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Rachel Cusk’s unforgiving eye

Discussed in this essay:

Kudos, by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240 pages. $26.

Transit, by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages. $16.

Outline, by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 256 pages. $16.

Jean Genet, the French novelist who spent his early years as a thief and a prostitute, once confessed to feeling a little throb of joy when he gazed on the faces of the people he robbed. The ugliness he saw there, an ugliness he had caused, aroused in him a “cruel pleasure”—a cutting, unrepentant thrill that was “bound to transfigure my own face, to make me resplendent,” he wrote in his autobiographical novel The Thief’s Journal. It was an unexpectedly aesthetic delight, and for Genet, as for Nietzsche and Henry James, Adorno and Nabokov—the great male theorists of aesthetic bliss—aestheticism’s seductiveness was not just its appeal to beauty but its exaltation of cruelty as the essence of art. “In aesthetic forms, cruelty becomes imagination,” proclaimed Adorno. “Something is excised from the living, from the body of language, from tones, from visual experience.” Good art was imitation; great art was highway robbery.

Illustration by Romy Blümel

Genet’s novel makes a conspicuous appearance midway through Rachel Cusk’s Transit, the second novel in a trilogy that began in 2014 with Outline and concludes with Kudos, which will be published this month. At a literary festival outside London, an angelic-looking gay man tells Cusk’s narrator, a novelist named Faye, about reading The Thief’s Journal for the first time on a darkening beach in Nice, France, surrounded by girls with “shy bodies and tentative fingers.” He recalls feeling shocked by the novel’s “brutal aestheticism”: its decadent style and unbridled self-expression, but most of all the “violent betrayal and robbery of the feminine” he saw in Genet’s representations of drag queens. “He felt guilty even reading it in the company of these tentative girls, who would never, he felt certain, plunder the masculine in that way.” If in Genet’s world the masculine is the source of cruelty and art, the feminine is inferior and contemptible—the object of hostility and caricature, forbidden from sharing in the rarefied spoils of aesthetic authority.

Are women capable of such cruelty? Are they capable of making great art? For Cusk, perhaps the cruelest novelist at work today, these questions invite a distinctly feminized variety of aestheticism, which in the service of ecstasy and power plunders the masculine tradition of cruelty. Unlike in Ge­net’s stories of thievery and lust, there is nothing especially cruel about Cusk’s trilogy on the level of plot; indeed, as many critics have observed, the novels are largely plotless exercises in characterization and consciousness. All three follow the same structure: Faye meets a person and describes him; he begins to tell a story but his story is hijacked by Faye’s narration, its vividness and precision quickly crowding out her interlocutor’s voice. Most of her encounters take place at literary events—a writing workshop, a reading, a festival—in a world that seems unusually overpopulated with writers, most of them, by their own admission, quite bad. Presiding over this unimpressive field is Faye, a narrator who is both curious and cold, a mother as attentive as she is unsentimental, a writer only selectively interested in the lives of others.

“How often people betrayed themselves by what they noticed in others,” thinks Faye, who has a gift for noticing others and describing what she has noticed in marvelously alert and intricate detail. Early in Outline, she sits on a plane and looks at a father walking up and down the aisle, rocking his infant. With an appreciative eye—she has two young boys of her own—she notes “the tender wrinkled feet of the baby on his shoulder, the little hunched back, the soft head with its primitive whorl of hair.” These beatific details are, Faye suggests, merely products of the plane’s electric light. All they betray is her attentiveness, her acute receptivity to the “unmediated, so impersonal, so infinite” world of appearances.

The baby is cute, but don’t let him fool you. There is nothing unmediated or impersonal or infinite about noticing. To notice (from the Latin notitia, “intimacy with a person or idea”) is always to discriminate. The roving eye stops, discerns one or two details, and gropes for the right words to enshrine them so that, in their newfound splendor and richness, these details might reveal some essential truth. “It was as though everything that had been inside was moved outside, piece by piece, like furniture being taken out of a house and put on the pavement,” Faye observes in Outline, describing how the violent quarrels of children and lovers often turn on who notices what. 

The intangible became solid, the visionary was embodied, the private became public: when peace becomes war, when love turns to hatred, something is born into the world, a force of pure mortality.

Cusk wants us to notice Faye noticing, and she wants us to see it as an act of volition and power, a supremely human act of creation that defies what critics have written about her novels—almost all of it complimentary, much of it wrongheaded. Cusk is not “objective” or “modest” or “passive” or any of the other humble words reviewers have used to describe her prose. Nor does she “disappear” when she relinquishes the autobiographical mode cultivated in her startlingly candid memoirs of motherhood (A Life’s Work) and divorce (Aftermath). The writer who notices is after a different kind of intimacy with her reader, an intimacy born not of confession—this is my husband, these are my children, this is my confused, unhappy life—but of sensibility and taste. She is not a realist in the impersonal, Flaubertian sense. She commandeers reality, bending colors, sounds, incidents, and people to her subjective truth, seeking the strange beauty in ordinary, even ugly, things. 

