How We Create Ourselves: Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Reviewed By

You can hear the difference in Rachel Cusk’s new novel. Her Outline trilogy redefined the narrator, as it abandoned characterization, plot, and description for the reported speech of others set in a cool, distant tone. Reading those books felt like eavesdropping on the calm, perceptive conversations of strangers in cafes. The narrator, Faye, listens more than she speaks, and she creates her presence through her absence, through the outline she forms in her milieu.

From the first sentence, then, Second Place announces itself as different. The novel starts with a talkative narrator in medias res: “I once told you, Jeffers, about the time I met the devil on a train leaving Paris, and about how after that meeting, the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of life.” Cusk signals that she will occupy a voice more involved than in the trilogy, marked by plenty of exclamation points, mixed metaphors, and a garrulous looseness. The sentences aren’t so concentrated as before, and they don’t culminate, like Faye’s, in lyrical beats—they just keep going, half-breaths in a long-rambling speech. This, we know, will be different, and the narrator will define herself through her own speech, not subtle implication or half-silence or tone.

The opening lines also establish the allegorical plot. M, the narrator who, like Faye, is also a writer, tells Jeffers about an encounter with this particular kind of evil during a time changed by “global pandemonium.” She lives with her husband, Tony, on a marsh by the sea “full of desolation and solace and mystery,” “one of those conundrums people are drawn to, and end up missing the point of entirely.” They host her daughter, Justine, and her daughter’s lover, Kurt. The devil arrives as L, a famous painter whom M invites to live and work in the guest house, or second place, on the property. He looms over the book like a nightmare we know we are fated to dream.

Cusk returns to plot with this novel, and drama rises from the dynamic between M and the new inhabitants of the second place. L unexpectedly brings Brett, “a ravishing creature… whose air and poise and fashion was entirely unequal to her surroundings.” The visitors don’t match their unadorned surroundings, and M worries that, “with their smart luggage and expensive clothes and their air of acquaintance with luxury, L and Brett had imported a new standard, a new way of seeing, in which the old things could no longer hold their shape.” Brett also challenges the narrator because she arrives confident in her femininity and allows Justine to embrace her femininity, too, which M fears in herself.

This commentary on gender constitutes the novel’s drama of ideas. L interests and reviles M because he possesses a freedom denied her, “the aura of absolute freedom his paintings emanate, a freedom elementally and unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke.” M repeatedly mentions that she desires a free life, no longer trapped by misogyny and motherly guilt: she constantly worries about her relationship with her daughter and recalls emotional trauma related to her divorce with her first husband, which culminated in a male psychoanalyst dismissing her feelings. Meanwhile, M notes, L enjoys his male privilege and will not even admit it.

M also longs for “the rare peace of living entirely,” which L has achieved through his painting and his cold gaze on life, as his art inspires “the feeling that there could be no excuses or explanations, no dissimulating: he filled one with the dreadful suspicion that there is no story to life, no personal meaning beyond the meaning of any given moment.” L challenges M with his distance and cruel remarks. In a humiliating, climactic scene, he tells her he will finally paint her, and she feels accepted by him, as she will now be a subject of his work, no longer rejected for her aging female body. She changes into the dress she wore at her wedding with Tony, and, enthralled, walks over to the second place to find L and Brett painting Adam and Eve on the wall, “a hellish” Garden of Eden in which M represents Eve, but with “a big hairy mustache” and “a nice fat little belly.” This is the novel’s best scene, a great exercise in pacing and revelation, while also a heavily symbolic commentary on gender.

With its talk of devils and art, Second Place grapples with existential questions, and the narrator asks a lot of them. “Why do we live so painfully in our fictions?” M wonders at the beginning. “Why do we suffer so, from the things we ourselves have invented?” After L says he will paint her, M fills with “a golden feeling of health” that leads her to ask, “Oh, why was living so painful, and why were we given these moments of health, if only to realize how burdened with pain we were the rest of the time? Why was it so difficult to live day after day with people and still remember that you were distinct from them and that this was your one mortal life?” At the end, she wonders, “Does catastrophe have the power to free us, Jeffers? Can the intransigence of what we are be broken down by an attack violent enough to ensure we are only barely able to survive it?”

