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The unsettling and lulling style of Rachel Cusk's Kudos

Rachel Cusk. Photo/Alamy

The last book in Rachel Cusk's compelling trilogy presents an amplified and honed reality.

If you’ve read Outline and Transit, the first two in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy of autofiction novels, you will know her unsettling yet lulling, discursive yet pointed style. The last in the series, Kudos, picks up where the others left off.

It’s become commonplace to say that Cusk is reinventing the novel. Her spare, disarming prose reads as largely autobiographical, though it is formally fiction. These books feel as if they’ve been downloaded verbatim from memory, but they are not memoir. They appear hypermimetic, but the life conveyed is amplified, curated and honed.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The narrator, Faye, is, like Cusk, an English writer, divorced and remarried, with two sons. She spends her time listening to others recount their hopes, regrets, desires, fears, treasured memories and hard-won life lessons. The plot of Kudos has Faye flying to and attending a literary festival, but it is just a vehicle for the real work of the narrative – to let us overhear the extended monologues that are offered to her like polished, multifaceted gems.

As a stranger launches into a vivid account of his life, “she waited, watching him”. That’s what she does throughout: she waits, watching and noticing everything as those nearby engage in lovely logorrhoea. Faye presents their monologues in a voice that is even and unflappable and unflaggingly patient.

So often, though, I waited for the “turn”, the sardonic or self-reflexive meta moment, but none came, Instead, we seem to get everything Faye’s interlocutors think and feel on a topic, all with no overlay of interpretation or judgment from the narrator. Faye simply hears and accepts without comment what those speaking to her choose to share.

The prolonged monologues that make up the bulk of the book are like short novels in themselves. Faye’s impromptu raconteurs deliver their stories in precise, gorgeous prose. These mannered, lovely mini-monographs remind us that, although the structure of Cusk’s books appears to be a mirror of life, what we’re actually privy to are finely wrought, precisely crafted passages – the sort of meandering, allusive prose we’re accustomed to reading in fiction, not witnessing in life. We read how one character describes to Faye their surroundings:

I had chosen a propitious time for my visit, he said, since it happened to be the brief season when the city’s jacaranda trees were in bloom. They were a feature of the landscape there, running in great tall columns along the boulevards and avenues and decorating the many famous squares. Yet it was only for the merest couple of weeks that they burst into flower, producing great ethereal clouds of luminous violet clusters, which moved in the breezes almost in the manner of water or indeed music, as though the pretty purple flowers were the individual notes that in chorus formed a rippling body of sound.

It’s lines such as these that make up the novel. In her compelling trilogy, Cusk has given us an attentive yet low-affect narrator who manages to be the recipient of reams of others’ mesmerising prose. Nothing much happens in Kudos, but we leave it feeling invigorated and replenished.

KUDOS, by Rachel Cusk (Faber, $32.99)

This article was first published in the July 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.