Rachel Cusk: “I think of Brexit as a psychodrama”

Rachel Cusk on political writing, the problems of female experience, and her Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Kudos.

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Rachel Cusk has written ten novels and three works of non-fiction. Kudos is the final novel in a trilogy including Outline and Transit, both of which were also shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. The books’ narrator, Faye, a writer who might best be described as Cusk’s alter ego, is unusually liminal for a main character, present in every scene yet passive for long stretches as she allows the people she encounters to tell their stories: monologues about marriage and its apparently inevitable failure, about love, art, property, travel, motherhood, and, in this final volume, Brexit. The books are as difficult to put down as they are to classify. “‘What kind of things do you write?’” Faye’s neighbour asks her during a flight. “I said it was hard to explain”, she tells us, and she’s right.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

I expect we don’t need any prizes, but this one is a kind of corrective to the others.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

So much of reading is a process of recognition; there’s the possibility that an unconventional or unfamiliar text – if it doesn’t alienate them – might cause the reader to see aspects of themselves they were unaware of.

Is there a particular piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book?

Many, but Camus was probably the guiding light.

Was the Outline sequence always conceived as a trilogy? Do you see the books as three individual novels sharing the same central character, or as sections of one larger work?

I think I was aware at the end of Outline that I had raised a number of questions, and since one of the things I was trying to write against was the faux-suggestiveness of contemporary narrative I felt a sort of obligation to answer them.

In each book Faye seems to be trying different ways of being in the world. Do you think she eventually finds the solution she is looking for, or is this perhaps a search that never entirely ends? 

I think what happens is that she ceases to be exposed, and hence to serve as an example of or window into the themes with which the books are concerned.

Kudos is coy about explicitly naming the cities in which it takes place, but Brexit is mentioned three times. Do you consider it to be a political novel?

Well, it isn’t coyness exactly; more an avoidance of a kind of literal-mindedness that I felt would mar the books’ anonymity. But the question of what people talk about – the themes through which they bind themselves to the world – is central. All my writing is political, though I think of Brexit as being more of a psychodrama than a political situation.

Part of the frisson we enjoy while reading Kudos is the sense that although it is not memoir, the situations it describes appear to mirror to a lesser or greater degree your own life – or at least have the potential to be drawn from your own life. How much do Faye's experiences map onto your own?

One of my concerns has been to dismantle the apparatus of pretence – the process by which the author tries to convince the reader that they have not written the book, as it were. So Faye’s role is merely to draw a curtain over that whole transaction. It’s true that one result is that I have to “own” her persona, but that seemed preferable to the alternatives.

In one scene, a female Portuguese writer says of one of her male colleagues that he is praised for writing about his family and childhood, but that if he were a woman “he would be scorned for his honesty, or at the very least no one would care”. Why do you think this double standard exists?

Well, that question requires a far longer answer than I’m able to give here! Suffice to say that these are still the conditions of femininity, and so there is still an obligation to challenge them.

Is the method you devised in the Outline trilogy a way of writing about your life without provoking the hostility that seemed to characterise some of the responses to your previous non-fiction books?

The techniques of the trilogy grew out of my awareness that autobiography/memoir – though it came very close to what I wanted – malfunctioned in various ways as a form, because although it permitted access to a great deal of truth it left its content too vulnerable. So in a sense it was recreating the problems – particularly the problems of female experience – that I was trying to get inside of. I see the hostility as basically generic, but in the end it’s annoying to have your work interfered with in that way.

Outline, Transit and Kudos are written in a very distinctive style. Might you use it again, or is the style inseparable from the project these three books represent?

Well, yes, it does stylistically have some elements of a long-running series, but it seems to be my vocation to look for new ground.

You spoke several years ago about your growing dissatisfaction with “conventional” narrative. Does that persist? If so, does it extend not only to what you write, but also what you read?

I do find it increasingly difficult to read, or at least I think I do. But in fact it’s probably more a problem of finding writing that speaks to me.

Kudos is in some ways a catalogue of cruelty, particularly the cruelties that husbands visit on their wives. Was it difficult to spend a long time working with this material?

Not really, because the whole aim of the books’ technique is to neutralise pain. Essentially it operates according to the therapeutic principle. One revisits without re-experiencing.

Kudos ends with a scene of startling power. At what point in the writing of the book did you know it would end this way?

I had the ending from the start. Generally I need to know everything about a book before I can begin writing it. But yes, this was a particularly high and difficult ending to have to get to.

Which past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

There are many of them, and they probably constitute the majority of my library!

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, in association with the New Statesman, will be announced on 14 November. “Kudos” is published by Faber.