Two women walk on a bridge, in Europe, into the sun

The southern European sun consumes and seems to fuse the cobblestones, firing her eyes from two directions. She is a northerner. It is hot, and she is not used to this. But she does not complain, try to escape the heat, or even look forward to escaping the country.

The person walking beside her, leading her to a restaurant, but first on a bizarre and fruitless detour, is talking. The personal story being told is interesting, but she engages very little in the conversation, only when there is an opening. There are few openings. The talker does not seem to notice the communicative imbalance. She goes along with the situation, shielding the sun with her hand, too blinded and somehow underwhelmed—by the heat and her interlocutor and life itself—to intervene. She listens and sometimes offers a bit of herself; mainly, she acquiesces.

What a strange book: I mean the novel Kudos, the third in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy. The narrator, who is a novelist, lets others control the dialogue again and again. She remains cool amidst the heat emanating from others and blazing down upon the foreign country. The men and women she meets have busy and fascinating lives. She is their catalyst, allowing them to talk. Or maybe she’s not a catalyst at all, but just an easily replaceable bystander.

How does it feel to be a willing—that is, neither eager nor malcontent—subordinate? Have you ever played a passively observant part? Is this the most fitting role for a novelist . . . or not?