Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline’ is one of the most quietly experimental novels of recent years. Through muted, almost alienated prose, it presents the most powerful evocation of depression and isolation I think I have ever read. Of course, once the character, tone and style had been established, the next challenge was for the novel’s sequels to show progression. ‘Outline’ was followed by ‘Transit’ a book which was less pure in both ambition and execution – depression may be hard to convey, but it is at least consistent. Gradual recovery means abandoning precariously sustained passivity and so ‘Transit’ is a more uneven read, if not less accomplished then certainly striving for an aim which is never going to be wholly satisfying.
‘Kudos’ is the conclusion of the triptych. The name implies a celebration, but the book is not so simple in how it considers endings, achievements or rewards. Around half-way through the novel, a precocious college student subjects the protagonist to a disquisition on the complexity of the term:
‘As I was probably aware, the Greek word ‘kudos’ was a singular noun that had become plural by a process of back formation: kudo on its own had never actually existed, but in modern usage its collective meaning had been altered by the confusing presence of a plural suffix, so that ‘kudos’ therefore meant, literally, ‘prizes,’ but in its original form it connoted the broader concept of recognition or acclaim, as well as being suggestive of something which might be falsely claimed by someone else. For instance, he had heard his mother complaining to someone on the phone the other day that the board of directors took the kudos for the festival’s success while she did all the work.’
This kind of monologue will be familiar to fans of the earlier novels, but there are some key differences. Although scarcely more talkative, Cusk’s protagonist is now more active. She is not humiliated or confounded by the public events demanded by her profession and seems keenly, if quietly, aware of her own deserved status and standing. Like the women who surround her, she may be talked down to or sidelined, but this does not diminish her agency. In the previous books, she often reflected impotence or frustration back to those who confided in her, now she reflects determination, strength and a will to succeed on her own terms in a man’s world.
This is not to say that very much happens in the book, or that inner conviction can always prevail against the forces that confront it. ‘Kudos’ is after all still a book by Rachel Cusk, so the stylistic achievement is one of minimalism and stillness rather than fireworks or dramatic gestures. The key point is not to underestimate its power. Like the women whose lives it evokes, ‘Kudos’ is celebration of individuals and a collective, while still dealing with worldly recognition, false glory and usurpation. It may not have surpassed ‘Outline’ as my personal favourite, but it is richly rewarding book, one that is worthy of its predecessors and a true testament to Cusk’s sensitivity and craft.