By Rachel Cusk
I can’t think of another way to say this: Rachel Cusk’s 11th novel, “Second Place,” is really weird. In her celebrated “Outline” trilogy, three concatenations of digressive but exquisitely controlled narratives, and in her 2019 essay collection, “Coventry,” the prose is analytical and precise, as if Cusk had internalized Isaac Babel’s definition of style: “No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.”
“Second Place,” on the other hand, is elliptical and at times annoyingly vague and mystical. Exclamation marks abound, as if it were a letter from a garrulous aunt. The novel, in fact, may be a letter (though it could also be a monologue), addressed to one Jeffers, whose identity is never revealed. Could it be the poet Robinson Jeffers? But he died 59 years ago! Stories begin ominously, portentously: “It will take a moralist to understand how it was that one of the fires that started that day was allowed to keep on smoldering over the years. …” “What is certain is that afterward many changes occurred. …” But the reader is never quite sure which fire smoldered and what changes occurred. The narrator tends to allude to past events rather than explain them, presumably because Jeffers is expected to know a lot already.
And yet I kept reading, pulled along by the enigmatic tone, which is the real mystery of the novel. The behavior of the unnamed narrator is also baffling, though her flights of introspection are original, sincere and genuinely interesting — if, again, full of gaps. It may be that the gaps maintain the spell. The narrator is a woman of a certain age who has survived a painful life (the exact cause of the pain is not revealed for a long time). She has found refuge far from civilization at the edge of a beautiful marsh (the exact location is also withheld; in fact, we never know the country or the continent). She has also found peace with Tony, a strong, steady, silent man of all trades. He farms, fishes, does carpentry and loves her unreservedly.
The couple have built a cabin — the “second place” of the title — shielded from their house by a stand of trees, and invite artists to spend a season or so there. The laconic Tony doesn’t object, and the narrator “needed some degree of communication, however small, with the notions of art and with the people who abide by those notions.” She also wants to share her marsh with people who can appreciate its magnificent, mutable moods. These she describes with Cuskian specificity, the “sweeping passages of color and light, the brewing of its distant storms, the great drifts of seabirds that float or settle over its pelt in white flecks, the sea that sometimes lies roaring at the very furthest line of the horizon in a boiling white foam and sometimes advances gleaming and silent until it has covered everything in a glassy sheet of water.”
The artist she really wants to attract to the “second place” is “L,” whose paintings she stumbled upon a long time ago, before those “many changes” occurred. Indeed, it was the paintings that set the changes in motion, because they revealed to her secrets she had stuffed deep down; the art pushed her “out of the frame” she had allowed to confine her. These revelations led to “much suffering and cruelty,” she says, but as Rilke said (though she does not), when “there is no place that does not see you,” then “you must change your life.” The way in which the narrator describes L’s work, however, is as disorienting as everything else in the novel, because her words seem to place the story in some indeterminate prefeminist past, making the time frame as hard to establish as the place. The paintings affected her deeply because they had the aura of “a freedom elementally and unrepentingly male,” she says. Women could never paint like that, she thought. Some parts of this male freedom they “can’t make sense of” and others they’re “not entitled to.”
From her marsh, the narrator writes to L, inviting him to live in the cabin. He accepts, noncommittally, and when he finally deigns to show up, he turns out to be a coddled, curdled, aging brat with a ravishing young woman in tow. The narrator follows L around the property, trying to pretend that she isn’t. He alternately bares his soul and skitters away, at times exhibiting shocking disrespect. In his defense, her expectations are impossible. L is to turn her beloved wetlands into the art she believes she can’t make herself. If he were to apprehend it with his own eyes and wrestle it onto the canvas, she thinks, that would free her, validate her, consummate her life.
The novel takes place against a blurry background, giving it the dreamlike, occasionally ominous, quality of a fable. A “global pandemonium” of some sort has brought the narrator’s daughter and her boyfriend home from Germany and wiped out the market for L’s art. The little band of refugees takes up hobbies, goes on excursions, fights and makes up. We come to see that “second place” also refers to the narrator’s sense of where she belongs — “where that egotism should have been, I had only a great big vacuum of authority” — though her self-image is obviously distorted. She learns that art is not always “higher and better” and comes to see the value of Tony’s unrivaled ability to live in the real. But other questions go unanswered. Why does the narrator hold these outdated notions about art and gender? What year is it? What is this place?
Not until the novel ends, or seems to end, do we get a solution, of sorts, to these puzzles. In a short paragraph not even presented as an afterword, Cusk declares the novel “a tribute” to a memoir by a very unusual, largely forgotten early-20th-century American writer. I won’t name the book or the writer, except to say that she’s a woman enjoying a minor revival, sure to be boosted by Cusk; that the book in question is as weird as “Second Place,” maybe weirder, though it too has many pleasures; and that the author is profligate with exclamation marks. If I say much more, I’ll need a spoiler warning. I will add that “Second Place” is more than a tribute, and that, though Cusk’s novel stands on its own, this is a case in which meaning really is made in the space between books. “Second Place” is a transposition, a riff, a gloss, with parallel themes and scenes and even names that, put side by side with its source text, turn surface readings upside down, and help explain those curious gender politics. Marking the decades that separate one work from the other forces us to reckon up how much has changed for women who would devote themselves to art, and how much has not.