Arts

Book Review

Rachel Cusk’s artful, trailblazing trilogy ends on a slight off-note

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After enduring ferocious accusations of being too self-involved after the publication of her memoirs, “A Life’s Work,’’ about parenting, and “Aftermath,’’ about her divorce, the British writer Rachel Cusk left straight nonfiction behind. She has since become known as one of the most arresting practitioners of auto-fiction, an uneasy and intriguing hybrid of memoir and fiction (Sheila Heti, Jenny Offill, Karl Ove Knausgaard are some of her compatriots).

In quick succession, Cusk has published three slim, first-person novels — “Outline’’ (2014), “Transit’’ (2016), and now, “Kudos.’’ Cool, cerebral, and mesmerizing, the novels are considered trailblazers and have won Cusk accolades most writers can only dream of.

Narrated by Faye, a British writer with two sons, the trilogy is largely plotless and deeply philosophical. In “Outline’’ Faye travels to Greece to teach a writing workshop; in “Transit’’ she renovates a home in London; and in “Kudos’’ she attends a literary festival and publicity junket in a scorchingly hot European country.

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The Faye of “Kudos’’ is recently remarried after a brutal divorce, although we learn next to nothing about her spouse. We are given two phone conversations with each of Faye’s sons, now teenagers: One has gotten into trouble, and the other, whose high school graduation Faye has missed, asks plaintively, “[W]hen are you coming home?” Chastised as a bad mom after the publication of “A Life’s Work,’’ Cusk seems to be slyly commenting on her own reputation while also undercutting it with the palpable tenderness of the mother-son exchanges.

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In her peregrinations and at home, Faye has an uncanny ability to elicit startling confessions, strange tales, and unusual anecdotes from those she encounters. In her presence, under the influence of her attentive listening, people divulge private information, shocking secrets, unsavory ambitions, disturbing doubts. We are rarely given her side of the dialogue, if there is any. She is the medium through which a host of characters’ stories are refracted, and while their individual stories are wildly distinctive, the voice that narrates them is uniformly dispassionate and knowing.

Of the three novels, “Kudos’’ is the most insular and self-referential, in large part a meditation on the nature of publishing and publicity, literary fame, and the value and worth of literature itself. In it, Faye converses with her publisher, literary critics, various interviewers, other writers. For readers who are not writers, critics, or bibliophiles, its musings on canonicity and marketability, the “preservation of literary values” and “popular success” may initially seem solipsistic.

But one of the most brilliant aspects of this novel is the way it uncovers the analogies between imaginative productions and “real” life and the way the two can mix and merge. Filled with reflections on authenticity and falseness, “Kudos’’ lays bare the theatricality of ordinary actions and the difficulty of distinguishing real from pretend. Faye’s seatmate on a plane acknowledges that “much of what you said was pretty scripted and that if you really thought about it you could admit it didn’t often represent how you actually felt” and confesses: “I couldn’t tell whether what I was doing was manly and honourable or just fake.” A woman’s husband changes in a way that makes him seem like “a copy or forgery of himself.” A conference delegate laments the “lost authenticity” of a pastry he’d once loved, now mass-produced. Faye’s guide tells her that he has “come to understand that other people enjoy exaggeration and make-believe to the extent that they regularly confused them with the truth.”

In all three novels, Cusk is interested in how we construct stories about ourselves and others, impose clarifying and distorting narratives on our experience, experiment with different identities and selves in ways that are both liberating and constricting.

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For “Kudos’’ is also a book about freedom and its costs. A man who had counted down the days till retirement is surprised by the tedium of his existence free from work. One character wonders “what might lie outside the circumscribed world of . . .[her] marriage, and what freedoms and pleasures might be waiting . . . there,” but experience instructs her in the “emptiness in that freedom.”

The urge to find refuge in constructs of one’s own or another’s devising and alternatively to seek freedom from shaping narratives is political as well as personal. Cusk sets “Kudos’’ on the eve of the Brexit vote and explores perennial questions of fairness and justice (who determines how kudos are won and by whom?), the value of suffering (the belief that “without suffering there can be no art” is ruthlessly interrogated), and the relationship between private life and public duty.

The novel, and trilogy, end rather disappointingly, with a final scene whose black comedy isn’t as resonant or funny as one might have wished. But the one flat note emphasizes how unerring the rest has been. These are deeply intelligent works that cast a hypnotic spell.

KUDOS

By Rachel Cusk

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 232 pp., $26

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Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’