Too often, when I fall for the trick of being seduced into buying a new book (of literary fiction), I get the feeling, while reading the book, that I’m grading the dissertation of a clever student who’s trying to get away with using glib rhetorical strategies to hide the fact that she/he is not in control of the material. That he/she doesn’t even fully understand the topic and hasn’t developed coherent enough opinions on the topic to convert those opinions, via his/her research and personal outlook, into a dissertation worth reading; the dissertation is, in other words, bullshit. The novel is bullshit. It can only work on a willingly credulous auditor. That’s not quite what happened this time.
Last year I went out and bought, and read, Rachel Cusk’s Transit, thinking it pretty good, at first, until perhaps the book’s midpoint, and then coasting toward the book’s finish down the long slope of diminishing expectations. Transit wasn’t a major disappointment, it was just a minor failure to be brilliant; it was merely okay; but I finished the book with the feeling that her next novel might be worth buying. So after the publication of Kudos, Cusk’s next novel, I took a long walk, across many neighborhoods, near the end of the week of the year’s first cold spell, to my favorite book shop, St. George’s, and bought it.
I’d already forgiven Cusk the gushingly ignorant reviews of her work, which seem to be trying to credit Cusk with the invention of postmodernism in her “plotless” (“a new genre!”) novels. And as I began the reading of Kudos (as self-conscious and unoriginally “ironic” a novel-naming strategy as titling a song “Hit” or a film “A Triumph”), I prepared myself to forgive Cusk for appropriating WG Sebald’s voice (from Austerlitz, especially; shamelessly appropriated already by Teju Cole in his Open City). What I found myself increasingly unable to forgive or ignore was Cusk’s poor handling of the novel’s primary conceit, the gimmick of suppressing Faye-the-narrator’s voice by relaying, through Faye, instead, the stories of (semi-) randomly-encountered strangers. All of the strangers encountered tell not only long, detailed and unflinchingly personal tales but equip these tales with stretches of deep philosophical reflection, which, upon further examination (by the story-telling stranger his or herself), reveal interesting or even surprising paradoxes. One after another. Hour upon hour of meeting preternaturally articulate thinkers of an uncommon caliber, on a kind of narrative conveyor belt, in the course of a day’s work. What a streak. I had no idea the cultural inheritance of the West was in such good hands.
Each story relayed from each stranger is told in precisely the same (Cusk-cum-Sebald) voice and most of the stories/ strangers are only separated, from one another, by the buffer of a few sentences of scene-setting description. It’s as though (and I would be quite surprised if this weren’t literally the case) Cusk had been reading too many of her gushing reviews and had decided to give these reviewers more of what they claimed to like and less of anything else. It works quite well with the very first secondhand narrative presented: a post-New Lad, alpha-male businessman Brit, whom the narrator meets on a plane, relates his harrowing story about the family dog, getting us as far as page 31. So far, so good: I was reassured and utterly prepared, by this solid and measured first chapter, to enjoy the rest of the book.
Between the first secondhand narrative and the second we get a page and a half of palate-cleansing: also good. The second secondhand narrative is not a largely unbroken monologue but a conversation between the narrator and a publisher-figure who delivers one of the book’s philosophical high-points:
“‘I said I was struck by his observation that the preservation of literary values – in however nominal a form – was a factor in the achievement of popular success. In England, I said, people liked to live in old houses that had been thoroughly refurbished with modern conveniences, and I wondered whether the same principle might be applied to novels; and if so, whether the blunting or loss of our own instinct for beauty was responsible for it. An expression of delight came over his fine, white-skinned face and he raised his finger in the air.
“‘People enjoy combustion!’ he exclaimed.
“In fact, he went on, you could see the whole history of capitalism as a history of combustion, not just the burning of substances that have lain in the earth for millions of years but also of knowledge, ideas, culture and indeed beauty – anything, in other words, that has taken time to develop and accrue.
