Author(s): Rachel Cusk
Novel | 2018 Goldsmith's Prize short list | Read our reviews!
SHORTLISTED FOR THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE A woman on a plane listens to the stranger in the seat next to hers telling her the story of his life: his work, his marriage, and the harrowing night he has just spent burying the family dog. That woman is Faye, who is now on her way to Europe to promote the book she has just published. Once she reaches her destination, the conversations she has with the people she meets - about art, about family, about politics, about love, about sorrow and joy, about justice and injustice - are the most far-reaching questions human beings ask. These conversations, the last of them with her son, rise dramatically and majestically to a beautiful conclusion. Kudos completes Rachel Cusk's trilogy with overwhelming power. The trilogy is one of the great achievements in fiction.
The man next to me on the plane was so tall he couldn’t fit in his seat. His elbows jutted out over the armrests and his knees were jammed against the seat in front, so that the person in it glanced around in irritation every time he moved. The man twisted, trying to get himself into a comfortable, or at least less uncomfortable, position in which he could hold his book at an acceptable distance from his eyes, a distance about which he was either uncommonly fussy or which was dictated by the possibly narrow focal range of his spectacles. “Sorry,” he said. He explained that he needed to write a review of the book by the end of the week, that he was a bookseller with a small bookshop in a provincial town, and that he and his partner, the joint owners of the bookshop, felt obliged to produce a review each every week for inclusion in their digital newsletter. Some weeks were short on reading time, he explained, what with the demands of the bookshop and of what he termed, somewhat vaguely, family life, so he needed to take every opportunity he could to finish reading his current book, in this case Kudos by Rachel Cusk, reading even in circumstances hardly conducive to reading well, such as in cramped seats aboard what he termed fictional aircraft, a context that not only tended to indelibly dominate whatever activity was performed in it, especially the memory of that activity, even more so than the actual performance in what he called the present tense, using a literary term hardly appropriate to what I would term living in real time, memory being, after all, surely, he remarked, the primary mode of a book review, but also left one vulnerable to conversation with whatever stranger one found oneself sitting next to, quite intimately, for an extended period of time, a period of time which neither party to the conversation has the capacity to shorten. I asked him whether he thought that perhaps the random, or at least seemingly random, encounters with members of what might be politely termed the public might not be in some way enriching, and he visibly recoiled at my choice of word, so I repeated it, to gauge its effect, and I immediately understood his reaction. Well, yes, he thought that such encounters might be a way of not so much generating narrative as of generating whatever might take the place of narrative in a work of fiction from which narrative, the possibility of narrative and even the principle of narrative has been expunged. This was very much, he said, what Rachel Cusk had achieved in Kudos, the taking-away from the novel of those principles, or as many of them as possible, that are generally considered to comprise a novel: plot, narrative, characters, development, interiority, but which are really just a set of conventions by which what we think of as novels expend or release their energy, so to call it, without that energy achieving the potentials of fiction, namely to transfer the experience of awareness between two minds, so to call them, in other words, what we think of as the essentials of a novel are the very things that may well reduce the potency of the novel, and, conversely, he thought, if a writer, such as Cusk, managed, as she has with Kudos, to excise from the novel as many as possible of these, what he termed novelistic antics, the novel could become potentised, “austere and astringent,” he called it, cleansing our faculties and getting them to work properly, not just for the reading of fiction but for the living of life, “whatever that might consist of”. When I suggested that perhaps not writing at all would be the apogee of fiction, he laughed briefly, or snorted, and replied that, yes, he was trying that experiment himself, with some success, even though the results suggested that fiction’s ultimate achievement in destroying itself closely resembled the complete absence of fiction. Cusk in the negativity of her fiction was austere, he said, but not as austere as him, who produced, if anything, less than nothing. “I would like the work to be a non-work,” he said, quoting Eva Hesse without attribution. Of course, he went on - and I realised, looking at my watch, partly in an attempt to estimate the proportion of our flight that remained, partly to implant in him some sort of subliminal message, that it would be hard to stop him talking now that I had succeeded in engaging him in conversation - of course it is the wall between the fictional and the actual, between the so-called subjective and the so-called objective aspects of experience, that it should be fiction’s prerogative to assail, to undermine, to cause to crumble, for it is this wall that is responsible for the maintenance of all manner of errors about identity and reality and, ultimately, responsibility, so to call them, errors that are either traps or crutches, he said, traps and crutches being largely indistinguishable