Rachel Cusk’s new novel Second Place — her first since the breakaway success of her Outline trilogy — is a lovely and vicious piece of work. It is vexed and questing, in search of some missing piece, some object that will bring meaning to the world but is utterly inaccessible; it fairly seethes with discontent.
Cusk has patterned Second Place loosely after Lorenzo in Taos, a memoir by the artist’s patron Mabel Dodge Luhan about the time D.H. Lawrence came to stay in her artists’ colony in Taos, New Mexico. “My version,” Cusk writes in a brief author’s note, “is intended as a tribute to her spirit.” Like Lorenzo in Taos, Second Place is addressed to a figure called Jeffers; Luhan’s Jeffers was the poet Robinson Jeffers, while Cusk’s remains a mystery. And it deals with a woman we know only as M, who narrates, to us and to the unknown Jeffers, how she happened to bring the famous painter L to come and stay with her in 2020, as the pandemic spread.
M is a middle-aged writer who lives with her husband Tony on a marsh in rural France. M has suffered enormous pain in her life — she writes obliquely of a withholding mother and a cruel first husband — and so she lives in a state of constant uncertainty, catastrophizing every tiny setback. If she were 20 years younger, she’d have an anxiety diagnosis and an SSRI prescription. “If you have always been criticized, from before you can remember, it becomes more or less impossible to locate yourself in the time or space before the criticism was made,” Cusk writes, with devastating simplicity: “to believe, in other words, that you yourself exist.”
M sees the quietness and peace of her life with calm, unyielding Tony as an antidote to the terrible glittering outside world. She is never certain that she herself exists, but she is certain Tony does, so she can anchor himself to him. All the same, she craves art, M explains, and outside eyes. So she has made a habit of inviting artists to come and stay in the little cottage she and Tony have fixed up on their land, their second place.
M invites L to stay at the second place with high hopes, telling him that she wants to see her beloved marsh through his eyes. She’s seen some of his paintings before, and she has found that when she looks at them, a phrase reverberates through her mind, a phrase she has trouble holding on to or believing in other circumstances: I am here.
What M wants, really, is to see herself through L’s eyes. She wants him to paint her, so that at last she can believe that she truly exists, so that she can see herself and think I am here. But when L arrives at M’s second place, he seems to want to paint everyone but M: Tony, M’s daughter, the girlfriend he brought with him. And when M at last confronts L about why he won’t paint her, he tells her quite callously, “But I can’t really see you.”
The moment is both rudely funny and devastating, which is the tone most of The Second Place strikes. And it’s especially devastating because M appears so certain that she and L have a deep artistic connection. Just moments earlier, she has told L intimate secrets about her experience of psychoanalysis. She has informed us of “the sense of intimate familiarity I felt with L from that very first conversation, an intimacy that was almost kinship, as though we were brother and sister” — and now we find that this intimacy is entirely one-sided.
M’s relationship with L is that of a viewer before an artist, or a reader before an author. She has looked at his art and has felt recognition, and now she wants to feel the same flicker of recognition or affirmation for herself. But L has no particular use for M, despite his willingness to stay at her second place and avail himself of her hospitality during a time of global chaos. He has in fact a contempt for her, a contempt that seems to be wound up in the fact of her femininity and her middle age.
And so every time M throws herself before L, she finds herself reenacting the peculiar sort of disappointment women feel when they go looking for themselves in the novels of great male writers and are met with only hatred. She has fallen in love with the way he sees the world, only to find there is no place for her to exist within that vision. Like reading Philip Roth all over again.
Still, M persists in pursuing L, certain that she can, eventually, find a way to make him see her, until this attempt seems to have become her project for the summer of quarantine. All the characters seem to have such a project underway, and Cusk is often very funny about them: At one point, the boyfriend of M’s daughter performs an impromptu and unsolicited two-hour reading of his fantasy novel-in-progress, not ending until 1 o’clock in the morning. (“It’s really far too long,” L tells him.)
But it’s M’s ceaseless, ravening want that animates this novel, swirling under the surface of every immaculate sentence. Dwight Garner calls Cusk’s prose “hot-but-cold,” which comes as close as any descriptor could to summing up the exact quality of her sentences: They are detached, but also passionate; they writhe with furious wanting; they analyze all wants with ferocious mistrust.
When M writes to L to ask him to come stay with her, she includes a description of the marsh she would like him to paint. Most artists, she says, “miss the point of it entirely,” so that whenever they try to paint it, “what they end up painting is the contents of their own mind.” She herself thinks of the marsh as “the vast woolly breast of some sleeping god or animal, whose motion is the deep, slow motion of somnambulant breathing.”
M, like all the artists she disdains, has painted out the contents of her own mind. That deep, slow, unceasing breath pants below her entire narration. It’s the movement of her desires: of a mind striving, endlessly, to manage to say of itself, I am here.