‘It may be time itself,’ he exclaimed, ‘that we are burning. For example, take the English writer Jane Austen: I have observed the way in which, over the space of a few years, the novels of this long-dead spinster were used up,’ he said, ‘burned one after another as spin-offs and sequels, films, self-help books, and even, I believe, a reality TV show. Despite the meagre facts of her life, even the author herself has finally been consumed on the pyre of popular biography. Whether or not it looks like preservation,’ he said, ‘it is in fact the desire to use the essence until every last drop of it is gone. Miss Austen made a good fire,’ he said, ‘but in the case of my own successful authors it is the concept of literature itself that is being combusted.’”
Now that is what a good Novelist does when she is present and on the job. Have you ever thought of it this way; that Austen-mania, for example, had been a kind of consumption closer to combustion than hoarding? Kudos to the author.
The third secondhand narrative comes along and whisks us away to page 60, where the third secondhand narrator passes the baton to the fourth. We notice a coincidental call-back to the first story in the end of the third (“‘Like the family dog,’ she said. ‘You can treat that dog how you like. It’s never going to be free, if it even remembers what freedom is’”) and off we go to the fourth… and a numbing similarity of effects.
It was during the fourth narrative that the sameness of the Cusk-Sebald voice, from every new character, began to wear on me, along with the implausibly fluent and analytical content of this random stranger’s chit chat, which she ends, sounding very much like a speechifying pro at the podium, with “‘You asked me earlier whether I believed that justice was merely a personal illusion. I don’t have the answer to that but I know that it is to be feared, feared in every part of you, even as it fells your enemies and crowns you the winner.’”
It’s not so much that I want to attack the character’s well-structured eloquence with “Who really talks like that?” as I would question what this novel hopes to convince us of by having its walk-on characters speak like icons of the 19th Century Russian Didactic Novel. Or with such facile, unsubtle deck-stacking as the fourth narrator (an interviewer) being shown to exclaim, after offloading her own hefty monologue, before a scheduled interview with Faye has even properly commenced:
“‘I think I have everything I need,’ she said. ‘In fact I looked up all the details before I came. It’s what we journalists do nowadays,’ she said. ‘One day they’ll probably replace us with a computer program. I read that you got married again,’ she added. ‘I admit that it surprised me. But don’t worry,’ she said, ‘I won’t be focusing on the personal elements. What matters is that it’s a long, important piece. If I can get it done by the morning,’ she said, looking at her watch, ‘they may even put it in the afternoon edition.’”
Sure, we all know that’s how it is. But wasn’t there a more clever… more literary… way to score that point? The-Novel-as-sniper’s-nest has aesthetic rules of its own. As do the Novel-as-bully-pulpit and the Novel-as-loose-collection-of-opportunities-for-score-settling.
Similarly, how about Kudos’ relentless (after its midpoint) dick-shaming? No way to season the polemic, a bit, with wit, deft insinuation, balance and something finer than the unrecognizable-in-real-life uniformity of badness common to all propaganda targets and scapegoats? Blacks bad, Jews bad, Men bad, Women bad, Russians bad, Gays bad: we all know where to find polemics to satisfy any and every self-serving need. But I always assumed we looked in Literary Fiction for a dynamic, invigorating, thought-provoking seance of Truth? Men bad is not Truth, though “these men bad” can work as a Novel. It requires skill to rise above polemic. Celine wrote anti-Semitically and Flannery O’Connor wrote short stories soaked in racism but they wrote well and we hold our noses and read them. If Cusk has decided to be a flagship misandrist polemicist, I ask only that she do it well enough that I hold my nose and read with pleasure despite the moral failure (in fact, it now strikes me that Kudos reminds me of a humorless, equal-but-opposite sibling or niece of Kingsley Amis’ woman-fearing Stanley and the Women) . A secondhand narrator in Kudos, who refers to her ex as “The Buccaneer”, is reported as saying about this ex:
“‘The Buccaneer used the law like they use the big ball on the chain to demolish a building,’ Paola said. ‘It was clumsy and it made a lot of mess, and in the end there was nothing left. Though if it ever becomes legal to kill another person,’ she said, ‘I will hear a knock on my door before even a minute has passed and it will be him, because although he has been happy to break the law in small ways that won’t expose him, he has never liked the idea of serving a prison sentence on my behalf, even for the pleasure of murdering me.’”
