Buried in Bourgeois Life

Rachel Cusk’s trilogy isn’t commenting wryly on upper-middle-class values. It’s embodying them.

A woman drinking espresso at a sidewalk cafe.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by EHStock/iStock; Anastasiya Shumilina/iStock; neyro2008/iStock.

Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Kudos, reaches a kind of formal perfection. Rarely does a single word of its exceptionally polished prose seem out of place. What’s more, the driving philosophical concerns of the novel are, to put it in a single word, real: The questions are real, and there really are no obvious answers. Kudos completes a trilogy of books that share the same narrator and many of the same structures and themes, beginning with Outline in 2014 and followed by Transit two years later. All three are narrated by Faye, a novelist who travels around Europe to teach classes and participate in literary events. The books are structured around encounters with strangers and friends who confide in our narrator about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences of living.

Faye speaks relatively little, and usually to offer questions or interpretations of what she hears rather than stories of her own. She plays the role of listener—an engaged and challenging listener, certainly, but still more receptive than active. At one point in the first novel, Outline, she remarks, “I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible.” In a way, as Faye is drawn forward not by her own desires but by randomness and the interventions of others, this trilogy offers a document of passivity, a record of the passive life. At the same time, the very existence of these highly stylized and innovative books makes nonsense of that idea. Cusk must draw on all the resources of willfulness to construct an image of a life lived without will. And this tension—between Faye as the passive protagonist on one hand, and the selective and discriminating narrator on the other—might be the chief animating force of the trilogy.

For a novel in which, by conventional measures of plot, nothing really happens, Kudos requires a curiously effortful suspension of disbelief. To make sense of the action, the reader must agree to believe in a world where pretty much every human being shares a tendency to deliver, with little or no prompting, philosophical monologues on themes of literature, family life, and particularly marriage and divorce. It’s a world in which apparently normal people are always coming out with sentences like, “What is history other than memory without pain?” Faye’s passivity makes it difficult—at times impossible—to decipher the meaning of these statements. The concept of “memory without pain” might sound a little grandiose, even idiotic, but then Faye didn’t say it—she simply reported that it had been said. Maybe the mistake is in trying to attribute any significance to such a statement at all; but here it is in a literary novel, where as readers we have nothing to do but attribute significance.

Throughout the trilogy, Cusk forces the reader to confront questions about meaning, in art and in life. Later in Kudos, Faye finds herself in conversation with a female journalist, who tells a long and involved story about her sister’s marriage. Faye responds, “While her story suggested that human lives could be governed by the laws of narrative … it was in fact merely her interpretation of events that created that illusion.” By “interpreting” our lives as stories, affixing meanings to their essentially random outcomes, Faye suggests we lie to ourselves. The struggle a reader undergoes when reading these books, then, is just a miniature version of the struggle we undergo by living: We want to attach significance to the way events unfold, but we also know on some level that to do so is delusional.

The novel seems a form particularly ill-suited to make the point that narrative itself is merely self-deception. Anyone who really believed that would put the book down there and then—or stop writing it. Instead, Cusk has triumphed in the completion of this masterly trilogy; the reader must continue guessing at meaning, improvising and reworking it as the story unfolds. When a writer named Linda appears in the novel with “elaborately strappy high-heeled sandals” in which she can hardly walk and her hair in “matted-looking hanks,” we might assume she’s a figure of fun or pity, but pages later, she’s recounting a conversation with a woman on an airplane that’s strikingly reminiscent of Faye’s own encounters. The woman had been in a skiing accident and broken nearly every bone in her body. Linda says the story reminded her of having a baby. “You survive your own death,” she explains, after which “there’s nothing left to do except talk about it.” I couldn’t help thinking this sounded like something Faye, or Cusk herself, might say.

Much of the process of finding meaning in Kudos involves this kind of guessing game. Which of the characters are acting as partial spokespeople for Cusk’s own interests, and which are supposed to be representatives of a sordid, superficial, or vulgar way of approaching life? Sometimes the contrast is obvious, as in a scene where Faye speaks with Gerta, an elderly patron of the arts, and then immediately afterward has a conversation with Ryan, an Irish novelist. Gerta—whose “long and complex” surname signifies her connection to European aristocracy—says of her children that “their lives seem to me to be without beauty.” Earlier in the novel, Faye herself remarks on the “blunting or loss of our own instinct for beauty.” By echoing Faye’s concerns, Gerta seems to move closer to the philosophical substance of the novel: Here’s a character we can take seriously.

