‘Kudos’ by Rachel Cusk – Where’s Faye?

 

‘Kudos’ by Rachel Cusk (2018) – 232 pages

My enthusiasm for the Outline Trilogy, or as I call it the Faye Trilogy, peaked with the second novel ‘Transit’. Even though most of the stories people told to Faye in ‘Transit’ were not concerning Faye at all, it felt like Faye and her situation were front and center in that novel. However, in ‘Kudos’, it seems like the stories that the people tell Faye aren’t related to her at all, and Faye is barely there. Faye is for the most part missing in action in ‘Kudos’.

Also I searched for one really nice sentence in ‘Kudos’ that I could use in my review and didn’t find even one, except maybe this one.

A degree of self-deception was an essential part of the talent for living.”

‘Kudos’ begins with our novelist Faye traveling on an airplane to another literary conference in an unspecified European city when the guy sitting next to her tells her the story of his life in a long monologue. As with the previous novels in the trilogy, ‘Kudos’ consists almost entirely of these long monologues from near strangers. These monologues tend to be more philosophical than conversations we have in real life, filtered through Faye’s perspective. They usually are about literature or family life, and especially about marriage and divorce.

Although each of these monologues is quite interesting in itself, there is little to give them any lasting significance. Since each of these characters come on the scene only to tell their story and then are promptly dropped, the only character that is sustained throughout the novel is Faye. And with Faye barely there, there is nothing for the reader to hold on to. The monologues begin to sound very similar to each other. Of course there is no plot in ‘Kudos’ beyond attending this literary festival or conference.

One of the writers at the festival resembles what we know of Karl Ove Knausgaard, but Cusk does not use this resemblance in much of any way to enliven the proceedings.

Two of the bellwethers I use to determine the popularity of a novel are the number of copies and the number of holds on a book at the Hennepin County Library. Hennepin County is the county that contains Minneapolis so it is a big library system. Popularity is usually not a positive characteristic for me, but sometimes it is instructive. I would like to compare ‘Kudos’ with my previous novel ‘Dear Mrs. Bird’ by A. J. Pearce. Both novels received almost universally positive reviews. ‘Dear Mrs. Bird’ was published on April 5, and there are currently 287 holds on 81 copies of the novel at the library. ‘Kudos’ was published on May 18, and there are currently 9 holds on 18 copies of the novel. ‘Dear Mrs. Bird’ is admittedly a crowd-pleaser, but I was struck by how little reader interest there is in ‘Kudos’ for such a well-reviewed novel.

Ordinarily I would take the side of the little-read but uniquely literary novel like ‘Kudos’, but I can’t help feeling that there is something or someone missing from the novel. Perhaps Faye?

 

Grade :   B

 

 

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‘Dear Mrs. Bird’ by A. J. Pearce – Advice to Londoners During The Blitz

‘Dear Mrs. Bird’ by A. J. Pearce (2018) – 276 pages

‘Dear Mrs. Bird’ tells the moving story of young 23 year-old Emmeline Lake (‘Emmy’) during the time of The Blitz in London in 1940. The Blitz was Germany and Hitler’s all-out air bombing campaign against England. The German bombing campaign started out to be the bombing of only strategic targets but the bomb dropping was inaccurate, and civilian areas accidentally were bombed. By 1940 the deranged madman Hitler had decided that the terror bombing of London civilians might be useful for his goal of getting England to surrender.

Emmy has two jobs. During the day she works as an assistant to Mrs. Bird who writes a women’s advice column for the Woman’s Friend Magazine. At night she works at the fire station taking calls for the Fire Brigade which must deal with the on-ground devastation of Germany’s bombs.

There are obviously times when ‘Dear Mrs. Bird’ is necessarily heartbreaking but with all the death and destruction around them, living well is even more precious for these young people like Emmy and her friend Bunty. We have the camaraderie, the dances, the boyfriends, the weddings. ‘Dear Mrs. Bird’ is a surprisingly high-spirited read.

The advice columnist Emmy works for during the day, Mrs. Bird, is definitely old school. She will allow nothing concerning “intimate relations” or any other “unpleasantness” in her column. Emmy is supposed to cut up and throw away any letters that contain any mention of these things. As Emmy reads these plaintive letters about the real problems these women are facing in their personal lives, she decides to write to these women herself giving advice, and she signs them “Mrs. Bird”.

