MAY 10, 2021
RACHEL CUSK IS ONE of the last great novelists of contemporary life for whom the internet seems to barely exist. An occasional glimpse at Facebook or use of a smartphone aside, Cusk’s characters hardly seem to inhabit anything like the modern world, technologically speaking. (In her latest novel, Second Place, characters communicate by handwritten letter.) While these figures walk around what is in many ways a recognizably contemporary London or continental Europe, their lack of recourse to the internet and their uncolonized-by-technology headspaces mark them out as creatures living in a different century.
So, too, does Cusk’s writing feel like a bracing throwback. When she published the book Outline in 2014, it seemed like a new breakthrough in the novel form, or at least an imaginative contemporary reckoning. Frustrated by the traditional demands of plotting and character construction, and the creation of imaginary worlds and incidents, Cusk hit on a structure that allowed her to bypass these derelict appendages without blowing up the form altogether. The novel is narrated by a middle-aged writer/authorial stand-in named Faye who, while traveling to Athens to teach a class, encounters friends, students, and new acquaintances. Devoted to the art of passivity, she listens at length to each of these people tell and interpret their stories, which, filtered through the narrator’s own language, form the bulk of the novel. This strategy, repeated to slightly diminishing returns in the book’s two follow-up volumes, Transit (2016) and Kudos (2018), allowed Cusk to deflect her thematic concerns onto other characters while keeping the central figure an intriguing cipher.
It’s a strategy as thrilling as it is evasive, but what makes these books so satisfying is that, for all their formal boldness, they still function capably as novels. Unity of setting, a strong sense of place, and even an unexpected sliver of character development mark the trilogy, whose iron-willed control lends the experiment an unshakable formal grounding. This almost classical approach to structure extends as well to both the trilogy’s prose and its themes. As Faye reports her correspondents’ stories back to the reader, they all sound the same — they all sound, in fact, like her. Refracted through her own prose style, the stories unfold in long, clause-heavy sentences that are as perfectly balanced as they are intricate, and which sound like the work of someone who has been very little influenced by contemporary mass media. Similarly, Cusk’s emphasis on Big Themes takes the novels out of the present-day world and reaches back to the 20th and even the 19th century. Her list of topics covered is positively Tolstoyan, including identity, free will versus fate, the problem of evil, the meaning of art, and the possibility of freedom. Perhaps the most pressing concern in these books, though, especially given that they consist primarily of people relating their own stories, is the issue of narrative: who is shaping it, how effective they are at it, and, most importantly, to what ends.
In her 2016 Granta essay “Coventry,” Cusk describes being given the silent treatment by her parents when she was a child. This punishment is known, Cusk says, as being “sent to Coventry,” a reference to the West Midlands city that was largely destroyed during World War II bombing raids and which has since been rebuilt. As a child, being sent to Coventry was the worst thing that could happen, and the lasting psychic damage continued to haunt her into adulthood. “All my life I have been terrified of Coventry,” Cusk writes, “of its vastness and bleakness and loneliness, and of what it represents, which is ejection from the story. One is written out of the story of life like a minor character being written out of a soap opera.”
But here’s the thing about Coventry: it only exists if you believe in it. To be removed from the narrative of life, to be banished to a state of nonexistence, requires faith in the story that her parents are telling. This means that both the banisher and the banished must suspend their disbelief and accept a pre-determined set of premises. As a child, Cusk easily accepted her parents’ version of events because that’s what children do, but, as an adult, she has come to think differently. Viewing the practice as a mutual “conspiracy” (“it would be hard to send someone to Coventry who refused to believe they were there”), she also sniffs out the possibilities for a new type of freedom in being sent there. When, as an adult, her parents stop speaking to her, she relishes the newfound liberty it brings, even as something is lost in the exchange. “Freedom meant living in Coventry for ever and making the best of it,” she writes, referencing the decimated city as well as her parents’ punishment, “living amid the waste and shattered buildings, the desecrated past.” But Coventry, metaphorically conceived, also contains the chance to start anew, to create new narratives, just as the city itself did, crafting a new and controversial modernist cathedral to stand beside the ruins of the old one.
This notion of the willful illusion and what happens when it refuses to hold is central to Cusk’s writing. Over and over, she describes those moments in our lives when our disbelief can no longer be suspended, when Coventry fails to convince. The narratives that we build around ourselves crumble away, leaving us with a gaping hole in the center, forced to face unvarnished truth where comforting illusion sat before. For Cusk, concerned largely with middle-class domestic life, this moment of disbelief usually centers on the question of family, and examples abound throughout her work of characters losing faith in the life they have built and deciding to blow it all up.
