At the beginning of Second Place, the narrator recalls a time in her life when imagined fears blinded her to real dangers. ‘Why,’ she asks, ‘do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so, from the things we ourselves have invented?’ It’s natural to want to draw parallels between a work of fiction and its author’s life, and to assume that every novelist is in perpetual dialogue with her previous work. But the temptation to make such comparisons is especially strong when it comes to Rachel Cusk, who so often plays with forms of self-portraiture. This novel is her first since Kudos (2018), the last in her Outline trilogy, which is narrated by an impassive Cusk-alike who endures the long-winded, implausible and often grimly hilarious monologues of self-absorbed strangers. Outline, the first instalment of the trilogy, appeared two years after her notorious memoir Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012) – a book that won Cusk many new readers, but also led to intense public vilification.
The trilogy has been celebrated for its unusual form (‘annihilated perspective,’ Cusk has called it), its comic energy and its intellectual sophistication. Although many critics judge the novels to be excellent (I’m one of them), Cusk has fallen victim to the backlash against ‘autofiction’ – a pointless and ersatz subgenre into which her work gets lumped and of which the literary world has begun to tire. Some readers regarded Transit, the second of the three books, as a warmed-over version of Outline – while Kudos was taken as further proof that Cusk’s autobiographical shtick had outstayed its welcome.
Perhaps the author agreed. Second Place is unlike the trilogy but reads very much like a reaction to it. ‘Habits,’ Cusk writes on the first page, ‘kill what is essential in ourselves,’ and we imagine her pushing the last decade of work aside and rolling a fresh sheet into the typewriter. This book is not autobiographical. It does, however, begin and end with different sets of self-portraits. The portraitist (and subject of the novel) is L, a solipsistic, mercurial painter whose work strikes the narrator as having amazing force; the resulting relationship will cause each of them to prise themselves open and acquire something like self-knowledge.
Like most of Cusk’s recent fiction, the novel is written in a retrospective first person. The narrator, identified only as M, is at once elusive and exhaustively forthcoming; she leaves much unexplained and undescribed, but will endlessly burnish a passing feeling until it shines like an epiphany. She is a writer – unlike Cusk – of slight, largely unsung prose works, but she doesn’t allow much information about them to enter the narrative. The story is being told to Jeffers, an offstage friend of M’s, about whom little is disclosed. We learn that he is probably a man, and certainly a poet. But M reveals nothing about the nature of their friendship or their shared history. Although the book’s sparse plot derives largely from interpersonal drama, this is rendered almost entirely in summary, with only the occasional section of dialogue. (‘I cannot reproduce L’s words for you, Jeffers,’ M writes, with a wink to the book’s famously chatty predecessors. ‘I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to retain an accurate record of that kind of deep talk in any case, and I am determined not to falsify anything, even for the sake of a narrative.’) M is forever surprised by people’s reactions to events, her own in particular, and the book is littered with exclamation marks anchoring these responses firmly to the page.
L and M are the only characters in the book who aren’t given proper names. There’s Tony, M’s prematurely white-haired, ethnically indeterminate husband; Justine, her mousy, semi-estranged daughter from a previous relationship; Kurt, Justine’s foolish, ill-at-ease paramour; and Brett, L’s young and beautiful companion who may, or may not, be his lover. This cast has gathered on an unidentified island where they are awaiting some non-specific global catastrophe from whose effects money and circumstance have rendered them exempt. The book must have been all but complete before the outbreak of Covid-19; perhaps Cusk’s fictional disaster is prescient, or coincidental. But it’s not difficult to imagine her adding the handful of sentences that refer to this impending disaster as she attended to her page proofs. Either way, it’s a perfect example of M’s perverse mode of narration: big events are hinted at, but revealed only at a remove – if at all.
The story begins in Paris, where M encounters a poster of one of L’s early self-portraits advertising an exhibition. When she goes to see the show, she is moved by his work’s ‘aura of absolute freedom’, a fundamentally male freedom that ‘belongs likewise to most representations of the world and of our human experience within it’. Her reaction is profound: ‘From that moment, I ceased to be immersed in the story of my life and became distinct from it.’ That night, on a train, she sees a demonic male figure, ‘yellow and bloated with bloodshot bile-coloured eyes’, caressing a female child, ‘a shocking little creature … barely clothed’. She feels she should save the child from this devil, but does nothing; ‘perhaps,’ she writes, if she’d acted, ‘all the things that happened afterwards wouldn’t have occurred.’ It’s a long time before we learn what things M is talking about. (The devil-man does not reappear.)