Cusk can often be gentle, but she can also be merciless, and that is where things get interesting. Consider her description of Marielle, a student in Faye’s creative writing workshop in Athens, Greece:

The bones of her face were so impressively structured as to verge on the grotesque, an impression she had chosen to accentuate—in a way that struck me as distinctly and intentionally humorous—by surrounding her already enormous blue eyes in oceans of exotic blue and green shadow and then drawing, not carefully, around the lids with an even brighter blue; her sharp cheekbones wore slashes of pink blusher, and her mouth, which was unusually fleshy and pouting, was richly and inaccurately slathered in red lipstick.

The overflow of line and shadow strikes Faye as funny in its purposeful carelessness, like that of a child who, thinking herself very grown up, begins to apply her mother’s lipstick only to realize that the real fun lies in tracing ever-widening circles around her mouth. In appearance and thought, Marielle is childlike: guileless, melodramatic, misguided. Many of the characters in Cusk’s novels are babies, figuratively if not literally. There is the contractor Faye hires to renovate her home, a boorish, wheezy man whose face wears “a curious look of torment, like a baby’s face in the moments before it begins to cry.” There is Sophia, a sexy and insecure feminist writer who holds her head up very high to speak, “like a child standing on tiptoe and straining to see over the adults.” Faye is the adult in the room, the hard, formal voice of authority and, frequently, of ridicule. She is mother and master of her universe.

Just as she can transform self-doubting men and women into wobbly children, Faye can reverse the spell, aging those whose greatest fear is their own physical deterioration. Consider Amanda, who worries that she is now too old to work in fashion:

Amanda had a youthful appearance on which the patina of age was clumsily applied, as if, rather than growing older, she had merely been carelessly handled, like a crumpled photograph of a child. Her short, fleshy body seemed to exist in a state of constant animation through which an oceanic weariness could occasionally be glimpsed. Today the grey tint of fatigue lay just beneath her made-up skin.

Any one of the sentences above would be enough to communicate the desperation of Amanda’s efforts to stay the flight of youth and beauty. Her aesthetic contrivances, like Marielle’s, cannot deceive Faye’s eye, which apprehends Amanda’s tired face and her plump, agitated body and enhances them with cosmetic finishes of a different kind: the “patina of age,” the “tint of fatigue.”

The effect is at once unkind and beautiful. Like Amanda’s and Marielle’s made-up faces, Cusk’s language is layered thick. It is decadent, exaggerated, repetitive. “Fleshy” is among her favorite modifiers, yet the flesh at hand almost always appears hard and artificial. So much is written on the body that it begins to crowd out the soul. We sense the truth of Marielle’s character before she starts speaking (she is exceedingly wealthy, indolent, and frivolous), just as we sense Amanda’s (she is lonely, unhappy, sleeping with the wrong man).

But their truth hardly matters: we forget about them as soon as the next character appears, ushered in by another magnificent, pitiless act of noticing. We behold “a very large and soft-looking young girl who wore glasses with thick black frames” eating an “enormous savory pastry whose meaty smell was quite overpowering”; a preening editor with “a small, handsome, slightly furtive face and bright bead-like eyes,” his hair “thick and clipped very short, so that it looked almost like an animal’s fur”; an “attenuated, whey-faced, corkscrew-haired person” with “an unusually long neck and a rather small head, like that of a goose.” To read Outline, Transit, and Kudos in succession is to wander through a gallery of metamorphosed characters (the old have been made young, the young old; humans have become animals, animals human), never lingering on one long enough to feel attachment or sympathy, revulsion or contempt, only a disinterested appreciation for how they look. This is beauty in the purest and the cruelest sense of the word.

What are we to make of these violent transformations? Kudos, the brilliant if somewhat self-satisfied conclusion of Cusk’s trilogy, insists that we celebrate them as the highest aesthetic and ethical form to which the contemporary novel can aspire. (The title is Greek for “glory, fame, renown.”) “Stories need cruelty in order for them to work,” suggests a writer Faye meets at a dinner. Perhaps, she continues, cruelty is inseparable from literature’s “burden of perception,” the objectifying authority with which the writer must confront her “mush” of feelings and cast it into a hard, gleaming image for her readers to admire. By transmuting feeling into form, Faye suggests, brutal aestheticism promises nothing less than the revival of “our own instinct for beauty,” a thorough refurbishing of the old house of fiction with modern conveniences. And it arrives not a moment too soon. In Kudos the house is in danger of total collapse, rotted by commerce and bad taste.

