Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

"Kudos" by Rachel Cusk (Faber and Faber, 2018)

On the inside flap it says "Kudos completes Rachel Cusk's trilogy with overwhelming power. The trilogy is one of the great achievements in fiction." Wow.

It's a succession of monologues by people (man on next plane seat, publisher, fellow author Linda, Linda's plane-seat neighbour, interviewer, tour guide, etc) who the main character meets while going to a literary conference. Typically we're given a short description of the speakers before they launch into their monologue. They're all well-spoken, analytical and revealing even if they've not met before. The words of wisdom are shared out pretty evenly amongst them. Duty vs Love, Responsibility vs Freedom are amongst the themes, particularly within marriages where there are children.

We learn about the main character mostly via the others - that's she's got married again (p.84), etc. She has 2 sons, one in his last year of school, one living with his father. A son phones her at the end, asking to fly over to her. She says yes, and goes to a nudist beach. As she swims she watches a man urinate into the sea.

I wondered if the book could have been a non-fiction piece about modern parent-hood from a woman's perspective - how the promise of equality and feminism has turned out. As it is, the illustrative anecdotes are too long, stopping before conclusions can be drawn. Little is gained by introducing the characters because they're all much the same.

Here are some extracts that caught my eye while I was trawling for connections -

Pre-emptive self-criticism

  • "She never said anything unless she had something important to express, which made you realise how much of what people generally said - and he included himself in this statement - was unimportant" (p.94)
  • "It's a saddening thought, she said, that when a group of women get together, far from advancing the cause of femininity, they end up pathologising it" (p.132)
  • "He had noticed, for instance, that my characters were often provoked into feats of self-revelation by means of a simple question" (p.145)
  • "what would his poetry be worth if he wrote it while living in the same zoo as all the other denatured animals, safe but not free?" (p.184)
  • "where everything was discussed but nothing examined, so that there was no danger of passing through the mirror, as he put it, into the state of painful self-awareness where human fictions lose their credibility" (p.200)
  • "'Not everyone is cruel. Perhaps,' he said, 'you have just been unlucky'" (p.202)
  • "You can't tell your story to everybody, I said. Maybe you can only tell it to one person" (p.230)

A couple, plus one

  • Linda talks about a story she's been struggling with. She got "talking to a writer who told her that every day, when he sat down to write, he would think of an object that didn't mean anything to him and would set himself the task of including it somewhere in that day's work ... he suggests a hamster ... The problem, she now saw, was that she had been trying to describe her husband and daughter using materials - her feelings - that no one else could see. The solid fact of the hamster made all the difference. She could describe them petting and fawning over it while its imprisonment got increasingly on Linda's nerves, and the way it solidified their bond so that Linda felt left out" (p.55)
  • "expressed as a triangle, for instance, the Adam/Eve/serpent relationship is more tangible, since the function of triangulation is to fix two points by means of the third and therefore establish objectivity. If I was interested in metaphors, he said, the serpent's role is merely to create a viewpoint from which Adam's and Eve's weaknesses can be observed, and thus the snake might be representative of anything that triangulates the relationship of two identities, such as the arrival of a child might triangulate its parents" (p.96). I think triangulation fixes one point by means of two others
  • "but isn't it the case, he said, that it's the random thing that is so often the tool to lever yourself out of your rut?" (p.115)

Parenthood versus freedom

  • "My husband and I, in other words, had done our duty, and it was now that I considered taking some of those feminist principles I had distributed far and wide and using them for myself. The truth was that I had long wondered what might lie outside the circumscribed world of my marriage, and what freedoms and pleasures might be waiting for me there" (p.76)
  • "I have met people who have freed themselves from their family relationships. Yet there often seems to be a kind of emptiness in that freedom" (p.81)
  • "the biological basis of parenthood was essentially antithetical to reason, and as such could be seen as a whole system of inverted logic" (p.88)
  • "It may be the case, she said, that it is only when it is too late to escape that we see we were free all along" (p.110)


  • "He wore a heavy silver watch on his wrist and new-looking leather shoes on his feet" (p.3) (good places to wear watches and shoes)
  • "She was a tall, soft, thick-limbed woman made even taller by the elaborately strappy high-heeled sandals she wore on her feet" (p.43) (the sentence could have ended with "by her elaborately strappy high-heeled sandals")
  • "[her nose] was upturned and snub-ended and had a deep V in its bridge, as though someone had drawn it with a certain license, to make a point about the relationship between destiny and form" (p.70)
  • "'... Though of course if he were a woman,' she said, leaning more confidentially towards my ear, 'he would be scorned for his honesty, or at the very least no one would care.'" (p.147)
  • "There are a number of works, she said, executed when Bourgeois was the mother of small children, in which she portrays herself as a spider, and what is interesting about these works is not just what they convey about the condition of motherhood - in distinct contrast, she said, to the perennial male vision of the ecstatically fulfilled madonna - but also the fact that they appear to be children's drawings drawn in a child's hand" (p.190)

No chapters, only the occasional vertical centimetre of white space until p.122 where there's a half-page gap.

Other reviews

  • Kate Clanchy (In her novels, Cusk had never been comfortable with complex, long-form plots, but at the same time was doggedly intellectual, intent on foregrounding ideas ... Almost all Faye’s conversations are with people who are also interested in writing down stories, or indeed are in the act of writing Faye down for an interview, and there is a self-consciousness to all this, a riddling, hall-of-mirrors element that is the reverse of the radical humility of the first two books.)
  • Patricia Lockwood (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.)
  • Katy Waldman (Cusk believes that traditional fiction is broken; she seems to long for an alternative that is wholly unauthored, without artifice. In the service of that vision, she dispenses with every convention she can think of: plot, dialogue, interiority. Her recent books have a searching quality; they chase after radical realism, the authenticity of the ascetic who forswears all but the bones of life.)
  • Lloyd Evans (Cusk has a technical quirk which is noticeable in virtually every sentence she writes. All her characters have the same rhythms of speech, irrespective of their age, sex, or nationality. And they express themselves in the same register: detached, knowing, melancholy and sophisticated. ... Fey is constantly disappointed by lazy, deceitful or incompetent males)
  • Maggie Doherty (The question of female freedom, its variations and limitations, is one that has preoccupied Cusk throughout her career. ... The women of Kudos grapple with the legacy of second-wave feminism and wonder why, if we’re closer to gender equality than ever, they still feel so trapped and miserable ... The episode is typical of the trilogy: It’s a series of stories nested within each other like Russian dolls, each taking up the theme of captivity. ... Although Cusk’s material here is the same as in her earlier novels, she has reworked it so that it’s almost unrecognizable in its new form. The formal strategies she’s devised—outlining and erasing, compiling and undercutting—allow her to write honestly and precisely about the many sacrifices that women and men make in order to abide by the rules of domestic life. Unlike her memoirs, which at times can feel overwrought, Cusk finds a way here to be serious without being self-serious. ... If, at times, this fiction feels claustrophobic, with its fixed gender roles and its preclusion of alternative ways of living and loving, it is also compelling in subtle and surprising ways. Cusk has produced a portrait of domestic life that will resonate for some and feel entirely foreign for others—those to whom freedom comes more easily.)

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