In form and content, “Kudos” is of a piece with “Outline” and “Transit.” In each novel, the narrator, Faye (a novelist, like Cusk) describes her encounters over a number of days with various people, each of whom has a story to tell. Faye recounts these stories, sometimes in direct speech but mostly indirectly.
The setup sounds solipsistic, and in many ways it is: A writer divorced from the father of their two children writes about what happens to a writer divorced from the father of their two children when she is invited to teach writing or attend literary festivals. But all this is really just a scaffolding.
The stories are the thing. Admittedly, they revolve mostly around marriage, separation and children. But each one reinforces, complicates or undermines the others in a bewitching feat of theme and variation that is rich in emotion, suspense and humor.
The stories are interspersed with brief, highly charged descriptions of Faye’s immediate circumstances: the class she teaches and the boat she goes out on in Athens (in “Outline”); the London house she is renovating and the dinner party she attends (in “Transit”); and the festival she goes to in an unnamed urban port somewhere in Europe (in “Kudos”). If the central preoccupation of “Outline” was the question of self-definition, and of “Transit” the workings of fate, the theme in “Kudos” is success: Who will thrive? Who will get the prize? At what cost?
Faye remains inchoate, but it is not because we don’t have a strong sense of her. It is because her own story remains unresolved. We are left to wonder whether she is destined to remain a blur, an entity without an outline; and if she is, whether this constitutes a freedom — a prize she can walk away with — or a curse.
At times, these rolling tales feel like a sly homage to Ovid or Virgil (not least because of the many allusions to Greek gods). At other times, it is as if we have been plunged into a riveting sequence of psychoanalytic case studies. Cusk’s deeper theme is the question of how power shapes potential. How do parents shape their children? How do humans shape nature? How does narrative shape truth? In each case, what is gained and what is lost?
The trilogy’s unity, achieved despite its fragmentation, is reinforced by its dominant metaphor: the body of water that was once still and reflective and is now fractured, formless and turbulent. Recurring motifs also include pet dogs, siblings and food. All three stand in for kinds of love or attachment; they mediate our attempts to gain control, often with the most lurid or tragicomic consequences.
Cusk tells so many stories in part, you feel, because she wants to know what they are for. Are stories a product of the struggle to create meaning, as one character wonders? Or are they more often a mechanism by which to avoid responsibility, to assuage guilt? Undoubtedly, the narrative impulse kicks in hardest when our view onto the truth is most prejudiced — in the aftermath, say, of a calamity, a childbirth or a collapsed marriage.
But such events also shatter the narrative. “What happened next,” writes Cusk in the midst of an account of a skiing accident, “had to be pieced together from other people’s accounts.” The sentence reverberates like a plucked string because it speaks to the premise of the entire trilogy.
If storytelling is inherently partial, the truth may be ultimately indescribable. The problem with such a conclusion — though it may be the only authentic one — is that it leaves the field wide open. And it brings us back to the question of which story, which fiction, will swarm into the vacuum and claim the prize (the house, the car, the new spouse, the kids)?
All three books in this trilogy are haunted by Faye’s two sons. They remain offstage, but occasionally phone. At the end of “Kudos,” one son tells Faye about how he and a friend accidentally started a fire in the basement of their apartment. It was an innocent mistake. What is hard, the boy tells his mother, is that no one listens to the full story when he tries to tell it. They fixate on broken fragments of narrative and apportion blame accordingly. It’s unfair.
“You can’t tell your story to everybody,” concludes Faye. “Maybe you can only tell it to one person.”
This moment of truth, and of love, lasts but a moment. It is obliterated by the book’s — and the trilogy’s — final act, which is such a violation, and on its face so crudely literal, that it all but annihilates the shimmering web of narrative, festooned with symbol and metaphor, that has led up to it.
Sebastian Smee is an art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.”
Outline Trilogy, Vol. 3
By Rachel Cusk
Farrar Straus Giroux. 240 pp. $26