After discovering her piece Aftermath a few years ago, and having revisited it several times since, I’ve been an adherent of Rachel Cusk’s. I am tempted to re-read that piece now, but I know that its stark, hypnotic beauty would move me too much and prevent me from writing anything about her latest book. Kudos is the third in a trilogy of what feel like semi-autobiographical novels, featuring a painfully vacant writer (and absent mother) who is going through the motions on the literary festival circuit, rarely speaking, as those around her uncontrollably pour confessions, philosophies, and personal quandaries upon her as if she’s their unpaid therapist.
The narrator’s silence against this barrage of monologues is presumably a response to the vicious backlash that Cusk’s earlier honesty about her divorce had occasioned, and the stream-of-monologue style defies forming a clear vision of exactly what is contained in each volume. Though she gags her protagonist, Cusk’s powerfully idiosyncratic ideas and images fall from the mouths of other authors, interviewers, or sometimes just men sat next to her on the plane. Sometimes these are profound reflections on life, other times outright provocations, and occasionally they stun with their clarity, beauty, and their synaesthetic sense of metaphor. On the occasions when it seems that the protagonist must speak, for example when she’s on a panel, sometimes the narrative skips conveniently over it, omitting her speech. In more egregious cases, as with the many interviewers in dereliction of their duty, she is not given any time to speak; sometimes the interview finishes without a single question having been asked. And yet the insight comes through, as if the characters are created from thin air to safely test out ideas in other voices, some very good, others repugnant, while the protagonist remains receptive, or at least rarely contradictory, throughout.
I have a theory, probably wrong, that this trilogy represents a reflection on the Three Characteristics of Buddhism. Everything we experience in life, every object, experience, thought, emotion, and even consciousness itself, according to this thinking, is characterised by the fact that they cannot be said to represent the true self, that they are impermanent, and that they are unsatisfactory. The titles somewhat align with this theory. It seems plausible to me that Outline, introducing the absent narrator onto whom everyone projects and who herself remains hollow, could represent the no-self doctrine. Transit, with its half-constructed house, could represent the impermanence of all goals and experiences. And Kudos (sarcastically) with its sometimes extreme emotional violence could represent suffering (which, in Buddhism, is caused by desire). Many of the insights voiced by the characters seem to be engaged with these topics: What is the self? How can one account for the ways in which one sometimes changes drastically over time? Does anything last, or is everything constantly in flux? Is there anything worth preserving? What, if anything, is worth striving for? Is all satisfaction transitory? In short they are a search for meaning. The characters are constantly on the verge of, and sometimes walk into, deep insights into these questions. The originality of this torrent of viewpoints is impressive. But its multiplicity sometimes overwhelms, and can leave one with a feeling of vagueness that’s as strong as the narrator’s.