I am one of the few persons I know who has not at least attempted Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” sextet. I have no obvious reason for this – it just never felt quite the thing I wanted to dedicate my time to. Knausgaard’s fellow Norwegian Siri Hustvedt refers to her interview with him in an essay in “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women”, and calls “My Struggle” a “highly feminine text by cultural standards”. Still, I was not interested in some man’s blow-by-blow account of his life. I am not sure I am interested in anyone’s life in that detail.
I semi-accidentally came across Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” while in London this spring. I found the book odd, and highly unsettling. It was by no means an easy read, yet I felt compelled to read on and finish it, which I don’t always do if the book is not good. Soon after Outline I stumbled upon “Transit”, the second part to Outline. I was weirdly drawn to the book despite not having quite made my mind about the first one.
For someone who reads a lot it is difficult to find a book that stands out the way it has been written or constructed. Outline and Transit both fit this bill. I am usually a frantic googler of everything and everybody, but I had no idea of Cusk, and I wanted to keep it that way. Also I kind of forgot about her in the past weeks – until I found her latest, “Kudos”, last week. As I had not googled Cusk and nor read her interviews, I had no idea that Outline, Transit and Kudos form a trilogy.
As soon as I was done with Kudos, I started to find out about Cusk. I am not sure this was entirely necessary, but I felt the books were so special that there had to be some kind of outlandish force and/or explanation to them. The back sleeve of Kudos makes a reference to Karl Ove Knausgaard in comparing Cusk’s autobiographical style to his, which is what I found in the many interviews about her – being compared to Knausgaard.
Cusk’s trilogy is autobiographical: about a divorced author with two kids who is trying to come to terms with her life and writing post-divorce. However the books as such are not really as much about her story as they are about the stories of people she encounters. Hard to explain. The main character Faye is literally on a listening mood from the first page to last. The text is like a free-fall from the start – the kind of “hey, watch out, anything could happen now“. While nothing really happens, there are some arresting paragraphs from Outline and Transit that still kind of bother me.
The trilogy is by no means stream of consciousness, which makes for tedious read, whose ever stream it is that is presented in literary form. I am not sure I found any particular enlightenment in the books, but they are special, fresh and thought-provoking. All three left me feeling weirdly unsettled, I cannot explain it any better. Despite Cusk being a very humorous writer, I did not find these three to be feel-good reads in any way.
I found it useful not to know much about Cusk when I read the trilogy (I didn’t even know there was a trilogy when I started), but if you must, I found this interview interesting. And yes there is a ton of publicity interviews about her as Kudos just came out.
So if in doubt whether to spoil yourself with Cusk or Knausgaard this May, give Cusk a chance. Also, the essay “No Competition” by Siri Hustvedt is worth reading. In it she discusses Knausgaard’s oeuvre and her talk with him, but the essay is more broadly about gender differences in narration and literature. The essay is part of a collection “A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women“, also a great read.