from each other unless you know the nature of your affliction, which can only be ascertained by the removal, at least temporarily, of the crutch upon which one has been leaning. I seemed, I thought, to have triggered in him a kind of mania of exposition, which I was beginning to regret, though I had done little more than make what I thought of as small talk with a man whose enthusiasm for literature must surely be an embarrassment to himself. He did not appear to blame me for this, at least, rather, he had become by this stage oblivious to anything but his own train of thought. In many ways, he said, Kudos resembled the work of Thomas Bernhard, a writer for whom he evidently had a great deal of respect, especially in the layering or nesting of narrative within several levels of reportage. In fact, nothing actually happens in the novel until the very last, memorable paragraph, other than the minimum necessary for the interchange of the series of characters - a man who sat beside her on an aeroplane, various writers and interviewers she encounters at a literary festival, a guide, her editor and her translator, her sons who telephone her - whose conversations with her, or, rather narrations to her, the narrator narrates. For instance, at one stage Cusk, one step more invisible even than her invisible narrator, tells us of the narrator telling of a writer named Linda telling of the woman who sat beside Linda on the plane telling Linda of how she came to break her bones. In another passage, during a conversation with an interviewer, the narrator describes to the interviewer what the interviewer had described to the narrator during a previous conversation. The narrator reveals nothing of herself, he explained with a patience that seemed unpredicated on either my understanding of or my interest in what he was explaining, other than that which is revealed by her function as a conduit for the stories, and voices, of others. By reducing herself to so very little, to almost nothing, the narrator is able to enter and own the stories of others, he said, or, rather, Cusk is able to use the narrator as a device to enter and own stories, the layers of narrative, hearsay and reportage rendering the distinction between fiction and actuality entirely extraneous. Also, this authorial or narratorial intrusion frequently breaches the distinctions between the levels of narrative, he said, what he called the narrator’s first person reduced and sharpened to such a pinprick that it enters and appropriates details in quoted speech and reported speech, in second- and third-person narratives of secondary and tertiary narratives in the second person - I must say I couldn’t follow quite what he was telling me, but, I must also say, I wasn’t trying very hard - sometimes ultimately reporting information that the narrator could in fact have no access to through those conversations, information that could not be at less than a step or two's remove. Although I was by this stage hardly encouraging him, the bookseller was unstoppable. “All fiction is inherently a transgression of the sovereignty of persons, although this transgression is by no means limited to fiction but can also be observed in all attempts at the so-called understanding of, or, rather, representation of, actual others.” The trappings of fiction and the conventions of social interaction try their hardest to mask this unconscionable intrusion and appropriation, but this intrusion and appropriation is at the nub of things, fictional and otherwise, he said, and ultimately destabilise any notions we might have of identity, reality and, ultimately, responsibility. I suggested that he might have gone over this ground before, or so it seemed to me, but he continued. “Who owns whose narrative?” he demanded, not, I think, of me. He was quiet a moment, but not longer. “Listen to this,” he said, and proceeded to quote a passage he had marked in the book: “‘I said that while her story suggested that human lives could be governed by the laws of narrative, and all the notions of retribution and justice that narrative lays claim to, it was in fact merely her interpretation of events that created that illusion. … The narrative impulse might spring from the desire to avoid guilt, rather than from the need - as was generally assumed - to connect things together in a meaningful way; that it was a strategy calculated, in other words, to disburden ourselves from responsibility.’ What do you think?” he asked. I hadn’t quite caught it all, he had been reading too fast and we were sitting near the engines, so I hesitated before he went on, seemingly unaware that I had not replied. Cusk’s work was a work of great clarity, which, he said, as well as being very pleasurable to read, was a work of liberating negativity, a reformulation of the purpose and capacities of fiction, no less. The purpose of art is to turn upon and destroy itself, he said, or words to that effect, and at the same time and by this process to change the nature of our relationship with the actual. He turned to another marked passage, in which Cusk’s narrator, Faye, relates to an interviewer what had been said to her by her son during a telephone call, something about “‘passing through the mirror into the state of painful self-awareness where human fictions lose their credibility,’” a process he appeared to ascribe to the fiction, such as Kudos, that he valued most. I told them that I was sorry, but he had actually managed, by his overcomplicated enthusiasm for it, to put me off buying a book I would no doubt otherwise have enjoyed, having enjoyed Cusk’s two previous books, Outline and Transit, and he obliged me by keeping quiet for what remained of the flight.
>> Read Thomas's review of Outline.
>> Read Thomas's review of Transit