July 2018

Noted

‘Kudos’ by Rachel Cusk

By Stephanie Bishop
Cover of Kudos
A masterful trilogy concludes

Partway through Rachel Cusk’s memoir Aftermath, in which she recounts the breakdown of her marriage, she reaches a point of maximum crisis. This is not a moment of high drama, but a destabilising realisation that as a result of her suffering she now lives at one remove, as “an observer”. A witness to the lives of others, but unable and unwilling to make decisions that will affect them, she recognises that “the only certainty I can locate in myself is that of my desire to undermine authority itself”.

This is an attitude recorded in autobiographical mode, but it also informs the radical aesthetic of Cusk’s Faye trilogy, of which Kudos is the final instalment. In each of these novels, Faye, the narrator, relinquishes narrative authority; hovering on the margin, her voice is overwritten by the life stories of those she encounters. We follow her through a series of seamless exchanges as she teaches creative writing in Greece (Outline), has her flat renovated (Transit), and now, in Kudos (Faber; $29.99), takes part in a book tour following her recent remarriage.

In Kudos, nothing quite goes to plan. Rather than giving her the opportunity to speak on behalf of her work, the interviews and publicity events routinely fail to run as scheduled, or else the interviewers unwittingly tell their own stories as a way of framing the forthcoming dialogue that in the end never occurs. Once again, Faye is the evasive listener.

However, in this volume the disclosures hinge on a pointed and common theme: the relationship between freedom, suffering and female invisibility. Women in particular confide in Faye as they flee husbands, or realise they are bound to them, or grapple with other forms of artistic and private disappointment. In one way or another, each woman acknowledges that she has been complicit in the curtailing of her own freedom, and must now reckon with the meaning of her suffering as she finds a way to reconceive her life.

At the fringe of these monologues we learn of Faye’s own desire to rid herself of all delusions, an impulse that is reflected in Cusk’s masterful stylistic austerity. Faye never indulges in the decoration of her experience, and never succumbs to the fantasy of her own progress. In this way, Cusk resists the conventional narrative arc of the novel and refuses to promote the heroism of her protagonist. Instead, as the keeper of other people’s stories, Faye so absorbs the problem of female invisibility that her own dramatic disclosure becomes a moving impossibility. A novel of strange power, Kudos confirms Cusk’s trilogy as a definitive work of our time.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. Her new novel is Man Out of Time.

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