More explicitly than Outline or Transit, Kudos shows Cusk surveying the contemporary literary field and assigning its players—writers, agents, editors, critics—to their proper places. The first half of the novel is set at a literary festival in Cologne, Germany, where the chatter concerns advances, sales, parties, and prizes. Faye’s publisher is the mouthpiece of the market. What all publishers want, he tells her, are

those writers who performed well in the marketplace while maintaining a connection to the values of literature; in other words, who wrote books that people could actually enjoy without feeling in the least demeaned by being seen reading them.

For him, a book is a product like any other, and how one judges the arrangement of the words inside it—pure art or “complete shit”—is less important than its place in the pecking order of cultural consumption. Faye runs into Ryan, first glimpsed in Outline as a struggling, overweight novelist, who has now found commercial success: six months on the New York Times bestseller list for a pseudonymous work of historical fiction that he co-wrote with a woman, a former student of his who encouraged him—he insists—to take public credit for the book. Money has changed him; he exercises, owns a Fitbit. Now his skin “hung so loosely on his face that it formed clownlike folds that accentuated his changes of expression, and the room’s harsh light gave it a ghastly, almost ghoulish cast.”

The description is striking for its violence and farce, casting Ryan as the droopy, decaying Harlequin. It gives us reason to wonder whether Cusk’s exteriors are more than just decorative projections of individual truths, whether what lies beneath the folds of flesh is a barbed cultural critique of male writers like Ryan (“Writers need to hide in bourgeois life like ticks need to hide in an animal’s fur,” he claims in Outline) and the marketplace that sustains their exploitative success. “It was a position of weakness,” Faye’s publisher asserts, “to see literature as something fragile that needed defending,” which is true insofar as one doesn’t care what counts as literature: banal multi-plot family dramas, gimmicky metafictions, stupid historical thrillers. In Kudos, it is Faye’s lot to defend literature, or at least the kind of self-consciously aesthetic literature Cusk has produced in Outline and Transit. And what a defense it is: an object lesson in rigor, elegance, and fury delivered by a narrative voice that is alternately humble and boastful, cajoling and bullying.

Her defense, like that of many teachers, takes the form of strict pedagogy. Throughout the trilogy, a strong undercurrent of self-reflexivity, neither playful nor paranoid but didactic, propels all the characters in Cusk’s fictional cosmos—Faye’s students, fellow writers, literary critics—closer to her point of view. Her clearest lesson in aestheticism and cruelty involves animals. In the writing workshop she teaches in Outline, Faye asks her students to write a story involving an animal. Many do not complete the task, and those who do manage it clumsily. A mammoth snake tempts a venal bishop; a songbird flutters about a wistful singer; a lonely boy loses his hamster. In case we don’t grasp the significance of the exercise, Cusk has a suspiciously bright student explain how it mirrors Outline’s own aesthetic principles. “We use animals as pure reflections of human consciousness,” he says. Animals cannot speak for themselves; like Cusk’s characters, they need a more sentient being to speak for them, to impose narrative on sensual impulse. Like slaves or servants, the student continues, they exert

a sort of moral force by which human beings feel objectified and therefore safely contained…. They watch us living; they prove that we are real; through them, we access the story of ourselves.

The exercise appears random and self-contained, the student just one of many discarded spokespeople for Cusk’s ideas—that is, until one reads Transit and notices animals everywhere, nestled into characters’ lives and stories of mimetic virtuosity. Faye’s London neighbors Paula and John are a racist couple whose “shrivelled, hobbling dog” habitually urinates on their back steps. At another writing class, a student tries to tell a story about his dog but doesn’t know what to say. “She’s just beautiful,” he insists apologetically, his capacity to write blocked by his feelings. When Faye coaxes him, the dog’s beauty starts to take on solid form. Her name is Sheba, we learn, and she is a magnificent, hedonistic saluki, “languid almost to the point of stupefaction”:

She was forever lying on their laps or across their beds draping her large, silky body over them and resting her narrow face against theirs with what was either neediness or sheer ennui—she was, as he had said, almost human.

In Kudos, the mirroring exercise of the animal emerges as an inside joke—not just a brutal aestheticism but a brute aestheticism—flattering to readers whom Cusk has trained to notice her habitual metamorphoses. Cusk’s menagerie, painstakingly groomed and arranged, emerges as a model for all writers, so relentlessly does she insist that everyone admire it, learn from it, imitate it. The lost hamster from Outline returns, bundled into a story told by a novelist who, at a writing retreat, is instructed to imagine a hamster to help evoke her relationships with her husband and daughter. “The problem, she now saw, was that she had been trying to describe her husband and daughter using materials—her feelings—that no one else could see,” Faye explains. “The solid fact of the hamster made all the difference.” By the time we reach Kudos, Faye is no longer a teacher gently guiding her students’ craft; she has become Cusk’s propagandist, loudly extolling the author’s own art as the universal standard of novelistic beauty.

