Swimming in a Deep Story

MacKenzie Warren reviews Rachel Cusk’s Kudos

Rachel Cusk, Kudos.
Faber & Faber, £16.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Rachel Cusk’s Kudos is something truly unexpected: a calm, artfully composed response to the ugly, misshapen monstrosity we call “Brexit”. The word itself appears here only once, but there’s no doubt that the British referendum to leave the European Union is the novel’s absent centre. The narrative is split into two parts of equal length. The first is set in Germany in the weeks leading up to the Brexit vote. The second is set in Portugal in the aftermath. There’s also some light discussion of the socio-economic forces behind the “leave” campaign, and there’s the occasional remark indicating continental attitudes towards the “leave” victory. Yet unlike Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016), hastily rewritten in the weeks following the referendum, Kudos aims for something more than simply capturing the spirit of turbulent times. It takes seriously the existential implications of the questions raised by the referendum — whether to remain or leave, to maintain or reject a particular status quo — and personalises the abstract grievances that appear to have brought about the result.

Kudos is the final part in the trilogy of novels that Cusk began with Outline (2014) and continued in Transit (2016). It shares the same narrator, Faye, a writer of literary fiction, middle-aged and recently divorced, who in turn shares many features of Cusk’s own personal history. It takes place in the same social setting and sketches scenes of haute bourgeois life in contemporary Europe, always circling back to situations in which well-spoken, well-to-do literary folk discuss things like international travel, home renovations, marital tensions, and tactics for raising responsible children. And, except for the split between its two halves, it adopts the same unusual form as Outline and Transit. Written in a way that reveals precious little of the narrator herself — concealing all but the most significant features of her past, her identity, her thoughts and feelings — Kudos consists almost entirely of stories told to Faye by the people she meets. For whatever reason, though implicitly because Faye has such an unassuming demeanour, these people feel at liberty to open up to her, to unburden themselves of their innermost concerns.

It’s easy to plunge into Kudos and read it as a simple continuation of the two earlier novels, the same old thing all over again. But by allowing Brexit to break into the novel’s structure — by creating a narrative vacuum that the result of the referendum rushes in to fill — Cusk manages to twist Faye’s modus operandi in an interesting way, casting her actions throughout the trilogy in a new, uncomfortable light. Everything hinges on Faye’s status as narrator, and the moral complexities inherent in the assumption of the authority to narrate stories that rightfully belong to other people.

In the wake of the Brexit referendum, and equally in the build-up towards the election of Donald Trump, political analysts have found much to say about the phenomena that Arlie Russell Hochschild has dubbed “deep stories”. A deep story is a cultural narrative that purports to explain the causes behind the economic status quo; to identify private feelings as the products of immense, impersonal social forces; and to appeal to those people who believe they have been disenfranchised, in order to bolster the case for a rebellion against the powers that be. In the deep story that is widely seen to have driven the victories of Brexit and Trump, the faceless members of a “global elite” have spent the last forty years advancing the interests of various (supposedly undeserving) minority groups, in a way that has dispossessed “regular people” of their rightful opportunities to better their lives. Many of the voters who supported Brexit and Trump saw themselves as merely supporting characters in this story, shoved aside by the elite and left to play minor roles in a tale they couldn’t influence even slightly. In consequence, it has been said, they cast their votes for the political possibilities that seemed most capable of smashing the status quo, the better to clear the air of their societies and start writing a new story in which they might become active participants.