This is especially true in the Outline trilogy. Faye, newly divorced at the first book’s beginning, lays it on the line from the start. Falling into conversation with the man seated next to her on an airplane, she attempts to account for the dissolution of her marriage. “[A]mong other things a marriage is a system of belief, a story,” she tells him, “and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.” The man then proceeds to relate the story of his multiple failed marriages. He explains that he entered his first union unconsciously, fully believing in its narrative, and that, since then, he has never been able to return to that state of simple conviction, that happy suspension of disbelief. In listening to his oration, Faye, however, cannot make a similar leap of faith. “I remained dissatisfied by the story of his second marriage,” she confesses. “It had lacked objectivity [and] […] invariably showed certain people — the narrator and his children — in a good light, while the wife was brought in only when it was required of her to damn herself further.”
When we no longer believe in our simple narratives, we spin new ones to replace them. These stories may serve as simple self-exoneration and may not be convincing, as in the case of the man on the airplane. They may, on the other hand, allow the disillusioned individual, newly faced with an unexpected truth, to reshape their narrative in more productive ways. This, at least to a degree, is the path taken by Faye throughout the trilogy. While, in Outline, she extols the “virtues of passivity” and resolves to “liv[e] a life as unmarked by self-will as possible,” by the trilogy’s second installment, Transit, she is already rethinking this approach. Having decided to completely renovate her London townhouse, which she shares with scabrous, disapproving downstairs neighbors who object to her mere existence and whose hatred is unleashed by the commencement of the project, she is no longer convinced that this is the right way to live. “I had started to desire power,” she writes, “because what I now realised was that other people had had it all along, that what I called fate was merely the reverberation of their will, a tale scripted not by some universal storyteller but by people who would elude justice for as long as their actions were met with resignation rather than outrage.”
Although Faye does not seem to live out the implications of this revelation — though, in both Transit and Kudos, she is barely more assertive with her interlocutors than in Outline — this change in perspective is both telling and not a little cynical. But if its refutation of fate reduces the world to a kind of Hobbesian struggle, it also opens a space for a newfound freedom. Out of the ruins of Coventry, through the assertion of will, a new life can be opened up for those who are game to make the attempt. While Faye ultimately fails to pursue this sort of possibility, the narrator of Cusk’s latest novel picks up these charged thematic threads and tries her best to make something of them.
Second Place removes us even further from anything like the contemporary world. Taking place largely on an isolated marshland property in an unspecified country, the novel is loosely based on patron-of-the-arts Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir Lorenzo in Taos. That book, told mostly through a series of letters, details the author’s tumultuous friendship with D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda during the time the couple stayed at her artists’ colony in New Mexico. Save for a couple of references that suggest we are squarely in the time of COVID-19, Second Place could well be taking place in that period of interwar modernism.
Certainly, its narrator’s quest — for freedom, for self-understanding — would not be out of place in the literature of that time, although if anything it would fit more comfortably into a tradition opened up a few years later. In its framing of its existential search as a philosophical monologue, Second Place finds its antecedents in works like Albert Camus’s final complete novel The Fall, published in 1956. Cusk’s novel is not entirely a monologue, as it contains scenes of rendered conversation, but it unfolds as a first-person confession in which the unnamed narrator tells the story of her two attempts at blowing up her life in the name of freedom to a writer known only as Jeffers who never appears in the story. (This seems to be a reference to the poet Robinson Jeffers, one of Dodge Luhan’s correspondents in Lorenzo.)
The first of these moments takes place in Paris 15 years before the novel’s present day. The morning after spending the night walking and drinking with a male writer whose acquaintance she had just made, the narrator visits a gallery where she encounters the work of a painter of whom she had only vaguely heard. Finding herself completely absorbed, she discovers that the painter’s canvases seem to crystallize her sense of self, to speak the words “I am here” on her behalf. If the walk with the arrogant writer, which ended just short of the narrator cheating on her husband, symbolizes, as she puts it, “the possibility of destruction, the destruction of what I had built […] the possibility […] of violent change,” then the visit to the gallery represents the flip side of that impulse, the creative possibilities that can arise, as in bombed-out Coventry, from a state of complete demolition. This combination is enough to galvanize the narrator, who promptly leaves her husband and loses custody of her daughter.
Now, in the present, the narrator is living on the marshland property, with a new husband, a kind man named Tony who is at ease with himself in a way that she is not. She has set herself up as a patron of the arts, allowing writers, musicians, and painters to have full use of the guest house (the “second place”) on the property, and she invites the artist whose work she saw in Paris all those years ago to stay. After a few false starts, the painter, known only as L. and presumably based to a degree on Lawrence, is able to arrange a visit, but he is not the only one to come. Also joining the menagerie and complicating the dynamic are a younger woman named Brett (an allusion to the painter Dorothy Brett?), whom L. brings along and with whom his relationship remains somewhat ambiguous. Adding to the combustible mix are the narrator’s own daughter, Justine, and her spoiled, ironic boyfriend, Kurt.