I could see people were ever so frank when they wrote in, which I thought really quite brave. Some of them sounded in a real fix. … Things were difficult for everyone at the moment, and I did think it was poor of Mrs. Bird not to write back.”

Since Mrs. Bird doesn’t read the finished magazine, Emmy sneaks some of these letters and her replies into the magazine itself. Emmy also softens some of Mrs. Bird’s more brusque replies.

The papers and radio and even magazines like ours went on about pluck and bravery and spirit,” she says. “How often did anyone ever tell women they were doing a good job? That they didn’t have to be made of steel all the time? That it was all right to feel a bit down?”

I was fully on board with this novel, totally engaged. When I picked up the novel again after temporarily stopping reading it, I was again right away involved because this story really meant something to me. That is probably the best thing I can say about any novel.

‘Dear Mrs. Bird’ is an irresistible tremendously moving story, and I strongly recommend it.

 

Grade : A+

 

‘The Alienist’ by Machado de Assis – The Out-of-Control Psychiatrist

 

‘The Alienist’ by Machado de Assis (1882) – 86 pages

 

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is a literary giant.

No one else has written such playful yet psychologically astute satires as Machado de Assis (born 1839, died 1908). His two masterpieces are ‘Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas’ (also known as ‘Epitaph of a Small Winner’) and ‘Don Casmurro’, but much of his other work including some of his stories have withstood the test of time. A new version of his collected stories translated by Margaret Jill Costa and Robin Patterson was just published in June of this year.

Philip Roth called Machado de Assis “a great ironist and a tragic comedian”. Mischievous irony is certainly one of the main devices Machado de Assis uses to connect with his readers.

Usually when Machado de Assis is mentioned, he is called the greatest writer from Brazil or the greatest writer from Latin America. Now it is time to recognize that Machado de Assis is one of those great world class fiction writers who belongs in the same league as such writers as Tolstoy and Dickens and Austen.

I recently read the humorous novella ‘The Alienist’ which can best be described as a playful attack on the science of psychology. The word “alienist” is almost archaic, and the word “psychiatrist” can be used in its place.

A young man named Simão Bacamarte leaves his home village of Itaguai in Brazil to pursue advanced medical studies in Portugal. After completing his education and becoming a brilliant physician, he decides to return to Itaguai and to pursue original research in the new field of psychology. The people in his hometown are happy to have this distinguished doctor back, and he builds a madhouse called Casa Verde for which he picks out residents of his hometown whom he determines are insane and should be locked up. The towns people realize there are some whose madness requires them to be taken off the streets and thus approve of the doctor’s work. At first everything is fine, but soon the doctor decides insanity is more prevalent than he thought, and he locks up more and more of the town residents.

Madness, the object of my studies, was, until now, considered a mere island in an ocean of reason; I am now beginning to suspect that it is a continent.”

The townspeople rebel. By this time three-quarters of the townspeople have been locked up in Casa Verde. The doctor decides to reverse his strategy which you can read all about in the novella.

‘The Alienist’ is a sharp and amusing story about this out-of-control psychiatrist who determines those who are mad and those who are not, but this novella doesn’t quite reach the superior level of those two novels I mentioned above. Start with either of them.

 

Grade : A-

 

‘Give Me Your Hand’ by Megan Abbott – Two Friends and Rivals in the Laboratory

Give Me Your Hand’ by Megan Abbott (2018) – 342 pages

‘Give Me Your Hand’ is the harrowing story of two woman scientists, Kit Owens and Diane Fleming, who became good friends in high school and later are members of the same medical research team. The story alternates between ‘Then’ in high school and ‘Now’ ten years later in the research lab. Kit Owens is from a poor background and has had to struggle to achieve anything. Diane Fleming is from a well-to-do family and has always been treated as the perfect one by teachers and others. Diane inspired Kit to new heights of academic achievement. Now they are both working on a medical project involving PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) which is a severe form of PMS with symptoms of wild mood swings, intense anger toward others, and even violent behavior. Both Kit and Diane are terribly ambitious, and Kit quotes one of her idols Marie Curie:

My head is so full of plans that it seems aflame.”

This is a psychological thriller. Diane has a dark secret from her past which she has disclosed only to Kim, and Kim could destroy her by telling another person at any time. Along the way we meet others who work in the lab including a couple of men and Dr. Lena Severin, the woman who leads the project.

