(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021)
How do you resist reading a story that begins with its narrator talking about meeting the devil on a train leaving Paris? That’s the hook that snags you in Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Second Place, and it’s the set up for the arrival of a demonic artist—or at least an artist that the erratic narrator comes to consider demonic. M, the mostly-anonymous narrator, addresses her story to Jeffers about the time the famous painter, L, visited her secluded marsh. M, who lives with her second husband Tony, customarily invites guests to stay on their property in the cottage they built called the “second place.” M says it’s a place “where people can stay and be quite alone if they want to be.” When M, “a young mother on the brink of rebellion” with “impossible yearnings,” went to Paris years ago, she became enamored with L and his paintings. Much later, about 15 years, she persistently invites L to come visit her place on the marsh. After several starts and stops and trips to an island paradise that wasn’t all it was “cracked up to be” and a journey to Rio de Janeiro, L finally arrives with his much younger English girlfriend Brett. Instead of coming by boat as M expects, L and Brett fly in on Brett’s billionaire cousin’s plane. Another couple, M’s daughter Justine and her boyfriend Kurt are visiting, too. The plot is slight, but Cusk hasn’t abandoned it, as some critics have speculated she might. Most of the action is cerebral and a bit of a study in psychology—M, who alternately lacks and teems with determination and will, interprets the interaction of the couples, and tries to make sense of all of it using Jeffers as a sounding board.
Cusk, who was born in Canada and now lives in London, is a Guggenheim Fellow. She has written 11 novels and has been shortlisted twice for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and longlisted once for the Man Booker Prize. But she may be best known for The Outline Trilogy: Outline (2014), Transit (2017), and Kudos (2018). In Outline, the narrator, Faye, who is a novelist and a writing teacher, calls D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers “the book that has inspired me more than anything else in my life.” Cusk herself is a Lawrence fan. One of her favorite books is D. H. Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow. She calls Lawrence a “great analyst of transformation and change and self-realization.” Cusk even wrote an introduction to The Rainbow, included in her essay collection Coventry (2019). “The Rainbow,” she writes, “is a novel that retains its transfigurative power of explanation, its capacity to demystify us to ourselves,” which Cusk emulates in her novel—demystifying her characters to themselves and so, us to ourselves. It shouldn’t be surprising that a Lawrence enthusiast and an accomplished memoir writer such as herself would pattern her novel after a memoir about the provocative and controversial English writer. In a postscript to Second Place, Cusk writes that the book “owes a debt to Lorenzo in Taos,” the 1932 memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan of the time D. H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico. Luhan was a socialite and an arts patron. “My version,” Cusk writes, “in which the Lawrence figure is a painter, not a writer, is intended as a tribute to her spirit.”
In adding that postscript, Cusk invites comparisons to the memoir. She sets her version in a remote marsh, possibly in the UK, instead of in the Taos desert, as there are no deserts in the UK. That is similar to Cusk sending L to Coventry, where Cusk herself has walked and brooded along the marshes, to atone for her “actual or hypothetical” offenses, after the funny English phrase, “being sent to Coventry” for your sins. Moreover, Cusk has selected a marsh because Lawrence’s fiction is flowing with them. In Cusk’s transformed version of Taos, L(awrence) wields a paint brush instead of a pen, as the other letters of his name drip off the canvas leaving the anonymous “L” of the novel. M, also a patron of the arts, is a stand-in for Mabel Luhan, and Jeffers, to whom the novella is addressed, is the poet Robinson Jeffers, just like Luhan’s memoir. So far as we know, M’s husband Tony is only her second, while Mabel was married four times; her last husband was Tony, a Native American. Oddly enough, M’s Tony is “dark-skinned” and looks like the photographs of Native Americans that she’s seen. It’s M’s first husband, not Tony, who is the father of Justine. Neither a Justine nor a Kurt appears in Luhan’s memoir. M’s girlfriend Brett, on the other hand, seems to be a replacement for Lawrence’s wife Frieda. Cusk probably names her after the artist Dorothy Brett who also visited Taos with the Lawrences. In his letter to Mabel, Lawrence writes, Brett “paints, is deaf, forty, very nice, and daughter of Viscount Esher,” instead of cousin to a billionaire. Luhan writes about the mid-1920s visit, but Cusk’s novelization of the memoir is more contemporary, given that some folks are billionaires, not mere millionaires, flying private planes and living “a life of idleness and wealth,” while nearby farmers scare birds away with technologically modern stationary gas guns.
When M first writes to L to persuade him to come to their remote marsh, she tells him,
Our landscape is one of those conundrums people are drawn to, and end up missing the point of entirely. It is full of desolation and solace and mystery, and it hasn’t yet told its secret to anyone. Twice a day the sea rises over the marsh and fills its creaks and crevices and bears away—or so I like to think of it—the evidence of its thoughts.
At first, M is hyper-confident after L responds to her letter: “It made me wonder who else I could summon up, simply by sitting down and directing my will at them!” Just like Mabel in “Lorenzo in Taos,” who writes, “I had sent him some powerful letters and I had used a lot of willing on him.” Other times she frets, hesitates, and broods about Justine, Brett, Tony, and L, who will paint portraits of everyone else, but won’t paint M, because he couldn’t see her. M dwells on her strained relationship with L throughout the story.
There is no particular reason, on the surface, why L’s work should summon a woman like me, or perhaps any woman—but least of all, surely, a young mother on the brink of rebellion whose impossible yearnings, moreover, are crystallised in reverse by the aura of absolute freedom his paintings emanate, a freedom elementally and unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke.
M even says that “‘second place’ pretty much summed up how I felt about myself and my life.”
M also takes an almost immediate dislike to Brett, who, shortly after her arrival, proclaims of the cottage, “It’s a cabin in the woods, straight out of a horror story!” M understood Brett was an “insinuating kind of person who liked to get herself into your bodily space and make herself comfortable there, like a cat winding itself around your leg and then leaping into your lap.”
This novel is tightly written, tense and solemn, but there are some comical moments, although unfunny to the characters. In one instance, about two-thirds into the story, Kurt decides he’s going to become a writer and starts writing his masterpiece with a pen on stacks of plain paper. “For his new career, Kurt decided on a long black velvet housecoat, a red tam-o’-shanter jammed far back on his head, and to top it off, rope-soled espadrilles on his bare feet.” Dressed like that, he reads for about two hours from a one-inch stack of pages to a “captive audience” with “glazed faces.” Then there’s the absurd image (maybe foreshadowed by the devil on the train trip) of L and Brett stripped down and painting the Garden of Eden, serpent and all, on the walls inside the cottage. You don’t have to get all the references to “Lorenzo in Taos” and to the fiction of D. H. Lawrence, who made enough obscure references himself to make your eyes glaze over, to enjoy this novel, but it certainly adds to the demonic fun of it all.