The big deep questions, the seaside weather, the loafing, the fated self-destruction, the caricatures of artistry and wealth—these all remind one of scenes from To the Lighthouse and Tender Is the Night. The philosophical-intimate writing to Jeffers about confronting evil and fate also recalls Mary Shelley and the epistolary novels of her time, along with D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, as Cusk creates an interesting mix of atmospheres with a contemporary levity of description and voice.

Cusk resolves many of the characters’ conflicts through plot: the novel builds on M’s desire to be represented and understood by L, then, close to the end of the novel, reverses the power dynamic. She also resolves her narrator’s philosophical quandaries by allowing her to see through them. Near the end of the novel, M concludes: “It seemed to me there was nothing stable, no actual truth in all the universe, save the immutable one, that nothing exists except what one creates for oneself. To realize this is to bid a last and lonely farewell to dreams.”

The farewell to dreams stands out as one of Second Place’s many curious descriptions of life, similar to the ones that made the Outline trilogy feel compelling and true. M says she finds that “there is a healthy kind of talking, though it’s rare—the kind of talking through which people create themselves by giving themselves utterance.” She compares Brett to “one of those climbing plants that has to grow over things and be held up by them, rather than possessing an integral support of her own,” while she describes herself as “not the kind of woman who intuitively understands or sympathizes with other women, probably because I don’t understand or sympathize all that much with myself.” And, of course, she comments on life and art:

the possibility that art—not just L’s art but the whole notion of art—might itself be a serpent, whispering in our ears, sapping away all our satisfaction and our belief in the things of this world with the idea that there was something higher and better within us which could never be equalled by what was right in front of us. The distance of art suddenly felt like nothing but the distance in myself, the coldest, loneliest distance in the world from true love and belonging. Tony didn’t believe in art—he believed in people, their goodness and their badness, and he believed in nature.

Readers will not identify Cusk with the narrator as they are used to, as the novel’s voice and plot distance her from it. In a note at the end of the book, Cusk informs the reader that she modeled Second Place on Lorenzo in Taos, “Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir of the time D. H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico.” This information addresses the novel’s outlying question: Who is Jeffers, that unseen character to whom M tells her story? Luhan wrote to Robinson Jeffers, so we can follow the inspiration for the form, but the novel does not suggest why Jeffers matters or why it matters that M tells her story to him rather than to us directly. Toward the middle of the narrative M addresses him less frequently, she writes with a measured expressiveness, and the speech gets reported directly, almost as if the author has abandoned her narrative frame.

In 2014—nearly a decade ago now!—Rachel Cusk spoke to The Guardian about Outline, a novel she would soon publish, and how she found fiction “fake and embarrassing.” She said that “once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous… Description, character—these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

Cusk wrote the trilogy to move the novel closer to reality. Second Place feels closer to fiction, with its description, its narrator, its identifiable characters, its plot. But the trilogy ultimately felt like fiction, too. (All novels do, however new they seem at first.) The experiment and success of its books came from their simplicity and their infinite self-referentiality, from how every recounted story, every detail in thought, commented on the narrative project. And, as the second and third volumes repeated the experiment of the first, Cusk’s innovation started to harden as another artifice.

That meant it was time for something new. Second Place is new. Because it is new, it is difficult to describe: reading it, I did not feel excited or moved, as with Outline or the best recent fiction. But the novel’s unusual rhythms and voice lingered with me like those strange, violent dreams in which the secrets you perceive in close ones reveal themselves and alter you for hours, for days. The voice reaches and reaches at answers to broad questions. Sometimes it pulls back pieces of insight and beauty. In one scene, M and L look out over the water, and M describes how “the sun had risen higher and was driving back the shadows of the trees across the grass where we stood, and the water was likewise advancing, and so we were held between them, in one of those processes of almost imperceptible change that occurs in the landscape here, whereby you feel you are participating in an act of becoming.”

Marek Makowski lives in Chicago. His work has previously appeared in The Yale Review, The Smart Set, and World Literature Today. You can find more of his writing on his website, More from this author →