All of us toiling years in the lab, our necks permanently crooked over microscopes, our faces cadaverous from never seeing the sun.”

This is classic Megan Abbott if there is such a thing (I’ve read two of her previous novels) involving sharp conflicts between young women. The movies are starting to come after Abbott’s work with three of her novels being filmed, and she is a writer for the HBO series ‘The Deuce’. Her work is usually classified as crime fiction and she has won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award.

I found ‘Give Me Your Hand’ a bit too simplistic and sketchy to be totally satisfying as a novel for me, but it is probably ideal to be used as the basis for a movie. My reaction to Abbott’s work is similar to my reaction to Stephen King’s work. The prose gets a little too breathless at times for it to be totally convincing as a literary novel. I do like the visceral intensity and obsession of Megan Abbott’s novels and will probably continue to read them in the future.

 

Grade : B

 

‘Sabrina’ by Nick Drnaso – An Edgy Original Graphic Novel that Captures Our Times

 

‘Sabrina’ by Nick Drnaso (2018) – 203 pages

Sabrina’ is a subtle graphic novel that captures the unease, the sense of anomie, and the isolation of our current times.

A woman, Sabrina, is missing, perhaps the victim of foul play. Her affectless boyfriend Teddy is at a loss and goes out to Colorado to stay in the apartment of a guy he sort of knew in childhood Calvin Wrobel. Wrobel is newly separated from his wife and child and is a military serviceman who works nights. Wrobel hardly knows this Teddy but lets him have a room. They can barely talk to each other. Teddy spends all his time locked in the room listening to talk radio hosts with wild conspiracy theories. Wrobel goes to his military base job where he must take the following personal survey each day.

How many hours of sleep did you get last night?

Rate your overall mood from 1 to 5, 1 being poor.

Rate your stress level from 1 to 5, 5 being severe.

Are you experiencing depression or thoughts of suicide?

Is there anything in your personal life that is affecting your duty?

At first Wrobel can answer the quiz quite positively, but as Teddy gets on his nerves his mood worsens. Wrobel is also trying to get back with his wife and daughter.

A smaller part of ‘Sabrina’ also follows Sabrina’s sister Sandra as she copes with the aftermath of Sabrina’s disappearance.

‘Sabrina’ is more about capturing the anxieties and the various pensive moods of its characters more than concerning itself with concrete plot incidents. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of little drawings that depict the isolation and disquiet of these characters. In that way ‘Sabrina is more like a novel than a comic.The colors are subdued, not at all bright or flashy.

Sabrina is not a cheery story, but it does nail the uncertainty and distress of our lives today at this moment.

‘Sabrina’ was published by the Montreal comic and graphic novel publisher Drawn and Quarterly. Whereas other publishers’ comics are loud and violent and repetitive with their endless stockpile of superheroes and anti-heroes, Drawn and Quarterly produces comics and graphic novels that are subtle, moody, nuanced, and human. These are graphic novels that could actually qualify as fiction and literature.

Last week, ‘Sabrina’ by Nick Drnaso became the first graphic novel ever to be selected for the Man Booker longlist. This is a fortunate circumstance for me as I had already completed it. Let me say that I believe ‘Sabrina’ fully deserves this honor.

‘Sabrina’ is an original graphic novel for adults.

 

Grade : A

 

 

‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ by Eugene O’Neill – The Tyrone Family

‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ by Eugene O’Neill (1941) – 179 pages

Many claim that ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ is the greatest play written by a writer from the United States. Personally I think that distinction belongs to another play written by Eugene O’Neill, ‘The Iceman Cometh’. If you ever get the chance to see Lee Marvin in John Frankenheimer’s movie ‘The Iceman Cometh’ from 1973, don’t miss it. Lee Marvin plays gregarious salesman Harry Hickey who comes to his old bar to destroy the pipe dreams of everyone who is at the bar. Pipe dreams are those lies we tell ourselves to get us through each day. That play profoundly moves me to this day.

But on to ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ which is O’Neill’s most autobiographical play. O’Neill wrote the play in 1941 about his wretched early family situation involving his father, mother, and older brother. O’Neill would not publish the play while he was alive, and he made arrangements not to publish it until 25 years after his death. However his widow Carlotta recognized what a great play it was, and had it published in 1956. The play was first performed in November, 1956.

