Rachel Cusk’s Rules for Living

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In her recent trilogy of autofictional novels, Rachel Cusk includes only what she absolutely must — and she’s decided she can do without quite a lot. There are no complicated plots, interior lives, characterizations, or extended descriptions.

Instead, the novels — Outline (2014), Transit (2016), and now Kudos — follow a deceptively simple formula. Faye, our narrator, is an observational vessel for the lives of others, listening attentively as all manner of strangers, acquaintances, and friends eagerly divulge their life stories. A writer refers to a violent mugging that’s left her unsure of who she is; a retired investment banker recounts the last living moments of his dog, for whom he feels a greater affinity than any human. Over and over, people confess to leaving their partners only to realize that the freedom they imagined isn’t quite what they wanted. Faye asks probing questions and makes the occasional judgment, admitting only the sparest details of her own life as the people she encounters fumble around in search of rules and limitations, wondering whether and how they went wrong.

Faye herself knows there are rules to live by, if only she could determine precisely what they are. For all the apparent trendiness of Cusk’s chosen form (with autofiction seemingly everywhere) there’s a sense of high moral seriousness in her trilogy that feels positively old-fashioned. Every element of the novels conveys a strenuous sense of discipline. The effect is of watching an oracle divine fearsome and inscrutable truths from on high, then render them into stories fit for mortals. You wonder what gives her the right — whose oracle is this? — yet you trust her all the same. Cusk’s work has garnered comparisons to Greek myth for its stark narratives and obsession with morality, and she wrestles with questions first posed in antiquity. In her 2012 memoir Aftermath, about her life after divorce, Cusk compares herself to Clytemnestra, who destroyed her own family and moral universe along with it. It’s a forceful metaphor, even if it requires comparing the end of her marriage to murder.

In fact, the unremarkable and sordid fact of divorce powers Cusk’s entire autofictional project. Previously, in Aftermath, Cusk described marriage as a form which is “both safety and imprisonment, both protector and dissembler”; the only “alternative to form,” she lamented, “is chaos.” Now, in the new trilogy, we see how the states of marriage and divorce can encompass nearly everything, from personal and ethical questions to aesthetic ones. It’s formal arrangements like marriage, in life as in art, that let us ask the big questions that concern Cusk. (For all her ambivalence about narrative and form, her trilogy couldn’t exist without them.) Divorce gives Cusk a foundation to ponder questions of freedom, the constitution of the self in society, and the necessary illusions of narrative. Nearly every character’s life story animates one of these problems, and Faye’s trajectory ultimately reinforces them.

Faye shares a number of traits with Cusk: she’s a British writer, mother of two, and acute social observer who, over the course of the trilogy, renegotiates her own identity and values in the wake of a cataclysmic divorce. Outline follows her during a trip to Athens to teach a writing workshop, and finds her at her most passive and bereft, swearing off all desire and vowing to live a life “as unmarked by self-will as possible.” In Transit, Faye renovates her new home in London and regains some of her agency; scenes unspool more languorously, occupying more time and space.

You might expect Kudos to evolve further in this direction, toward the kind of novel in which the narrator becomes a more active character, her long crisis of faith finally over. But Faye, now remarried and back on the international literary circuit, is even more withdrawn and hidden than when we first met her. Though she’s recovered from the emotional devastation of divorce, and even returned to the safety and illusion of marriage, what happened to her cannot be undone. Actions have consequences, which is what, for Cusk, gives our choices weight. The only way you can write three mesmerizing novels about a divorce — not even about a divorce, but about one’s feelings about a divorce — is to believe that what you do (and why) might matter. Cusk’s sternness, what some critics have even identified as a kind of cruelty, is also an expression of high expectations. This kind of pressure can make it difficult to act, so breathlessly heavy does every decision become, but it’s also undeniably dignifying.

Though the stories Faye hears have the feel of parables, Cusk is anything but didactic: She’s hesitant to tip the scale too far in any of these debates (only a very few people sound genuinely misguided), and Faye’s judgments seep out in sometimes contradictory and ever-evolving pronouncements.

Among these beliefs are an affinity for suffering, which Faye believes brings you closer to the truth, and a definition of evil as “the abandonment of self-discipline in the face of desire.” Furthermore: Personal morality is under attack, and therefore more important than ever. Narrative hides, rather than enhances, the truth. Reality, which Faye defines as “the eternal equipoise of positive and negative,” can only be ascertained through objectivity. Above all, there is no greater tragedy than to be stuck in a single person’s point of view. And this is what’s most peculiar about Rachel Cusk — her assertion of the primacy of personal experience expands, rather than contracts, her sense of right and wrong. While most autofiction focuses on the impossibility of knowledge beyond oneself, Cusk’s novels insist on the opposite: her narrator’s experience only comes into focus with the help of other characters.

In her review of Kudos for Slate, Sally Rooney argues that Cusk’s novels are essentially bourgeois in their conception of familial responsibility. “Freedom is under constant assault, in Faye’s vision, from the forces of family life and friendship,” Rooney writes. “Other people — with their selfishness, their needs, their insensitivities —represent a threat to the individual at every turn.”

She’s right that in Cusk’s novels, people are constantly struggling with the decision to break free of relationships and other commitments. In Kudos, Faye remarks that “the question of whether to leave or remain … could almost be said to constitute the innermost core of self-determination.” But if Faye simply revered freedom, as Rooney seems to argue, there would be no trilogy of novels dedicated to its consequences. The problem with freedom, as Cusk knows, is that it can’t be so neatly politicized or easily controlled. There are as many reasons to seek it (the demands of motherhood, the constriction of monogamous marriage) as there are ways to corrupt it, and our reliance on other people can’t be simply dismissed.

Kudos remains equivocal about freedom; Cusk knows better than to glorify taking a hammer to your life. But the novel’s spareness testifies to an indelible loss. In Cusk’s somber cosmology, there are limits to reinvention. Near the end of Kudos, Faye is taken by her publisher, Paola, to visit a church that suffered a devastating fire 50 years earlier. The exterior appeared untouched, but inside, the fire’s ruination had been fully preserved, “despite the disturbing extremity of its appearance and the violent events to which that appearance testified.”

“At first I had thought that someone had made a terrible mistake,” Paola says. But then she noticed that in place of statues, new lights allowed you to “see more in the empty space than you would have seen had it been filled with a statue.” Resting somewhere between form and chaos, Faye seems to have found something new.

Rachel Cusk’s Rules for Living