Kudos, the final book in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, ends with a confrontation between a man and a woman on a beach. Both are naked. The woman is swimming; the man, “resplendent and grinning,” is peeing in the water just behind her. Cusk’s writing in this scene approaches the mythic: The man’s urine is “like a gold rope he was casting into the sea”; the sea itself, she adds, is like “some sighing creature.” We are in an Eden beset by evil, a world in which women and men are locked in an old, inescapable conflict.
It’s an evocative scene, not least because, in a novel filled with people’s voices, it takes place in total silence. But the scene is significant for another reason. It illustrates a central theme in Kudos and the trilogy’s other novels, Outline (2014) and Transit (2016): How free can a woman ever be? Perhaps there will always be a man lurking in the background, muddying the waters of what would otherwise be a place of total freedom.
The question of female freedom, its variations and limitations, is one that has preoccupied Cusk throughout her career. From her earliest work, about the travails of being a hyperintelligent young woman in a world filled with difficult men, to her more recent work, on the uniquely female crises of midlife, Cusk has attempted to answer this question. She has explored it in conventional realist fiction, in her memoirs of motherhood and marriage, and again in the inventive Outline trilogy. Indeed, the series’ experimental form can obscure this thematic continuity. While these recent novels are far less conventional than Cusk’s early fiction—the three Outline books consist almost entirely of conversation, with little description of setting and even less of the narrator’s inner life—Cusk’s long-standing preoccupations are all present nonetheless. Like the work that preceded it, the trilogy is also about the strictures of femininity, the claustrophobia of domestic life, and the illusions we fashion in order to survive both.
The Outline series represents Cusk’s most rigorous and impressive attempt to date to write about the problem of female freedom. The women of Kudos grapple with the legacy of second-wave feminism and wonder why, if we’re closer to gender equality than ever, they still feel so trapped and miserable. Some characters make a radical break with bourgeois domesticity; others find ways to live within its confines. What they all share, however, is a commitment to speaking honestly about the compromises and sacrifices that mark many women’s lives. Cusk’s female characters, like the author herself, reckon with their imprisonment, rather than deluding themselves into thinking that they were always already free.
At 51, Cusk has had a prolific career. The author of 10 novels and three memoirs, she was listed as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and is the winner of several literary prizes, including the Whitbread First Novel Award for Saving Agnes, published when she was 26. Though born in Canada, Cusk has lived in the United Kingdom since she was 8, and throughout her career she has focused on the perils and possibilities of English domestic life. She is most interested in bourgeois domesticity; her characters tend to be artists, writers, teachers, intellectuals, and professionals of various stripes. The handful of poor or working-class characters who appear in her books are often rendered unsympathetically and without much psychological depth. This can be frustrating, given that her middle-class characters often opine on their experiences in ways that draw universal lessons from their privileged status.