The observation that some people do not like Rachel Cusk is so omnipresent in criticism of her work that it’s surprising no one’s ever led off a review with ‘I, too, dislike her.’ These observations are generally accompanied by photos or illustrations of her in which she looks at you both directly and flinchingly, almost always with a strand of hair in the centre of her forehead, with a smile somewhat like Edna O’Brien’s – another writer who seemed to rouse hatred for her disarranged hair as much as for her books, another writer who went to convent school. This is the sort of education that can unfit you afterwards for normal conversation, that can make the suburbs seem beyond your power of understanding as you drive home past them from the locked-in place. You suspect that even from the other side of the frame she is noticing you, and people who notice are inconvenient, if not uncivilised. It would, after all, be uncomfortable to be on a ferry with Cusk as she visibly or invisibly observed that you had the ‘face of a withered Memling damsel’. That is, in the language of one of the places where Cusk grew up (LA), ‘way harsh, Tai’.
Cusk has glimpsed the central truth of modern life: that sometimes it is as sublime as Homer, a sail full of wind with the sun overhead, and sometimes it is like an Ikea where all the couples are fighting. ‘I wonder what became of the human instinct for beauty,’ she writes in The Last Supper, ‘why it vanished so abruptly and so utterly, why our race should have fallen so totally out of sympathy with the earth.’ A line like this is both overwrought and what I think myself when I look at these scenes. Why must we live in these places? Why must these be our concerns? Why do I have to know what McDonald’s is? It is a dissociate age and she is a dissociate artist. She is like nothing so much as that high little YouTube child fresh from the dentist, strapped into a car going he knows not where, further and further from his own will. Where is real life to be found? Is this it?
An anecdote: when I was a teenager a doctor prescribed me pills for anxiety, and when I stopped taking them abruptly I experienced a severe and unexpected and prolonged withdrawal. During that time I hated everything I read to a degree that I cannot reread those books now, or even think of them dispassionately. The feeling in my brain was like the one you have when you’re climbing the stairs and are expecting another step and you set your foot down so hard on nothing that reality ruptures. ‘This is my house,’ I had to say when I entered my house; ‘this is my bedroom,’ I had to say when I entered my bedroom. Reading Cusk I have that feeling all the time. When I came to the line in her memoir, Aftermath, ‘It is as though I’m expecting there to be a step down and there isn’t one,’ I was not so much surprised as relieved: she felt it too.
Outline landed with such a bang that it’s hard to believe it was published in 2014. Transit followed just two years later, written almost at the clip of reality. Now Kudos, just out from Faber, brings an end to the tremendously wilful project of these passive novels. In description nothing about them seems particularly out of the ordinary: each instalment is composed of a series of conversations – with strangers, with old friends and ex-lovers and her hairdresser, with her two sons. But as they unfold it becomes clear that they are fantasies in which the infinitesimal openings of small talk eventually drill down to the centre of the earth. What would happen if you let one of those cursory exchanges, brief or irritating or banal, either way trespassing on your solitude and peace – what would happen if you just let it go on?
The main character in all three novels, Faye, practises a torrential listening. She sits subject to these monologues, surely, for hours. Her butt’s asleep. She says: ‘I’m not sure.’ She says: ‘I wonder if that’s true.’ The conversations never quite devolve into arguments: ‘I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.’ In these exchanges she is a midwife, or a complicated angel. Her mission is to help them along, to challenge them or spur them but not to impede them, because in the end it is their relentless substance that will surround her and give her shape. This thesis is delivered near the end of Outline by another writer character, Anne, who has undergone ‘an incident’ and whom we first meet eating spoonfuls of honey out of the jar. On a plane she sits next to a man who describes
a distinction that seemed to grow clearer and clearer, the more he talked … He was describing, in other words, what she herself was not: in everything he said about himself, she found in her own nature a corresponding negative. This anti-description, for want of a better way of putting it, had made something clear to her by a reverse kind of exposition: while he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her for the first time since the incident a sense of who she now was.
Cusk’s first novel appeared when she was 26, and a review of it on American Amazon reads: ‘Although this is an OK book, it is nothing like Bridget Jones except that both characters work in London publishing houses.’ Kudos is her tenth – she is now 51 – and is so many thousands of miles from this beginning that it’s astonishing to think of her ever writing something with the title Saving Agnes. Previously she had seemed almost tangled in the voices of her predecessors: Arlington Park a take on Mrs Dalloway, The Country Life a take on Jane Eyre and Cold Comfort Farm, itself indulging in metacommentary on one of her most beloved authors, D.H. Lawrence. You are reminded of Frederica Potter (or A.S. Byatt herself) reading English at Newnham, trying to figure out what kind of novel you can write afterwards.
