Book Reviews

Meet Judith Rodby, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of English from CSU, Chico. Judith leads our monthly book club and is a voracious reader who enjoys connecting with fellow book lovers. Judith led The National Reading Initiative for the National Writing Project and has facilitated book clubs for children, adolescents, and adults. Be sure to check back frequently to learn about her latest favorites, and browse the archive for even more!


This month, Judith reviews Kudos by Rachel Cusk

“Kudos” is the third book in a trilogy that is nameless, which is ironic and yet fitting for Rachel Cusk’s work. Cusk is, by the way, my cup of tea—but certainly not everyone’s. She is philosophical, precise, and so very slick. And “Kudos” is a good title for the trilogy’s final book (despite the opinion of Dwight Garner of the New York Times)—but more on that to follow.

In “Kudos” a first-person narrator, an I, a me, is announced from the very first sentence. “The man next to me…”  she says, and from then on this interlocutor, (a better term than character for the voices of actual characters would reflect more obvious depth and shaping) is sprinkled throughout the book.

But the presumed narrator, the I/me, is effaced. We learn little to nothing about her personally, except through what she notices, and thus what her interlocutors tell us; her name, Faye, is mentioned only once in each novel of the trilogy. The paradox of course is that it is Faye who is talking about other people and telling their stories. The novel is shaped by what she notices, what she curates while she seemingly isn’t really noticing . . .  it’s a bit of a hall of mirrors, now you see her/he/she /them, now you don’t. She is in a sense triangulating —it is she who fixes the interlocutors’ perspectives; indirectly it is Faye is saying that THIS is the perspective that matters because it is the one she has noticed, the one she points out.

Speaking of titles, Garner of Dwight Garner (NYT) claims, “Kudos? It’s a cloying and misunderstood singular noun, one that can be spoken aloud by sane people only with ironic intent. Cusk explains her title, sort of, but this volume is an instant contender for the worst-title-on-best-book prize.”

I disagree about the worst title epithet; it’s more complicated than that and Cusk is more sly:

First of all, Cusk claims that kudos (at least as it is used in the novel) is a back-formation. Garner is right; kudos never was plural—the plural affix never existed in the original Greek in which the noun kudos is singular. Through a linguistic process (or Cusk’s interpretation of one) of back formation, kudos is reformulated and used as plural to mean something like prizes. The back formation changes the meaning. So, Faye’s people having conversations are often commenting on their search for a pure form, an older form, of something they have encountered—whether it be a cake or their own families. In back formation kudos are undeserved, they merely stimulate our dream to find the “real” thing, the singular.

This novel, for me, is about histories of representation—the original, the pure, taken back and reformulated to mean something else that suits the occasion, as Brexit reformulates the EU, a second marriage reformulates the idea of family. Cusk is also playing with the notion of copies, and in “Kudos” the act of copying is one that (ironically) multiplies.