M becomes obsessed with the idea of L visiting herself and Tony on their remote, marshy estate. They have constructed a guest house, an outbuilding they call ‘the second place’. M writes to L, inviting him to stay. He should paint, she tells him, the gloomy and inscrutable marsh. Other guests have tried and failed; ‘what they end up painting is the contents of their own mind.’ After an outright refusal, followed by a broken promise, L finally decides to join them, but M, expecting him to arrive alone, is mortified when he brings Brett along.
What M wants from L is the mystery at the heart of the novel. At times it seems her interest in him is sexual, despite her horror of her own body (‘I had grown up disgusted by my physical self’); at other times she treats him like a child, and later, when he becomes ill, like a parent in decline. L insults her in word and deed. He condescends to her ‘little books’ and asks: ‘Why do you play at being a woman?’ He paints portraits of everyone on the island except her. All the relationships in the novel have something of the same ambiguity: Justine is first intimidated and then transformed by the glamorous Brett while growing apart from the lazy and abusive Kurt; Kurt first plays at being a surrogate son to Tony, then pivots to an obsession with L, which culminates in his sudden desire to write a novel. He reads aloud from this work in progress, a lurid fantasy, for two interminable hours while the others listen in horror. (In future, at literary readings, I will have to bite my tongue so as not to repeat L’s caustic riposte: ‘My time belongs to me. Be careful what you ask people to endure.’)
Very little happens in Second Place, but the book is alive with movement, as the characters’ roles change and the context of even the most prosaic acts shifts dramatically. Occasionally M will allow an answer to a question that has been on the reader’s mind, but for every revelation there’s a new, unexplained anomaly – like her bizarre fainting spell and near coma which passes in a day and is never mentioned again. M spends much time analysing phenomena she’s able to observe only obliquely; the impossibility of directly describing or explaining anything is the novel’s primary preoccupation. It’s there in L’s vague yet expressive paintings, the porousness of the boundaries between characters, as well as in the marsh itself, which, for most of the novel, proves as confounding to L as it was for the island’s previous visitors. At one point, he walks out onto the sandbar, hoping to discover where the marsh ends and the sea begins, but the tide rolls in and he almost becomes stranded. ‘I was trying to find the edge,’ he says, dripping with mud, ‘but there is no edge … it just sort of dissolves, doesn’t it? There are no lines here at all.’
Ultimately, self-knowledge can only arrive distorted, and by means of other people. The second place stands on a hill above the main house, so that it alone enjoys the marsh view; M and Tony watch the sunset through its floor to ceiling windows. It is a prism for M, refracting the creative essence of her guests. She eventually recognises the double meaning of the book’s title: ‘second place,’ she writes, ‘pretty much summed up how I felt about myself and my life – that it had been a near miss.’ To Tony, it means something else: ‘Parallel world. Alternative reality.’ Tony is always definitively himself, regardless of what happens or who is around; M requires antagonists in relation to whom she can define her own identity. ‘I still somehow believed in the inexorability of that other force – the force of narrative,’ she tells us, while doing her best to interrupt and divert us from the one we’re reading.
Eventually, change arrives in the form of a deus ex machina altering everyone’s relationship to one another and to themselves. L’s creative block is broken, ‘a jet of life spurting out of the great hole that had been blown through him’. At first, he paints new self-portraits, ‘shockingly crude… mauled but still alive’; then, at last, he manages to capture the essence of the marsh by rendering it in darkness. The canvases that emerge are the works for which L will become most famous. Or, rather, the ones he is already famous for: M’s narrative gradually reveals itself to be an apologia, her side of a celebrated story, popularly understood to concern a ‘controlling, destructive’ woman who beleaguered L during the most significant year of his artistic life.
Second Place bears a passing resemblance to The Country Life (1997), Cusk’s comic novel about an unforthcoming woman isolated on a remote estate with difficult people. That book contains perhaps the funniest line of dialogue I’ve ever read, a sudden, unprompted insult so crass and out of place that its victim lacks even the capacity to accept it’s been said, and so continues on her way as if nothing has happened. Cusk’s characters are often displaced, alone with the wrong people, blind to (or excessively wedded to) customs and conventions, and lacking in self-knowledge. Second Place seems to me Cusk’s most sophisticated and mature distillation of these elements; it’s not a comedy, but it employs many small mordantly comic effects that function like a jeweller’s steel blade, cleaving faceted gems out of rough stone. It represents a new mode of organising the fragments of perspective that the trilogy exploded: a deannihilated novel, and a very good one.