I once had a conversation with a book critic, a conversation that’s played on my mind ever since. We were standing at an author event, a wine glass in each hand, reading through the message history on her phone.
At the time the book critic was hung up on a man – another writer, it so happens. Like the man, she was intelligent and accomplished and good with words, both on the page and in person. But the man had recently gone quiet on her. His messages had become shorter and less inviting: a bad sign only people not invested in the exchange would quickly intuit.
I nodded sympathetically and sipped from my glass. She was a big talker, and at times it was hard to get a word in edgeways. All around us people mingled awkwardly, either staring at their phones to look busy, or attempting to strike up an easy camaraderie with colleagues they barely knew, so afraid everyone was of any awkward lull in the conversation.
It was obvious the book critic was upset and had been obsessing about this exchange. What had gone wrong, her eyes seemed to implore. As she thumbed through the messages on her tiny phone screen, the book critic tried to regain some dignity by making a joke about being trained to read the subtext in everything, and we both laughed at the metaphor she was applying like a band-aid to her bruised ego.
It was easy to view her behaviour as mildly irrational, but this of course was unfair: her career was predicated on reading between the lines of texts, and ascribing meaning to seemingly random symbols and motifs. Perhaps she could be forgiven for devoting large portions of her time to what were essentially inconsequential messages lobbed backwards and forwards at what was for him irregular, but for her ever increasingly desperate intervals.
All of a sudden, I was standing on the street, looking through the full-length windows at the party happening inside. My eyes dilated, and the laughter and chatter from other guests became muted, as if I was underwater. I saw myself standing next to the book critic, both our heads bent over the phone screen. I suppose I was having what one might call an out of body experience: for the first real time, I was seeing my behaviour in someone else and I was speechless.
A similar feeling overcame me while reading Rachel Cusk. Her dialogue-heavy trilogy, comprising Outline, Transit, and now Kudos, is best described as a series of novels in conversations: each new chapter sees her narrator, a middle-aged writer named Faye, talking to a stranger, an old acquaintance, a fellow author.
These men, these women she meets during her travels—first through Athens, then London, and finally in Kudos an unnamed city in Portugal—all have ‘baggage’. They are mourning dead pets, broken marriages, disappointing careers. They are just like you and me, aware of the wrong turns they make but slow to alter their course. But unlike you and me, they are fictional characters who don’t have to hide their pain, repeating ‘Fine’ or ‘Good’ whenever someone asks how they are. These characters scratch at their wounds for all to see, and our narrator, Faye, doesn’t flinch.
There’s a vicarious thrill I get in reading the blunt dialogue of Rachel Cusk. It’s the same feeling I get reading the sardonic narration of Ottessa Moshfegh. I have no illusions, their stories seem to say, I’m just here to tell things as they really are.
Faye is not cold, however. She’s cool, considered. If she desires anyone or anything, it’s unclear. Her gaze burns with the intelligence of someone who has become inured to life’s disappointments. Because we only ever see the characters through Faye’s eyes, every character sounds the same, no matter their age or background. In the hands of a less skilled writer, such a stylistic technique might seem repetitive and shallow but not so with Cusk.
Reading Cusk’s trilogy is like watching a talking heads-style documentary with the interviewer edited out. We learn everything about the person Faye is speaking to, but little about the woman listening. Like the title which opens the series, Outline, our narrator Faye is herself a trace, making her the ultimate blank slate to project onto.
In real life, Cusk appears to possess the same resigned, self-awareness her characters do. "Just as a person, don't you sometimes get sick of being yourself and want to be the thing you aren't?” she told the Guardian, when asked about the writing process for the trilogy. “But you are the thing you are…that is style,” she continued, in typical Cuskian fashion. “It is relatively bonded to self and there is not a lot you can do about it. Form is different.”