As its title suggests, the play of four acts takes place during one day in 1912. The Tyrone family is living in their summer seaside home in Connecticut. The father James is a famous actor who could have been a great Shakespearean actor if he hadn’t settled for more money. The sons Jamie and Edmund are fully grown. Older brother Jamie works as an actor in jobs that his father gets for him but mainly Jamie is a rake about town spending most of his time in bars and whorehouses. Edmund, the younger son, has worked as a journalist, written poetry, and has traveled widely but is sickly and may have consumption (tuberculosis) probably somewhat due to excessive alcohol consumption. Edmund is O’Neill’s stand-in for himself. All three men are alcoholics, but it is the mother Mary who has the worse problem; she is a morphine addict and has been confined to a sanatorium before.

One can comprehend how difficult it was for Eugene O’Neill to confront his real family situation. This is family realism at its most honest and most brutal. Each character must confront his or her own reality and shortcomings or else another member of the family will point them out for him or her.

None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”

I do think ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ is a very strong honest family drama. However it is somewhat of a sad and depressing play with no redemption for its characters. I prefer ‘The Iceman Cometh’ because while it is still brutally honest with the people on stage, it still offers a way out for these people at the end.

Under any conditions, Eugene O’Neill is still the greatest playwright from the United States.

Grade : A

‘Jakob Von Gunten’ by Robert Walser – The Hare and the Tortoise Revisited

 

‘Jakob Von Gunten’ by Robert Walser (1908) – 176 pages Translated from the German by Christopher Middleton

‘Jakob Von Gunten’ is a fictional journal kept by young Jakob Von Gunten during the time he spent attending and living at the Benjamenta Institute. This private institute is a school for training young men to become servants. It is run by Herr Benjamenta and his sister Fraulein Benjamenta. Robert Walser did actually attend such a school, and the novel is based on his experiences there.

Jakob Von Gunten is a young guy who is a born writer in a society that has no use for writers, much like Robert Walser himself.

How fortunate I am not to be able to see in myself anything worth respecting and watching! To be small and to stay small.”

The following journal entry will give you a good idea of the playful ironic spirit of this novel.

We wear uniforms. Now, the wearing of uniforms simultaneously humiliates and exalts us. We look like unfree people, and that is possibly a disgrace, but we also look nice in our uniforms, and that sets us apart from the deep disgrace of those people who walk around in their very own clothes but in torn and dirty ones. To me, for instance, wearing a uniform is very pleasant because I never did know, before, what clothes to put on. But in this, too, I am a mystery to myself for the time being.”

Jakob refuses to take himself too seriously. Jakob prides himself on being silly, impolite, cheeky, and stubborn. Jakob gets bored quite easily. There is another guy named Kraus at the Institute who is the exact opposite of Jakob Kraus is extremely hard-working and has a serious demeanor and does what he is told without questions or even thinking. Kraus never gets bored because he is always concentrating on the task at hand and looking for ways to improve it. Krauss’s motto is “make yourself invisible, or get busy with something.” In contrast Jakob sometimes sleeps late at the Institute, and Kraus comes around and pushes him out of bed and tells Jakob to get to work. However Jakob gets his revenge by teasing and annoying Kraus mercilessly.

Much of the novel is taken up with the interaction between these two guys, Jakob and Kraus. This is a fundamental difference between people, somewhat similar to the difference between the hare and the tortoise in that Aesop’s fable race. Jakob is the hare, and Kraus is the tortoise The hare is at least ten times quicker but is easily distracted and winds up losing the race to the slow and steady tortoise. When I look back on my own years at work, I must admit I was always more of a Jakob, a hare, than a Kraus, a tortoise. I was more of a wise guy who seemingly didn’t take the work all that seriously and got bored with routine tasks, and thus got into conflicts with the tortoise types.

But there is much more to the novel than the interactions between these two guys. We get an entire picture of the Institute including its founders. The writing is always lively and intense. It is not the easiest novel to read because some of the things referred to are foreign or dated, but the overall story is well worth the effort even today.

Here is an interesting side note on the author Robert Walser. At the age of fifty, after suffering from anxieties and hallucinations for many years, he checked himself into a mental institution called Waldau in Bern, Switzerland where he lived for 29 more years. He was known for taking long walks in the surrounding area. He gave up fiction writing completely, and was rumored to have said, “I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad,”

 

Grade : A

 

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