Random Kudos narrator Paolo says all that in commiseration with random Kudos narrator Felícia, whose own story included:
“‘It was after I replaced the tyres [of the car she needed in order to provide for herself and her child, the daughter of her ex] that I received a letter from Stefano’s lawyer,’ Felícia said. ‘The letter said that my salary was not sufficient to justify having a car and to cover the costs of maintaining it. I had not noticed,’ she said, ‘that the car was gone. I was getting Alessandra ready for school and we were late, but when I read the letter I looked out of the window and saw that the car was not there. Stefano has his own key,’ she said, ‘so I realised that he must have come during the night and taken it while we were sleeping.”
The lopsided predation in Kudos becomes so tragicomically pervasive that I could barely enjoy Cusk’s roasting of the ripe-for-it Karl Ove Knaausgard (aka “Luís”); if only the book’s defensive dick-revulsion had remained as particular-to-a-particularized-man as that. Cusk’s men are neither more nor less “one-dimensional” than Philip Roth’s women (each author uses each partner-gender as a foil for its complement, privileging her/his own)… but all the very bad things done in Kudos are done by men (although there is one patriarchy-complicit mother). Roth’s work is more balanced; if he can be said to be anything with a “mis-” for a prefix, it’s “misanthropist”. Not so with Cusk, apparently.
The fifth secondhand mouthpiece, the student Hermann (Cusk’s coincidental-call-back tic in overdrive here: twenty pages before the Hermann character’s arrival, we see the second narrator guy, the publisher type, declare: “‘Hesse is completely unfashionable now,’[…] ‘It is almost an embarrassment to be seen reading him.’”) takes the stage. Hermann is slightly autistic, of conveniently high intelligence … his implausibly knowing monologue is quite long and resolves to a crucial bit of highfalutin’ balderdash, cited below… and so we get, near the end of his ten page allotment of Cusk-Sebald voice:
“At the end of the year, he went on, the college gave a special award to its most outstanding male and female student. It was interesting that in conferring this award, the fact of gender was retained beyond that of excellence: at first it had struck him as illogical, but then he had decided that having never personally found gender to be a factor, he was perhaps not in a position to fully understand its significance. He would be interested to hear my opinion on that subject, if I had one. His mother, for instance, believed that male and female were distinct but equal identities, and that having two awards was as far as it was wise to go in honouring human achievement. But many other people felt that there should be only one award, given to the best student. The caveat of gender, these people believed, obscured the triumph of excellence. His mother’s response to that was interesting: if there was no caveat, she had said, then there was no way of ensuring that excellence would remain in a moral framework and not be put in the service of evil.”
To which Faye reports that she responded:
“I said I had been struck by the idea of gender as a bulwark against evil, because the biblical myth gave one precisely the opposite impression: that, far from preventing evil, the mutual distinctness of male and female constitutes a unique susceptibility to it. Eve is influenced by the serpent and Adam is influenced by Eve: I didn’t know very much about maths, I said, but I would be interested to know whether that could be expressed as a formula, and if so whether the serpent would be an illogical element of it.”
Neither proposition, each highlighted here in bold, makes a bit of fucking sense, philosophically or logically. This is a clear case of shoe-horning a thematically-relevant conclusion into a ton of shameless waffle to make a passage “work”. Neither disquisition regarding gender has earned the logical right to introduce “evil,” plausibly, into the wonky syllogism each respective narrator attempts to sneak by the reader. We aren’t mind-readers but it almost feels as though, having happily concocted the “bravura” passage with which she would end Kudos, Cusk had to go back and find somewhere to insert the word or concept “Evil” to justify such a heavy fini (a conclusion more satisfying, at least, than the abrupt non-conclusion of Transit).
In fact that lurid final set-piece is straight out of some horror genre (reminiscent of pre-enfeeblement McEwan or a modernized Shirley Jackson) and jarringly different in tone from anything in the first half of the novel. Whether Cusk was suddenly emboldened by her reviews or goaded by personal events while writing, Kudos has the feel of a book that decided to change its genre in media res. Fair enough, if so, but it would have been better for Kudos if Cusk had gone back, after uncovering the new seam of the book’s black end, to re-write the novel into a cohering and functional whole…
… as the first, perhaps, in a Gender Horror Genre that Rachel Cusk can rightfully claim to have invented, for better or worse (in sickness and in health) along the way.