Most of the reported narratives in Kudos have a pulse that beats in time with ideas related to this situation: that each of us can be reduced to a character in someone else’s story, and that each of us is also liable to treat others as characters in stories of our own. In one of the novel’s most painful sections, Faye falls into conversation with a woman who has become estranged from her elder sister. Growing up, the woman says, she saw her sister as a benchmark for her own behaviour, someone against whom to measure her own achievements and missteps, and as an adult she found herself taking pleasure in her sister’s misfortunes. “I watched my sister struggle with her daughters as I had always watched her struggle with everything”, she says, “with the satisfaction of knowing that by watching closely enough I had avoided her mistakes. Perhaps for that reason… it was almost unbearable to me when my sister made a success of something.” After her sister married a successful and apparently respectful man, the woman became envious and even began to covet her sister’s husband. Then, after the marriage collapsed and the family splintered apart, the woman felt overjoyed. Yet in the wake of the divorce, it emerged that the sister’s husband had been a “cold and selfish character”, overbearing and psychologically abusive, even though he took great care to appear to be someone other than “who he really was”. When the woman’s sister met another man — “a far better man than the husband I had once envied her” — she attained a lifestyle of material plenty and cut off contact with her family. So, the woman adds in a moment of reflection, neither her sister nor her sister’s first husband were content to be characters whose function is merely to adorn the stories of others — and the husband least of all, as the woman discovered when she encountered him some years later.

Other iterations of this situation appear in many of the monologues delivered by Faye’s interlocutors. Another woman shares the concerns she once held about her teenage son, whose “entire life and character would be shaped” by the hypermasculine environment he was growing up in. Only after he suffered a sporting injury and became bedridden did she notice “a profound change in his character”, a change effected only when the boy became the sole recipient of his mother’s charity and could see her as more than a domestic servant. Elsewhere, during a discussion at a literary conference, a woman upbraids a celebrated male writer for his comments about giving up on shaping the characters of his children. Eventually, she prods him to admit that he is “refusing to tell the story any more… because you don’t believe in the characters or in yourself as a character”. A Welsh novelist tells Faye about how the people in his local area voted in large numbers to leave the European Union, emphasising that their votes were driven by a feeling that modernity had robbed them of the localised cultural stories that would give them a sense of shared identity. And in a particularly unsettling scene, Faye sits down for an interview with a journalist whose “novel idea”, she says, “was to treat me as one of my own characters, with himself granted the power of narrator”. In virtually every story told to Faye throughout Kudos, a so-called character causes trouble for a narrator by resisting the notion that he or she belongs to a story given shape by someone else.

Lest there be any doubt that this metafictional resistance flows from the same source as the political resistance of the “leave” campaign, the opening episode of Kudos foregrounds the connection from the start. In a reprise of the opening scene of Outline, Faye boards a plane, finds her seat, and falls into conversation with the man seated beside her. Their conversation takes place in the build-up to the Brexit referendum. Towards the end of what turns out to be a very literal shaggy dog story, the man confesses to having become so distressed by events in his life at home that he has begun to question the stability of his place in his family. He tells Faye that he drove to the airport in such a frantic state of mind that he “shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of a car”. As he drove, he adds, he found himself distracted by the “leave” and “remain” campaign billboards: “I kept passing these signs by the road with the same words on them over and over again and I started to think they’d been put there for me. You know the ones I mean — they’re everywhere. … They seemed to be addressing me personally.” Ultimately, the man opts to remain, to preserve his personal status quo, but even then his reasons are a product of his attitudes towards the people who serve as characters in his life’s story — and specifically a product of the levity he feels when he realises that his daughter is not the character he feared she might have been.

Somehow it seems that it shouldn’t be possible to harness the vile, vicious energies of the Brexit referendum and channel them into a work of any elegance, but that’s exactly what Cusk does with Kudos. She takes the binary rhetoric of the campaign, makes it more profound than it ever was in real life, and minimises its frame of reference so that it speaks to the utmost domestic concerns of individuals, not nation states. The result is, in one sense, neither more nor less impressive than Outline or Transit, since the quality of the three novels is remarkably consistent, but in another sense Kudos arrives with much more of an impact. This is the sense in which it addresses something beyond itself — the trilogy as a whole — and concludes the arc of the narrator in a way that urges readers to revise their opinions of the earlier novels.

