CW for animal death (not discussed in this review)
This is going to be a bit of a different review today, because I wanted to talk about the Outline series by Rachel Cusk as well as the final book in the trilogy, and the one I recently read, Kudos. I think it’s kinda hard to review a book in a series without considering it in the wider context of the series as a whole anyway, so hopefully it’ll make sense.
Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy was treated as a pretty big deal in the literary fiction world, but only really when the final book, Kudos was released, as I recall. I, at least, hadn’t heard of the trilogy prior to the publication of the final instalment. Because it was getting so much buzz, and the covers are definitely my aesthetic, I had to buy them. I didn’t know much about these books reading them, but the covers and title of the second instalment (Transit) suggested they were travel-focused. This is true, though ironically, Transit is the book that sees the protagonist at home in London, in a transitory life-stage rather than physically in transit.
The series is told in a series of conversations. In Kudos, we see Faye (our writer protagonist) travel to a city in Europe in order to promote her new book at some sort of convention. Many of the details in this book are deliberately vague: we know very little about the content of Faye’s book, and I don’t think the name of the city she visits is ever actually mentioned. Her name is barely even mentioned. We don’t know much about her inner thoughts or feelings, despite being a first-person narrative. By choosing to tell a story through conversations, Rachel Cusk gives us an insight into the elements of life that can be publicly observed. There are some transitionary moments that give the vital context needed to understand these conversations, but very little else. As a concept, I find this really interesting, but in practice, it became a little dull by the end of the trilogy. I do think that perhaps this series could have been a single book, rather than the same trick repeated three times. I don’t feel as though the themes are explored in particularly more depth in Kudos than they are in Transit, though I did feel as though Transit built on Outline.
Taking Kudos on its own, then, allows us to celebrate its achievements. Rachel Cusk’s writing is simple and effective, and she manages to imbue a lot of atmosphere into very short passages that means the lack of extraneous detail is not really an issue. Usually, extraneous detail is necessary to fiction in order to give a better sense of the characters, their relationships, and the situations they find themselves in. Kudos, however, is not really interested in characters, or particularly, their situations. The relationships in this book are generally ones that would be considered relatively unimportant, with the standout exception of Faye’s relationship with her son, which is explored more in previous books, but alluded to here in a phone conversation with him, and the mentioning of him in conversations with others. Conversation is precisely the kind of medium to explore relationships, and Cusk achieves this. Almost all of the relationships depicted in this novel are circumstantial and fleeting: the reader gets the distinct impression that these conversations are not going to develop the relationship between these two people. I have long had a fascination with fleeting moments of human connection, which is explored to some degree here.
Portraying characters through their conversations is inevitably going to leave them a bit flat, so Cusk instead relies on thematic exploration to carry the reader through. Through this 232-page work, Cusk explores politics, art, literature, family, love, and isolation, yet no one theme feels as though it overpowers any of the others. As I said earlier, I do feel as though Kudos has little to add after reading Outline and Transit, though taken on its own, it is a thought-provoking read. While this is a trilogy, and I read it in order, I do feel as though these books could be taken as standalone novels and understood, and little lost. This circles back to what I said earlier regarding the fact that this trilogy could have been a single book. While the themes explored are expanded upon throughout the trilogy, and themes are revisited in greater depth, for the most part, the narrative seems to just potter along. Perhaps a 400-page book could have conveyed a similar level of thematic depth without beginning to feel repetitive.
Overall, I am glad that I took a long break after reading Outline and Transit before reading Kudos, because I much prefer this book when I consider it in isolation. In the context of the overall trilogy, it becomes somewhat watered down. Despite all this, I do recommend this trilogy. It’s certainly an interesting formal experimentation, and Cusk’s writing is impressive. Maybe just don’t read all three back to back.