Among the flowers of the novels, she also published the Amanita phalloides of three memoirs. The first, A Life’s Work, is about pregnancy, birth and motherhood, and is the most conventional. The second, The Last Supper, is about travelling with her then husband and two daughters in Italy and getting tired of tomatoes, and is the most rereadable. The third, Aftermath, is about her divorce, and was responsible for several cases of insanity among the literati. These books are notorious not for their actual content but for the degree to which they seemed to leave readers feeling thwarted. We know what we want from memoirs, and she did not give it to us – too much of her mind and not enough of herself. In Aftermath she tells her therapist: ‘I don’t ever want you to tell me that I think too much. If you say that I’ll leave.’
In unhappier compositions her metaphors pile up and sit at angles like jigsaw pieces, but in the Outline trilogy they are masterfully in hand. There is urgency, a wish to avoid unnecessary detours, for we have someplace to be. There is the correct amount of cloud description, whereas in The Last Supper there is 300 per cent too much. If her faculties of observation weigh too heavily on her in the memoirs – as if everything she witnesses is a murder and she must recount the details not just to a policeman but to Sherlock Holmes – then here there is an experimental drive to see how far she can take them. How much can be noticed about a man’s trousers, and how much can be inferred from that noticing? A very great deal.
Her prose is not musical, exactly. It is what I would call ritualistic. (Judged purely by sound, her writing is somewhat reminiscent of those 20th-century writers who wrote obsessively and immersively about the Greeks.) The monologues in the Outline trilogy are controlled trances, like Stevie Nicks at the end of ‘Rhiannon’: you enter the speed and the artifice and the belief of it with her. They seem to have been written compulsively; they certainly read compulsively. There is a relentlessness to them, an onslaught that is like the onslaught of life. Occasionally you find yourself wishing for someone to get up and go to the bathroom, but most of the time you are transported.
The trick she has discovered, of course, is to obliterate herself entirely. We know what we want from memoirs, but in Outline we do not know what we want until she gives it to us: that dinner party, that swim in the cove, that story about the dog. She moves through it as a blasted centre full only of instinct and superhuman hearing and hackles, of the sense that tells us when to leave parties, when someone is going to kiss you or hiss at you, that dares us to get on a boat with a stranger. Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, there and not there. In that light, the choice of the name Faye seems both purposeful and funny. As Cusk once told Heidi Julavits in an interview, ‘I cannot bear having my photograph taken, and I always think that I won’t be in it.’
Kudos finds us back on a plane, at the mercy of another seatmate. He tells a story, yes, about a dog, and the circle closes to full satisfaction. After a brief excursion into home renovation in Transit – my heart sank at first, I was going to have to learn about skirting boards – we are back on the trilogy’s greenest green, its most radically explored milieu: the literary event. The workshop, the festival, the zoo of the panel. Those bubbles of extremity, those day excursions to Star Trek planets, those artificialities that reproduce society in microcosm. Writing about writers is supposed to be boring, but this, for my money, is the most fascinating thing Cusk has done. Also, a fake Knausgaard shows up halfway through, and it rules.
If I had read these books when I was younger they would surely have been aspirational for me; now they are merely like my life. When you travel someplace to read or speak or give a workshop, you are not quite yourself. You have misplaced your mind; you are too much your body but due to repeated siftings through airports and cabs and other people your body is hardly there. Your seeing of things is somewhat raw: where is my next cup of coffee coming from, does the moon travel backwards here, what a grotesque thing a rose is, the sponginess of hotel apples. The slipping and the solid hours. How strange, how improbable church spires seem in other towns.
The step down isn’t there. Reality ruptures. The act, during a breakfast interview, of picking up a sugar cube and stirring it into your coffee with a little spoon becomes so formidable you do not even attempt it. The sugar cube is the loudest thing in the world; the spoon is monstrous. In her notebook, the interviewer is describing your earrings, which are all wrong, because the nice clothes you picked out back at home seem suddenly like the cougar delusions of Blanche DuBois.
To move through the world in this way is to be confronted with the ongoing project of human civilisation. To travel somewhere and see the posters of local candidates on telephone poles, to imagine their city council meetings, to meet their rough sleepers in the early mornings and gaze on the houses of their ultra rich, on hills. To wonder, apropos of rich people, if you will ever crap again.
You speak to many, many strangers a day, until you feel yourself to be a great thrumming organ of listening, a drumskin that must be struck to give back sound. You are first in one place and then another, a hot light is on your face, your hair has gone weird and now a man is speaking: he monologues through the entirety of an hour-long panel, and you are even grateful to him for it, because he has given you a story, he has made something happen. When it’s over, you sit around a table with wine and bread and olives among people who say things like: ‘That would make a good title’; ‘Maybe it’ll be a trilogy’; ‘What are you working on?’
