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book review
  • Kudos
  • By Rachel Cusk
  • HarperCollins Publishers, 240 pages, $26

The final instalment of Rachel Cusk’s trilogy of autofictional novels is titled Kudos, a word that typically means credit for an achievement or, simply, congratulations. It’s the only novel in the trilogy in which the title appears very conspicuously in the book’s plot. A college student explains to the narrator – the middle-aged novelist Faye – that he’s been given the Kudos award at his university, which recognizes the most outstanding male and female student. He’s as baffled by the muddled etymology – kudos, a Greek noun, seems to have been made plural retroactively – as he is by the need for two prizes. Why must “the fact of gender (be) retained beyond that of excellence?” he wonders. Shouldn’t there only be a single prize?

The fact of gender is everywhere in Cusk’s quietly staggering and intellectually entrancing trilogy, which began with Outline (2014) and continued with Transit (2017). Calling it a central theme might feel a bit diminishing; the brilliance of these novels is partly their radical irreducibility. But in Kudos, the overlap between book title and prize title can’t help but feel like a conceptual hint. The novel is preoccupied with the question of who succeeds in life and why, and how – such as the college student’s award – gender will affect the way that credit is given and taken.

If you’ve read the earlier books in the trilogy, you’ll be familiar with Cusk’s ruminative extensions of thought, usually relayed through stretches of indirect monologue. Her writing is silvery and precise, navigated by elegant syntax that steers its speaker toward revelations of great depth. I find that those who are lukewarm on her style are too quick to compare her to Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard and see her books as free-flowing explorations in everyday minutiae. I see Cusk’s project as quite different; although she allows herself space for meandering, her approach is artful and controlled. In certain moments, she achieves the sort of emotional clarity that can make intimate personal experience take on the weight of ancient wisdom.

Both of the trilogy’s earlier books were shortlisted for the Giller Prize (although the London-based Cusk hasn’t lived in Canada since she was a young child). In terms of form and content, Kudos feels a lot like Outline. Both have Faye visiting cities in Southern Europe: In Outline, she’s in Athens teaching a writing course; in Kudos, she’s attending a literary festival in an unnamed city in Portugal. They are bookends to Transit, which sees a more sedentary Faye renovating her flat in London and rebuilding a broken home. And both are concerned with marriage and separation as personal topic and political theme. Outline positions the narrator as recently divorced while the EU is still together. Kudos is post-Brexit; Faye has remarried and Britain has voted to leave.

Rachel Cusk.

But more intriguing is the way Cusk’s take on gender gets increasingly cynical in the final novel. When, in the earlier book, one of Greece’s pre-eminent lesbian poets speaks of “the disgust that exists indelibly between men and women,” Cusk dangles a thread that she weaves much more conspicuously through Kudos’s spine. Beyond the Portuguese writers’ festival is a traditional country, dominated by men. A character suggests the famous custard tarts, originally made by Hieronymite nuns, and to which the Portuguese – especially the men – are addicted, “symbolized something about the country’s attitude to women.” We hear from a feminist art critic who believes “it’s impossible for a woman to live without illusion, because the world will simply snuff her out.” And we get a harrowing day in the life of a single mother whose ex-husband has claimed the car; her subsequent struggle to get her kid to school and cycle from job to job in 40 C heat takes on a tragicomic tone.

Yet, it’s in the novel’s clever intertextuality we’re afforded the most searing insight on how gender impacts success. Kudos positions Faye as the author of a book that contains scenarios identical to some in Outline. This means when a male interviewer lectures Faye on “negative literature,” a form he thinks unfairly imposes its cruelty on the world, his speech echoes in the amphitheatre of Cusk’s own career. Two of Cusk’s autobiographical books, A Life’s Work and Aftermath, were widely disparaged for their candour and pessimism. Critics suggested there was something tasteless in their honesty – that Cusk had revealed too much, gone too far and created work that was effectively artless.

What if those books had been written by a man? At a festival luncheon in Kudos, a novelist called Sophia raves about a male author who’s received international renown for writing about the banalities of his life. He’s exposed, and perhaps compromised, his entire family in the process, although only people from his “small country” will recognize this. The writer’s name is Luis, but both the details of his career, along with his “great moody face,” will remind the reader of Knausgaard. “Though of course if he were a woman,” Sophia continues in a whisper, “he would be scorned for his honesty, or at the very least no one would care.”

Which brings us back to the Kudos award for excellence; despite appearances, are Cusk and Knausgaard not actually eligible for the same kind of renown? It’s this sort of insidious, almost invisible inequality that explains why the college student’s mother is in favour of the double prize, believing that without the caveat of gender, “there was no way of ensuring that excellence would remain in a moral framework and not be put in the service of evil.” While Faye thinks, “far from preventing evil, the mutual distinctness of male and female constitutes a unique susceptibility to it.”

If we have any doubts about how ominously we should interpret these perceptions, we need only look to the novel’s final scene, in which Faye wanders alone to the city’s beach for a swim. What happens isn’t literally violent, but it pits man against woman in such a cruelly bleak way that the image seems to pulse with awakened evil.

It’s a fearless and brazenly dark end to an unforgettable trilogy, which, in its final instalment, turns a critical eye on the way we read and then appraise a book’s value. I’m not the first person to suggest this, but these novels are among the most important written in this century so far.

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