This is a fascinating idea – this idea that we are locked into certain behaviours and only form can set us free. Faye appears to agree, and an overarching theme in Kudos is that we’re all, as one character puts it, “fated to the repetition of certain patterns”, no matter how far we travel. Through adopting an elaborate conversational framework for her novels, however, Cusk transports Faye to a world where connection and honesty between two people can exist without embarrassment or fear.
Reading Kudos, I was reminded of the novel Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney. Rooney’s debut has been praised for the way it uses dialogue via instant messaging services – a technique many contemporary authors are still slow to adopt. The internet is largely absent in Cusk’s trilogy, it’s verbal dialogue between two people which is the focus – a mode of communication still regarded as the most revealing when it comes to expressing a person’s true emotions. This is because body language never lies, unlike the carefully scripted messages transmitted via the ever-multiplying messenger services we spread our social circles across.
Of course, the verbal conversations Faye has with strangers are pure fantasy, almost as though she is disassociating from her surroundings and imagining idealised forms of communion with other people. There is no need for formalities in Faye’s world: the men and women Faye listens to cut right to the chase. They are acutely aware of their mistakes, the self-destructive tendencies they ascribe to, the reasons why their past relationships ended – aware to a certain extent, that is. “A degree of self-deception…was an essential part of the talent for living”, an author tells Faye early in the novel, and this idea surfaces in the words of her subsequent interlocutors.
What does it mean to speak freely? The only way to be truly free, Cusk seems to be suggesting, is to walk away from all responsibility, and live only for yourself. For women this is harder because the social judgement is harsher. The expectations and entrapments of motherhood is a recurring theme in the trilogy, and it forms the basis for many of Faye’s conversations with other female artists throughout Kudos. In her constant travelling, it appears that Faye has made her own choice: she has prioritised her writing career over her two sons, who only appear briefly throughout the trilogy, and only through the distance of a phone call.
Is Faye a bad mother? It’s tempting to draw this conclusion, given Cusk’s reputation for being ‘unfeeling’, following her candid motherhood memoir, A Life’s Work. Faye argues in Kudos she has not abandoned her children; rather she has freed them. She is still there to answer their calls, and comfort them when they need it. They may still cry for their mother, like one son does in the final, moving conversation in Kudos, but her absence has also taught them independence, resilience.
Freedom for Faye is a different matter. Kudos is filled with roads which literally lead nowhere, restaurants in abandoned locations, new hotels on crumbling streets. Its setting contributes to the feeling that something in Faye’s life is winding down, grinding to an inevitable standstill. Brexit is briefly alluded to; the language of divorce is invoked to discuss the impending separation of nations – divorce being an idea Cusk returns to again and again in her writing. In Cusk’s eyes, Europe is dying, England is dead. Leave or remain? It’s a question Faye asks herself throughout the trilogy, and depending on how you interpret the final dizzying paragraphs of Kudos, she either does, or doesn’t, break free.
Critics often remark about the addictive quality of Cusk’s books, how she’s able to make a largely ‘plotless’ story a page-turner. One crucial way she’s achieved this is through developing a dispassionate prose style, or to borrow the words of a character from the book: “an honesty to which no moral bias could be ascribed…that is as pure and reflective as water or glass.”
As a result, it feels as though Cusk is speaking just to us, to our fears, our foibles. She holds a judgement-free mirror up to her readers and asks them to see their behaviour through the eyes of her flawed but realistic characters. “I only wanted to make my life seem enviable so that I could accept it myself”, an unhappily married woman tells Faye, and it’s one of many lines of dialogue where the reader can hear their own delusions loud and clear.
That night, the night I talked to the book critic, I quickly excused myself and walked home, needing to put some distance between myself and the drama I saw unfolding before me. I took the easy option. Perhaps I should have walked back into that restaurant and told her everything I was feeling. Or maybe that would have been too hard, too bold for someone like me. We hardly knew each other, to be honest; she might not have understood what I was trying to say.
Emily Laidlaw is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in Seizure, Kill Your Darlings and Metro. Originally from Melbourne, she currently lives in London.