Rachel Cusk’s most recent novel, Kudos (2019), is a great read. It is also an odd book. Basically, it is a series of conversations between the narrator (a novelist on her way to and then attending a literary conference in an unnamed southern European city) and people she encounters over three days. And they aren’t really conversations; the narrator/novelist says almost nothing as she is subjected to monologues from the people—none of them intimates, some of them total strangers—she meets. There is no plot, no character development, no dominating point of view. The monologues are offered without authorial (or even narrator) comment.
But the stories and ideas each monologist offers are almost all enthralling; one only wishes that the people one sat next to on an airplane where one-fifth as interesting.
I guess this could be called a “novel of ideas” (Nick and I just recently read together Sianne Ngai’s recent piece in the Paris Review—an excerpt from her book on “gimmicks”—about the novel of ideas.) But Cusk doesn’t seem to have any stake in any of the ideas expressed. The narrator just records what is said to her. About the only concrete take-away from the book is that family life generates tremendous hurt and resentment. And that it is the rare couple indeed that can avoid divorce.
In any case, I wanted to capture two passages from the book that relate to my earlier post about the banishment of hope, of anything looking remotely like a happy ending, from novels that aspire to be considered “literature” or “serious fiction.”
The first passage is one of the few places where the narrator speaks in her own voice:
“Suffering has always appeared to me as an opportunity, I said, and I wasn’t sure I would ever discover this was true and if so why it was, because so far I had failed to understand what it might be an opportunity for. All I knew was that it carried a kind of honor, if you survived it, and left you in a relationship to the truth that seemed closer, but that in fact might have been identical to the truthfulness of staying in one place.” (Read book on Kindle, so can only say this passage occurs 27% of the way in.)
I like this because it suggests how we want to face the fact of suffering squarely, not denying its existence. And how we also long to find a way to make suffering meaningful, even productive, but can’t find that way—and, in fact, suspect any way of garnering a “return” on suffering as full of bad faith, and morally suspect. Suffering is evil and should be denounced as evil. No fortunate falls. And yet. . . we do keep trying to convert suffering into something else—if only the “honor” of survival. “Survivor” has become a laudatory term in our day and age.
The second passage is much longer, but also addresses the grim world of serious fiction. I don’t feel any need to comment on the passage.
The speaker is a young literary critic.
“He had always been compelled by provocative and difficult writing, he went on, because this at least proved the author had the wit to unshackle himself from convention, but he found that in works of extreme negativity—the writings of Thomas Berhard were an example he had been considering lately—one nevertheless eventually hit an impasse. A work of art could not, ultimately, be negative: its material existence, its status as an object, could not help but be positive, a gain, an addition to the sum of what was. The self-destructive novel, like the self-destructive person, was something from which in the end you remained helplessly separated, forced to watch a spectacle—the soul turning on itself—in which you were powerless to intervene. Great art was very often brought to the service of this self-immolation, as great intelligence and sensitivity often characterized those who found the world an impossible place to live in; yet the spectre of madness was so discomfiting that it made surrender to the writing unfeasible; one stayed on one’s guard, as a child might stay on its guard against a mad parent, knowing itself ultimately alone. Negative literature, he had noticed, got much of its power through the fearless use of honesty: a person with no interest in living and hence no investment in the future can afford to be honest, he said, and the same dubious privilege was extended to the negative writer. Yet their honesty, as he had said, was of an unpalatable kind: in a sense it went to waste, perhaps because no one cared for the honesty of someone who was jumping the ship the rest of us were stuck in. The real honesty, of course, was that of the person who remained on board and endeavored to tell the truth about it, or so we were led to believe. If I agreed that literature was a form that took its life-blood from social and material constructs, the writer could do no more than stay within those constructs, buried in bourgeois life—and he had recently read it described somewhere—like a tick in an animal’s fur” (77-78% of the way through).