What exactly the narrator hopes for from L.’s visit she doesn’t seem fully sure of, so she attempts to work it out in her monologue. It’s clear, though, that shaking up the quiet life she’s built for herself is at the heart of it. As soon as L. and Brett arrive, the narrator senses that the fiction that sustains her quiet existence with Tony may quickly dissipate. “I feared, suddenly,” she says, “that my belief in the life I was living wouldn’t hold, and that all I’d built up would collapse underneath me and I’d be unhappy again.” But if she labels this a fear, then it’s also something like a hope, and as she enters into a labyrinthine contest of wills with the devilish, dismissive L., who seems by turns to ignore her and to want to destroy her, she attempts to puzzle out the meaning of such abiding concerns as art, individual will, and above all, freedom. The question at the heart of the book is whether all her efforts to liberate herself amount to anything other than destruction, whether the conclusion she reaches early in the story will hold by its end. “That’s all I’ve managed as far as freedom is concerned,” she says in the novel’s opening pages, “to get rid of the people and the things I don’t like. After that, there isn’t all that much left!”
Although she shares most of Faye’s philosophical concerns, the narrator of Second Place is a far less confident individual. Where Faye, when she’s not deferring to others, states her positions with absolute certainty, the narrator of the new book remains largely unsure of herself. The result of being subject to constant criticism during her early years, this uncertainty leads her to question her femininity, her position in life, and her relationship to the artistic world. It’s what inspires both her desire for stability and her urge to blow that stability to bits.
It also defines her prose. Where the sentences of the Outline trilogy are crisp and smoothly cadenced, in keeping with Faye’s orderly mind, the writing in Second Place vacillates rather awkwardly between the conversational and the ponderously philosophical, with more than its share of exclamation points thrown in for good measure. It’s finally a question of balance, and while the prose does mirror the restlessness of the narrator’s mind, it also seems to be constantly eluding Cusk’s grasp, foregrounding interpretation over any kind of narrative incident on which to turn that interpretative impulse. Begrudgingly doling out little doses of event, Cusk then rushes headlong into what appear her real interests: dense paragraphs of overlong and increasingly abstract philosophizing. Take, for example, this bit of monologue from late in the novel, when the narrator reflects on the meaning of L.’s visit:
[T]his had been my mistake, to underestimate my old adversary, fate. You see, I still somehow believed in the inexorability of that other force — the force of narrative, plot, call it what you will. I believed in the plot of life, and its assurance that our actions will be assigned a meaning one way or another, and that things will turn out — no matter how long it takes — for the best. Quite how I had staggered along so far still holding on to this belief I didn’t know. But I had, and if nothing else it was what had stopped me from just sitting down in the road and giving up long before this. That plotting part of me — another of the many names my will goes by — now stood directly counter to what L had summoned or awakened within me, or what in me had recognized him and thereby identified itself: the possibility of dissolution of identity itself, or release, with all of its cosmic, ungraspable meanings.
We are knee-deep here in Cusk’s favorite themes — fate, narrative, and will — but the metaphysical puzzling is rife with confusion. The narrator describes her inability to refrain from seeing a sort of fate shaping her existence as a troubling bit of naïveté, similar to Faye’s reckoning in Transit. But then her logic seems to trip up: she refers to the “plotting part of me,” which she identifies with her will, whereas just a few sentences earlier, this plotting seemed to come from outside of her — or, at the least, from some undefined conspiracy between herself and fate. Fortune versus free will is one of the themes of the book, but here one seems to give way to the other without any distinction. Then, Cusk further muddies the scene by contrasting that self-will with its opposite, the dissolution of identity, before ending on a note of complete abstraction (“cosmic, ungraspable meanings”).
Because these convoluted musings are what Second Place is really about, they frustrate the functioning of the book as a novel. Cusk gives readers a few things to grab onto — a serviceable evocation of the marsh, along with a few strong scenes and images, including one involving the (perhaps literal) devil on a train from Paris, which comes at the beginning of the book, foreshadowing L.’s appearance, and which is more vivid and intriguing than anything that follows. But because Cusk quickly abandons all these footholds in favor of airy interpretation, the story stumbles. After all, there must be something there to interpret in the first place.
If the Outline trilogy had seemed to push beyond the novel while still working within the form, then Second Place suggests that Cusk may have outgrown the genre entirely, even as she still tries to work uncomfortably within its limits. Either way, the tale that the book’s narrator tells is highly unsatisfactory. To put it in Cuskian terms, where it’s easy to suspend disbelief when listening to the stories that make up the Outline trilogy, in Second Place, that necessary illusion simply fails to hold.