Really, of course, there is no arc to Faye’s development in Kudos, much as there was no arc to Outline and Transit, and much as there is no arc to the three novels when taken altogether. Faye doesn’t go on an emotional journey or undergo any meaningful changes. Each novel, including Kudos, is simply a string of stories told to Faye by others, and the form of the overall trilogy amounts to the form of its individual volumes writ large. But because the Brexit elements of Kudos raise questions about the politics and ethics of narration, this final volume does leave the trilogy in a place very different from its point of departure. In fact, it seems at times to use these questions to undermine the admirability of Faye’s conduct, her efforts to faithfully report others’ narratives and to bring the trilogy to a state of completion.

In all three novels, Faye herself is, par excellence, the person in control of a story which reduces others to characters. She is a storyteller who sometimes exploits others’ stories in ways that are meaningful for her, even if the meaning she finds in them remains obscure to readers, and even if it emerges only through one story’s connections to the other stories she tells. She isn’t an egotist — not exactly — because she takes pains to efface herself from the proceedings, allowing her presence to be felt only insofar as the words of other people refract her bearing as a conduit. But whatever else Faye may be, she is absolutely a manipulator, a literary puppeteer, selecting and sequencing the stories she retells, burnishing or diminishing certain of their details, no doubt omitting a number stories that she has heard because they happen not to fit easily into her project, even as her affectless tone makes her activities seem innocuous, sincere, scrubbed of artifice. She is, throughout the trilogy, the author of a “deep story” about herself — a story she arrives at indirectly, via the stories of the people she encounters, and a story that inevitably reduces those smaller stories to something like accoutrements. Ultimately, then, each reported narrative is less valuable to Faye on its own terms, however much she attends to its subtleties in the moment of reporting it, than on the terms in which it services her larger agenda, furnishing the scenery of grander events that revolve around Faye herself.

Where does she end up? Confused, irresolute, with questions about characters and narrators reflecting back on themselves to imprison her in a hall of mirrors she can’t find her way out of. On her final night in Portugal, she takes herself to the beach. The beach is not empty. There is a large gathering of other people on the sand. Faye decides to skirt around the edges of the group, confining herself to the margins of their concerns. When she feels she is alone and at a distance from the group, she removes all her clothes to go for a swim in solitude. Then she realises she is not alone. A man from the gathering approaches her and does something to denigrate her, to humiliate her. She can’t understand why. She becomes a character in his story, in the broader story of the group, utterly robbed of respect, and robbed of agency as well. But he, too, is a character in her story, defined by his behaviour in this moment, and by the relationships between his behaviour and the behaviour of other people in other stories reported by Faye, long after the fact and long after she begins recounting all the stories she reports in Kudos. Is there no way for human beings to avoid treating one another instrumentally, as means to narrative ends?

The final page of Kudos leaves Faye right there, in the water, afloat, rocked by gentle waves, hounded by that question, suspended in uncertainty, looking back to shore and training her narratorial gaze upon the man who in turn trains his gaze upon her. This scene brings the trilogy to a peculiar end — ambivalent at best, cynical at worst — but also, perhaps, an end that is more honest than any alternative. In 2014, Faye’s opening gambit, to reveal her character only in outline, seemed to involve an innocent, humble renunciation of ego. In 2018, events have shown us the dangers, and the arrogance, of believing that such a renunciation is possible, of outlining one’s own situation in a story whose bit players suffer the disrespect of being instrumentalised. Faye herself would never have accepted becoming a subject of such instrumentalisation, and indeed Outline opens in the aftermath of her refusal to become one. It seems only fitting then, if haunting, that with her final words she should literally find herself at sea, unsure what to make of a stranger who believes he knows who she is, and fraught when he decides what role she ought to play in the deep story that determines their lives.

About MacKenzie Warren

MacKenzie Warren read English at Oriel College, Oxford. She now lives in Bristol where she works as a freelance copywriter and social policy advisor for the local authority.