Posts Tagged ‘Rachel Cusk’

Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood


‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk (2021) – 180 pages


Here is the first sentence of the narrative by the woman M in ‘Second Place’ that really stood out for me:

I had spent the evening in the company of a famous writer, who was actually nothing more significant than a very lucky man.”

This is one plain-spoken sentence that particularly resonated with me. I’m wishing that more sentences in this novel were as easy to follow. Often it was difficult for me to figure out the sophisticated and abstract reasoning of our M.

M, now in her late forties, lives in the coastal southern part of France. M is married to Tony, a supremely practical, successful, and even-tempered man. M herself has artistic longings and has been enthralled with the work of the artist L for a long time. She invites him to stay with them in the building which she calls their second place. She describes L as “wiry and small, dapper and goatish”, nearly the opposite of her husband. However, she is struck by his paintings. Unbeknownst to M and Tony, L brings along his quite young girlfriend Brett.

Throughout the novel, It is a struggle to follow our narrator M’s sophisticated speculations and ruminations, but I suppose I prefer this mental struggle to the overly simplistic reasoning often found in much other fiction.

Rachel Cusk is a special case. Her style of writing is so finely tuned, she can get away with a level of lofty abstraction that most writers wouldn’t dare.

The pattern of change and repetition is so deeply bound to the particular harmony of life, and the exercise of freedom is subject to it, as to a discipline. One has to serve out one’s changes moderately, like strong wine.”

Just when you think M is going to go wandering off into the cosmos with her thoughts, she brings them back to Earth with strong wine.

However there are many other sentences from M that if you can comprehend and appreciate their full meaning, you are a more perceptive reader than I am.

An image is also eternal, but it has no dealings with time – it disowns it, as it has to do, for how could one ever in the practical world scrutinize or comprehend the balance sheet of time that brought about the image’s unending moment? Yet the spirituality of the image beckons us, as our own sight does, with the promise to free us from ourselves.”

All this dense theorizing about art camouflages the rather simple theme of the novel which I assume to be the never-ending conflict between the practical and the artistic or, in terms of this novel, the practical Tony and the artistic L.

In a final note to the novel, Rachel Cusk says she owes a debt to ‘Lorenzo in Taos’, a memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan. and that L is the D. H. Lawrence figure in the story. ‘Second Place’ did make me curious about that memoir.


Grade:    B





‘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



‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk – Listening to Other People’s Life Stories

‘Transit’ by Rachel Cusk    (2016)   –  260 pages


‘Transit’ is almost entirely made up of the life stories that other people tell our narrator, Faye.  Instead of getting Faye’s story, we mainly get those of the people around her who tell stories from their lives to her in casual conversations.

I see this as a strategic retreat on our narrator Faye’s part.  She is going through a divorce, and this might be a good time to listen to what the people around her are saying about their own situations rather than dwelling on her own plight.  Perhaps she wants to re-establish her bond with others by listening to them.

First there is old boyfriend Gerard who is now happily married with a family and still living in the old neighborhood to which Faye is returning. There are two ways that a writer can approach dialogue.  In one approach, to be entirely natural and realistic, the writer can have his or her characters speak exactly like real people speak which means they would rarely say anything clever or witty.  In the other approach, the writer has his or her characters speak in witty sparkling epigrams, constantly saying the perfect thing.  Rachel Cusk favors the second approach, and I admire her for it.  Here is a line from Gerard.

“It’s hard not to become self-satisfied,” he said, “with so much self-satisfaction around you.”

Later Faye responds to Gerard as follows:

“I said that it seemed to me that most marriages worked in the same way that stories are said to do, through the suspension of disbelief.  It wasn’t, in other words, perfection that sustained them so much as the avoidance of certain realities.” 

We do find out a few things about Faye as she interacts with the people around her.  She has two children and is going through a divorce.  Her children are staying with her ex while her apartment is being remodeled.  She has a terrible obnoxious couple living below her which is one of the novel’s sources of humor.  She teaches creative writing.  She has started dating again.

But mainly we find out other people’s stories.  The guys who are remodeling her apartment are two brothers from Poland, Pavel and Tony, who are making a go of it in England.  We accompany Faye to her hairdresser and to a literary conference where she is one of the guest speakers.  We learn quite a bit about the other two writers who are guest speakers but not so much about Faye.

Even though Faye is the central figure in ‘Transit’, most of the stories are related to her by the people she meets.  There is essentially no conventional plot and little character development.  Rachel Cusk is on the cutting edge of writers attempting to take the novel to somewhere new and different from its traditional roots. She has a talent for writing eloquent and expressive sentences that many experimental novelists do not have.  I have followed Cusk’s writing from the beginning of her career and am happy to continue to do so.


Grade:    A

‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk

‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk    (2014) – 249 pages   Grade: B+


After a certain age, each of our lives can be told as a collection of stories.  We may not know the full truth of all these stories, and our view of them may be limited or one-sided, but the stories together make up who we are.

There are two chapters in ‘Outline’ where our main character Faye is teaching a writing class in Athens, Greece.  She asks each of the students to tell her something that they had noticed on their way to class.  Each student has their own story some of which go on for several pages.  We get each student’s story until there is only one student left who has said nothing.  This woman says to the teacher as the class breaks up that she doesn’t know who the teacher is, but “I’ll tell you one thing, you’re a lousy teacher.”

The rest of ‘Outline’ is much like the students’ chapters with various people Faye meets up with in Greece relating their life experiences and lessons learned or not learned from them.  This is a philosophical novel and also an unconventional one.  Faye herself has not much of a story here.  She is constantly listening to other people.  This novel consists almost entirely of conversations in restaurants, on airplane flights, on boats, and in classrooms.

Perhaps the dialogue is not realistic in that usually when we talk, especially to strangers, there is a lot of back and forth.  In ‘Outline’ one person relating an incident may go on for several pages.  The conversations are like long monologues with short interruptions.

Rachel Cusk has expressed her dissatisfaction with the traditional forms of fiction before, calling them “fake and embarrassing”:

“Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.”

 In ‘Outline’ Cusk is attempting something new and different.  Instead of an omniscient all-knowing voice, she has the people in the novel tell their own stories through conversations. This new way of storytelling might have been disorienting except that Rachel Cusk is such a graceful and intelligent writer that it all seems quite natural.

Each sentence in ‘Outline’ feels like it was polished and crafted to achieve the maximum perceptivity and precision.  Here are two examples :

“He began to ask me questions, as though he had learned to remind himself to do so, and I wondered what or who had taught him that lesson, which many people never learn.”  

“I replied that I wasn’t sure it was possible, in marriage, to know what you actually were, or indeed to separate what you were from what you had become through the other person.” 

41orC4b88kL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Some readers may prefer a little less measured approach, but I found the sentences to be a strong positive making the novel a joy to read at the sentence level.  Rachel Cush has a distinctive style of writing, and I find that a huge plus for any novelist.

As I’ve mentioned before, ‘Outline’ was short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize.  I believe that both the actual winner, ‘How to Be Both’ by Ali Smith, and ‘Outline’ would have been worthy winners.


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