Kudos is full of references to Outline and Transit, knowing winks at Cusk’s devoted readers and ripostes to her critics (most of them projections or straw men). A bald, bespectacled newspaper reviewer who resembles an “oversized baby” talks at Faye about his distaste for the kind of formally ambitious, difficult literature that is premised on the negation of the self (the very definition of cruelty, according to Maurice Blanchot and the Marquis de Sade). He prefers literature that draws “its lifeblood from social and material constructs,” and in his opinion, “the writer could do no more than stay within those constructs, buried in bourgeois life—as he had recently read it described somewhere—like a tick in an animal’s fur.” In Outline, Faye asks her students to tell a story about what they noticed on their way to class; the exercise reappears in Kudos as part of an interview conducted by another old, bald male critic who believes himself ingenious for treating Faye the way she treats her characters. “The question he liked the most,” she observes, 

concerned what I had noticed on my way here, and if his—or rather my—theory was correct, by asking me that question, the question of what I had noticed on my way here, he would enable me to write the whole interview for him.

Sometimes Cusk’s cleverness feels strained. Sometimes it feels claustrophobic, as if in her final act Cusk has decided to seal up her fictional world, securing it from outside interference by making the agents of literary judgment her ventriloquist dummies. Yet in spite of these weaknesses, the trilogy stands as an extraordinarily successful exercise in mythopoesis, creating an autonomous universe that operates according to Cusk’s rules, her voice a cosmological constant throughout.

It is a universe where women writers come off much better than their big, babyish male critics. The second half of Kudos takes place at a conference in a suburb by the sea, where much of the talk concerns the burden of femininity. Should a woman write about “the private history of the female body, its suppression and exploitation and transmogrifications, its terrible malleability as a form and its capacity to create other forms”? Or, if she chooses to ignore or repress her femininity, is she ensuring that the rules of art are always set by men? “It might simply be the case that female truth—if such a thing can even be said to exist—is so interior and involuted that a common version of it can never be agreed on,” says Sophia, the insecure feminist, and after so many pages spent absorbing Cusk’s sharp, relentlessly exteriorizing voice, we chafe at the ease with which words like “interior” and “involuted” are naturalized as features of women’s writing.

In a literary culture insistent that a woman’s truth is too disordered to express with precision, self-exposure is held equal to style; a woman’s confession of her experience is often lauded for its bravery, its honesty, but is rarely scrutinized for its forms of expression. Women writers are held to the lowest standards of aesthetic judgment, with the unfortunate consequence that many critics have confused this condescension for permissiveness, or, worse, for political progress. All the while they have overlooked how style can serve as a source of power. “The power of beauty is a useful weapon that too often women disparage or misuse,” says the only unequivocally beautiful person Faye encounters in Kudos, a reporter whose “long thick pale-gold hair was drawn smoothly back in a ponytail like a studious princess.” The description is enough to know that we should listen to her; in Cusk’s cosmos, the beautiful is also the true.

How can a woman use beauty against a culture made by and for men? In Kudos’s final scene, Faye walks along a beach at sunset, much like the beach at Nice where the young man read The Thief’s Journal. The sky is dark, the waves are angry, and she is thronged by naked men; naked without explanation, which makes the scene feel remarkably primeval. Estranged from time, space, and reason, Faye seems to be standing at the precipice of some new world order. When she takes her clothes off and begins to swim, one of the men approaches the water.

He came to a halt just where the waves broke and he stood there in his nakedness like a deity, resplendent and grinning. Then he grasped his thick penis and began to urinate into the water. The flow came out so abundantly that it made a fat, glittering jet, like a rope of gold he was casting into the sea. He looked at me with black eyes full of malevolent delight while the golden jet poured unceasingly forth from him until it seemed impossible that he could contain any more. The water bore me up, heaving, as if I lay on the breast of some sighing creature while the man emptied himself into its depths. I looked into his cruel, merry eyes, and I waited for him to stop.

It’s a splendid passage. A man’s aggressive act of self-exposure is made insolent, erotic, funny, and mythological, transformed into a seaborne golden shower, like Zeus’ visitation of Danaë. Faye meets the man’s gaze; she does not demur, does not look down or away in shame. At once she takes up the burden of perception as well as the burden of femininity; the “malevolent delight” of the male gaze is first neutralized, then reciprocated by her silent, ecstatic act of noticing. And in the moment that his cruel, merry eyes meet her cruel, merry vision, something is born into the world—the force of art made by a woman.

is the author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press) and The Personality Brokers, which will be published in September by Doubleday. In August, she will be an associate professor of English at Oxford University.

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