In “Kudos,” the final volume in the trilogy of cool, narcotic novels by Rachel Cusk, a literary critic treats the narrator, Faye, to a disquisition on “negative literature.” He confides that “he had always been compelled by provocative and difficult writing . . . but he had found that in works of extreme negativity . . . one nonetheless eventually hit an impasse.” Negative literature “got much of its power through the fearless use of honesty,” he continues, yet it is honesty “of an unpalatable kind.”
Though he does not define “negative literature,” exactly, the critic may be gesturing at the novel that contains him. “Kudos” is the third installment in the series that began, in 2014, with “Outline” and continued, in 2016, with “Transit.” The books follow Faye, a woman much like Cusk—she is a writer, divorced, remarried, with two children—as she teaches a workshop in Greece (Volume I), renovates a London townhouse (Volume II), and attends a literary festival in a European city (Volume III). Here is how these novels go: Faye encounters acquaintances and strangers, who helplessly begin to talk at her. She reports what they say, her flat, precise, and scrupulous voice homogenizing each narrative fragment. She herself is curiously blank, her own contours described by the details she notices. Faye is narrative antimatter; the books she inhabits are ambitious acts of refusal.
Faye’s reticence has a whiff of authorial projection: it feels self-protective, or maybe just piqued. Cusk’s candor has not always enchanted readers—for some, it has proved “unpalatable.” Her searing memoirs of motherhood (“A Life’s Work”) and divorce (“Aftermath”) inflamed the British press and cemented her reputation as astringent, difficult. With the Faye triad, Cusk has created if not an obliterated narrator then the entrancing illusion of one. Yet “Kudos” bristles with pitiless—one might say “negative”—description that invites the question of whether cruelty and honesty are the same thing. (Cusk, a curator of the repellant, favors the adjectives “ghastly,” “ghoulish,” and “grotesque.”)
Cusk is often lumped in with authors of autofiction: inward-looking novels loosely wound around the trellis of autobiography. But where Sheila Heti and Jenny Offill are interested chiefly in the creative process, “Kudos” is equally enthralled (and disgusted) by literary society. On the book circuit, Faye endures interviewers who talk over her, publicists who misunderstand her, novelists who condescend to her. How greatly would some of these literary apparatchiks benefit from a smidge of self-awareness! Behold the doofy Karl Ove