By contrast, Ryan, who appeared briefly in Outline and reappears here fitter and wealthier, could not be a more transparent example of vulgarity. He is vain, self-aggrandizing, and even pointlessly spiteful. Discussing a literary anthology he has put together for charity, he says to Faye, “We couldn’t ask people like yourself for contributions … we needed the big names for that.” Faye’s direct quotation of this fairly minor slight gives it a magnified significance. She doesn’t open herself to the charge of seeking sympathy by admitting that she feels insulted, but the insult is recorded and left to the reader to interpret. Though Faye—and Cusk—refrain from offering any evaluation of Ryan’s behavior, or Gerta’s, beyond straightforward description, the underlying attitude is obvious. Gerta is a person of substance, while Ryan is not.

I couldn’t help feeling that this sequence, in which authorial judgment appears to be withheld but isn’t really, represented a weakness in the novel. A similar miscalculation had bothered me since the opening pages of Outline, when Faye notices that a man is asking polite questions of her in conversation “as though he had learned to remind himself to do so, and I wondered what or who had taught him that lesson, which many people never learn.” It is probably true that “many people never learn” to conduct conversations according to Faye’s expertly tuned sense of good manners, but that doesn’t strike me as such a penetrating insight. Sometimes I had the sense that the chatty characters who populate these novels were just gamely trying to amuse our austere narrator, who was guaranteed to miss the joke every time.

Speaking to the New Yorker while in the process of working on this novel, Cusk said of her younger self, “I always felt repellent. That has come out in my work, unfortunately, as disgust for the repellent qualities of other people.” And it does seem unfortunate that Faye looks on so many of the people she meets with revulsion. Paula and John, the downstairs neighbors who caused so much trouble in Transit, were depicted not only with a lack of sympathy—John actually seemed to be suffering from cancer, which didn’t trouble Faye whatsoever—but with a profound aesthetic distaste. Faye noted in forensic detail the “sagging, yellowing ceiling” in their apartment and Paula’s “large, slack” and “obese” body, as if to conflate poverty with ugliness and ugliness with evil. By the end of the novel, Faye started referring to her neighbors as “the trolls”: these afflicted, diseased, poor people who lived in the flat underneath her house and kept trying to ruin her life.

In Kudos, a journalist remarks that writers must remain “buried in bourgeois life—as he had recently read it described somewhere—like a tick in an animal’s fur.” The suppressed joke is that the journalist is paraphrasing from Outline, but the joke is also an intentional repetition. To be sure, Faye is “buried” in bourgeois life—she spent much of Transit buying and remodeling a home in London—and it’s no criticism to say so. But the image of the tick suggests parasitism or hostility, not symbiosis and belonging. In Kudos, she notices that a fellow novelist is happy to make conversation with “the driver of the bus and the hotel staff” but “tended to avoid those he might have considered his equals, well-known writers.” This does not seem to be meant ironically. Faye’s attitude to the nameless bus drivers, and even her attitude to Ryan, who in comparison to Gerta is implicitly nouveau riche—a wealthy Irish person, I suppose, can be nothing but—suggests that she is doing more than “hiding” among the bourgeoisie.

Indeed, the values of these novels are ultimately bourgeois values. Cusk approaches the philosophical questions of the books with what you might call bourgeois vocabulary— religious, literary, and psychological, rather than political or economic. In Outline, Faye is recently divorced; by Kudos, she has remarried. At the very close of the final book, a friend asks why she married again, knowing what she now knows about the laws of conventional life. “I hoped to get the better of those laws,” Faye replies, “by living within them.” She might equally be hoping to feel the protections of bourgeois life by living within it, but its morality, and its formal codes of conduct, seem at times to corrode her perceptiveness.

Throughout Kudos, alongside investigations of art, meaning, beauty, and family life, the question of personal freedom predominates. A female journalist speaks to Faye about “people who have freed themselves from their family relationships,” adding, “There often seems to be a kind of emptiness in that freedom.” In conversation with another reporter later in the novel, Faye describes her son’s close relationship with another family: “In taking their comfort he had created a responsibility towards them … he had given some of his freedom away.” Freedom is under constant assault, in Faye’s vision, from the forces of family life and friendship. Other people—with their selfishness, their needs, their insensitivities—represent a threat to the individual at every turn.

In response, the journalist—a young man—asks naively, “Why is it so bad to depend on people?” Faye’s verbose and interesting response ranges through concepts of homesickness, displacement, serenity, human desires, universal conditions, innocence, and knowledge. But I notice she doesn’t answer the question.

Kudos by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

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