliane Radigue’s Buddhist phase in California and France, phases that both coincidentally began circa 1974. Martin conceived of her project as an empty beach, “a world without objects, without interruption . . . or obstacle.” Radigue pictured “a mountain turning into a cup.”

KUDOS, in anecdotes told to Faye to give the novel its point, is the name of a school prize given annually to one male and one female student; later, in an atypical usage, it is something a working mother sees her male colleagues get in her stead. Cusk concerns herself with ancient binaries, especially the gender one, which to the fundamentally Christian mind is responsible for all manner of creation. Form is thus female. Content is male. Fate, said Cusk to the novelist Heidi Julavits once, is a “female system of self-deception” (as Julavits neatly reworded it), a view that does not seem very Greek, though nor is it English. Child readers of the Brontës learn that fate means everything given or assigned at birth, that is to say class and genetics and sex and above all location, mixed with time, and so I “believe in” fate the way I “believe in” weather. I believe in going outside despite warnings. I am not sure, as Cusk is, that women need power or should want it.

Legal victories are apparently for men, leaving Faye’s female accomplices—her editor and her translator, both divorced, proud—to raise their wineglasses and clink to being “outlaws.” (Cusk’s second husband was a civil-rights lawyer.) Faye still seeks the redemptive touch of justice, drawing out both the spiritual and transactional senses of redemptive, even as she wonders whether the prospect of equitable living is a “personal illusion.” She has remarried, as one journalist notes with inappropriate surprise. She hears stories that prove no one knows what to do once they’re free. She does not want to share or accept the implications of her given name, which we hear once per novel, near the end, as if she is being shaken from a late-morning dream. “Faye,” her son says on the phone in Kudos. “Will you just listen?” Listening is female.

She hangs up the phone and goes, in the final pages, to a beach where men roam in orange light and piss in the sea, leaving an impermanent mark in the absence of territory. She takes off her clothes, a first. It is always frightening when a woman gets into water at the end of a book—remember Edna Pontellier, wanting to swim too far out, or Rhoda ready to leap, or poor Julie d’Etange—but no one doubts that Faye has strong arms and legs, and, in the event of catastrophe, would save herself.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer living in California.