The truth is that at every event you meet one boor and one magical person; sometimes you are the boor to someone else, sometimes the wizard. (Once in a while, too, there is someone you irresistibly wish to murder – in Kudos it is The Publisher.) And always there is one conversation, late into the night and soaked with one spirit or another, that seems to be outlined, highlighted, pulsing. Its coherence makes the world momentarily decipherable, running with rivers of fluency and light. Not to recognise it would be to be ungenerous, not to recognise it would be to be no longer a writer. Keep them talking, your body says. Ask another question.
In Transit, The Chair of one of Faye’s panels confides to her that sometimes he wondered what the audience got out of such events:
I said I wasn’t sure it mattered whether the audience knew who we were. It was good, in a way, to be reminded of the fundamental anonymity of the writing process, the fact that each reader came to your book a stranger who had to be persuaded to stay. But it always surprised me, I said, that writers didn’t feel more fear of the physical exposure such events entailed, given that writing and reading were non-physical transactions and might almost be said to represent a mutual escape from the actual body – in fact some writers, like Julian, seemed positively to enjoy it. The Chair glanced at me with his furtive eyes. But you don’t, he said.
Maybe not. Still, she has described it, far beyond the perceptions of a writer who merely enjoys it. A dissociate artist for a dissociate age, asking from the back seat: ‘Is this real life?’
The three novels blend together, and not to their detriment. Their of-a-wholeness is why they are so often referred to as ‘a project’. And the pleasure of this project is a rare one: it is the pleasure of a person figuring out exactly what she ought to be doing. Here is the exhilaration of someone fully claiming an exploitative gift – which the writer’s gift so often is, though we do not like to admit this, we wish now to write and still be considered good people. Ha! In memoir you cannot claim such a gift completely and still remain in society, for there is far too much at stake. But conversations on aeroplanes? People you’ll never see again? Interviewers? Men? Go off, Rachel. A strong wind runs through you as you read.
Because in these books she is very specifically exploiting the public conversations of men, which they consider genial and beneficent, but which women very often consider a burden or an intrusion. It is an inversion of that public spectacle: a man bending a woman’s ear. She bends the ear now, on the page. In fact the talkingness of men is something I have always counted on; I love it as perhaps only someone raised Catholic can love it. Men are helpless in the face of female listening. If you sit for it, as for a portrait, they will tell you anything. There is a price for these encounters, though. As Faye observes at one point, ‘It struck me that some people might think I was stupid, to go out alone on a boat with a man I didn’t know. But what other people thought was no longer of any help to me. Those thoughts only existed within certain structures, and I had definitively left those structures.’
‘Is it male attention I want, or male authority?’ Cusk asks in Aftermath. Can the desire for either be turned back on its subjects, turned against them? ‘You’re like a teenager,’ The Chair tells Faye after their surreal and disembodying event, as he thrusts his hands inside her coat. An odd thing to say by any standard, but the sort of thing men do say, and it is so vivid in her telling that the power of such encounters becomes hers. Kudos ends, as it must, with the image of a man pissing into the sea. ‘He looked at me with black eyes full of malevolent delight while the golden jet poured unceasingly forth from him until it seemed impossible that he could contain any more. The water bore me up, heaving, as if I lay on the breast of some sighing creature while the man emptied himself into its depths. I looked into his cruel, merry eyes and I waited for him to stop.’ Immortalised here it cannot pollute her. She has had the last word.
It is this last word, I think, that gets people’s backs up. What do we make of a writer who does not much care to be seen as moral, but who still writes in the voice of the law? She is judge and jury, we have fallen jarringly into a universe of her making, a friendly concession once in a while would help, but no. She never softens her judgments for our sake. ‘That is a terrible notion that only a Catholic could have come up with,’ a character says to Faye over a long dinner at an out of the way restaurant, when she muses that perhaps ‘one forges one’s own destiny by what one doesn’t notice or feel compassion for; that what you don’t know and don’t make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.’
Reading for a review is not the same as reading for happiness or study or even insight. Often it’s like eating a Clif Bar (why do we have to know about Clif Bars?): dry with its own necessity, too focused on its own chewing. But at some point near the beginning of Kudos, as she is letting a disoriented and hilarious writer named Linda talk, I lifted off the ground. Cusk herself seemed across from me at the table. She is doing it, I thought. Go on, go on, go on. I was borne back to the feeling I had reading the very first pages of the Outline trilogy, when ‘the plane began to move, trundling forward so that the vista appeared to unfreeze into motion, flowing past the windows first slowly and then faster, until there was the feeling of effortful, half-hesitant lifting as it detached itself from the earth. There was a moment in which it seemed impossible that this could happen. But then it did.’