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The Empty Space of Rachel Cusk

In 'Kudos,' the novelist meditates on justice, the stories people tell themselves, and the difference between the two.

David Ramos/Getty Images

Kudos is the final novel in a trilogy by Rachel Cusk that includes Outline (2014) and Transit (2017). Faye narrates each book. She has suffered some unnamed trauma that annihilated the life she lived previously, and from the outset presents herself as a kind of void. The novels consist of a series of one-sided conversations: Faye meets people who deliver what are essentially monologues about themselves, each presenting a miniature treatise on the self, the family, memory, the nature of truth, and marriage. In Kudos, Cusk asks what holds a life together. Is it narrative? A greater sense of justice? Or simple delusion? Into the empty space of Faye Kudos pours its ideas.

These conversations do not read like natural speech. There are no pauses, few adverbs, and, most notably, few interjections by Faye. Some of the dialogue is in quotation marks, but most is rendered as indirect speech (“It was true that a hamster meant nothing to her, she said, since they had a no-pets policy in their building…”). Faye does not parse this speech; she just reports.

Even though we do not hear much from her directly we somehow learn a great deal about Faye. She speaks to a publisher, because, like Cusk, she has been published. She is in a hotel doing a press junket, because she is a writer. There is a phone call from her son. But for the most part Faye is absent. The question of why she isn’t there is one of the core mysteries of the trilogy. Has Faye (or Cusk) edited the heroine out? Faye’s absence reads like the self-abnegation of a soul trying to atone for something. On the other hand, it also reads like the primness of a control freak who owns the narrative voice completely by putting it into an eerie vacuum of her own making. Whatever the case, something has been removed, either through the stylings of a novelist or the dysfunction of a character’s mind. It’s either emotional or artistic erasure.

The speakers form concentric circles around Faye, each leading closer to the core, like the canals of Amsterdam or the circles of hell. The first person in Kudos is a man, a total stranger. He is extremely tall and cannot keep his limbs out of the gangway of an airplane. His struggle for freedom is a figure for male pain. “He had read somewhere,” Faye reports, “about a medieval method of punishment that involved incarcerating the prisoner in a space specially designed to prevent him from being able to fully extend his limbs in any direction, and though just thinking about it made him break out in a sweat, it pretty much summed up the way he had lived.”

The tall man is rich and retired, though young. The tale hinges on the death of a dog named Pilot, onto which the tall man has projected his identity. The dog is “probably the most important member of their family,” more important than the children. The tall man beats the dog to make it behave. When he secretly puts the dog down, to put it out of its misery, the tall man “realized then that [he] had done something awful, something they would never have done, something so cowardly and unnatural and now so completely irreversible that it felt like [he] would never, ever get over it and that things would never be the same again.” As he digs the dog’s grave he begins to feel “that this actually was what it was like to be a man”—strong, angry, burying the self he has murdered. He cannot get the mud out from under his fingernails.

The tall man sees himself in his dog’s strength and discipline. But two characters later, Linda the novelist also invokes the family dog, this time as a figure of total powerlessness. She speaks to Faye about her body, which she is able to ignore when she is focused on writing. “‘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.’” By invoking and re-invoking a theme, Cusk builds irreconcilable differences in the perspectives of her characters, even though their lives are, on their face, very similar. These differences break down on the lines of gender. The women often presents a deep and nuanced understanding of the dynamics of their domestic lives, happy or not. The men show the opposite; ignorance of the inner lives of their wives and children.

The speakers talk as if there is a narrative governing individual existence, but they struggle to discern it. Some know that there is no narrative and are grieved by its loss. They all reach a point of crisis and revelation: a crux. They construct a personal myth around this crux (a divorce, euthanizing a dog), telling stories about themselves that operate, to them, according to some internal logic of right and wrong—according to a sense of justice. Paola, who organizes the press interviews that Faye gives at the writer’s conference, declares herself to be “a great walker,” for example. “‘It gives me so much pleasure,’ she said, ‘to see people trapped in their cars while I am free.’” Paola, in other words, has constructed a schema that assigns a positive value to what is an expenditure of bodily energy. She is free unlike everybody else, she has mastered the city’s streets. The action of moving her legs has become moral.

In a different sense, Faye also believes in justice. When a publisher says Dante can fend for himself in the modern literary climate—what does Dante care if the Divine Comedy gets one star on an Amazon review?—Faye gives a rare remark.

I said that I found his remarks somewhat cynical, as well as strikingly indifferent to the concept of justice, whose mysteries, while remaining opaque to us, it had always seemed sensible to me to fear. In fact the very opacity of those mysteries, I said, was in itself grounds for terror, for if the world seemed full of people living evilly without reprisal and living virtuously without reward, the temptation to abandon personal morality might arise in exactly the moment when personal morality is most significant. Justice, in other words, was something you had to honor for its own sake, and whether or not he believed that Dante could look after himself, it seemed to me he ought to defend him at every opportunity.

Without justice, evil might flourish through complacency, she says. But justice may be an artificial notion. Believing in justice, like believing in narrative, is to put one’s faith in frameworks that humans have constructed for interpreting reality. This belief strikes against the core theme of Kudos, which is that such frameworks, particularly of the self-mythologizing variety, are illusory and misguided.

So how does Faye square the two? There is the belief in justice on the one hand, and on the other the skepticism about the human ability to categorize right and wrong correctly. For Faye, believing in justice is a protest against evil. In contrast, believing that the conflicts of one’s soul produce truth is narcissism.

In this striking juxtaposition between the feeling subject and actual ethics, Cusk returns to gender to mediate the difference. Linda and the tall man may both have a dog in their home. But for the tall man, the dog represents his masculine ego, which drowns out the presence of his children and wife. Linda sees a representation of her own body; like the dog she is a mirror of whatever the man wants to see.

Linda pities, the tall man euthanizes. How these different viewpoints get translated into law, how they become codified in the world, is a story, Cusk suggests, of elevating masculine myths over the truth—over a genuine justice. “Laws are for men and maybe for children,” Paola says. “In law the woman is temporary, between the permanence of the land and the violence of the sea.” It is better, Paola concludes, to be invisible or to be an outlaw. If Faye is invisible, the subversive Cusk is the outlaw.