Friday 30 July 2021


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Second Place by Rachel Cusk      {Reviewed by THOMAS}
How do you feel, Jeffers, about having Rachel Cusk’s new novel Second Place addressed entirely to you by its narrator? I hope you don’t mind, Jeffers, that we are reading this book, too, as I’m not sure that you have done anything to warrant all this possibly unwanted attention. Perhaps Cusk’s narrator, M, has transferred to you the unreciprocated obsession she in the summer of the novel directed towards L, an evidently talented but aging painter somewhat off the boil, who she has persuaded to come and work in the so-called ‘Second Place’, a small house constructed by her husband Tony and a group of ‘men’, across from their own house above the marshes, to which M, after hanging curtains over the windows—the key metaphor of the book, perhaps—serially entices artists and writers who she wants to encourage to work there. I suppose you know, Jeffers, that M is some sort of writer, though she herself never seems to do any work of this sort, except, I suppose, for the novel she has written to you some time after the visit from L, and I suppose that’s not nothing, entirely. M claims to have had a strong connection with L from the time she saw an exhibition of his paintings some fifteen years before the summer of the novel, and do you find, Jeffers, that it is sometimes easy to forget, as M seems entirely to forget, that she means nothing to L, that he has never even heard of M until she offers him the ‘Second Place’, that her deep connection, so to call it, with him is entirely one-sided. And what is the nature of this deep connection that M feels, do you think, Jeffers? Is it in some way sexual, even if not sexualised, M is far too repressed for that, sublimated into the artistic mode perhaps? “When I looked at the marsh, which seemed to obey so many of [L’s] rules of light and perception that it often resembled a painted work by him, I was in a sense looking at works by L that he had not created, and was therefore — I suppose — creating them myself,” she writes, oddly. Certainly, Jeffers, M feels entitled for some reason to some undefined sort of meaningful attention from L, attention that, unsurprisingly, he has no inclination and plausibly no ability to provide. M is entirely taken aback that L arrives with a younger woman, Brett, and it is no surprise, Jeffers, that M’s emotional outbursts when it is evident, at least to us, that L does not at all reciprocate the special relationship to which M feels she is entitled, merely serve to motivate L to avoid M as much as he can. He is frightened off by her neediness, if he even notices it. “I had had this ugliness inside me for as long as I could remember, and, by offering it to L, I was perhaps labouring under the belief that he could take it from me.” Hmm. Perhaps, Jeffers, M has written to you in an attempt to insert herself into the biography of a famous painter to whom she had in fact not the slightest importance, her relationship with L, so to call it, being always entirely one-sided. This would be sad, Jeffers, if M was herself not so entirely unpleasant, a fact that ought to make it sadder, really, but our sympathies, Jeffers, even your seemingly great patience with M, can only extend so far before irritation sets in. This is a very uncomfortable novel, Jeffers, and the more familiar we become with the suffocating workings of M’s mind, the more uncomfortable we become. The way M writes rings wrong line by line, Jeffers, every simile, every over-contrived metaphor, every feeble profundity rings wrong and makes the reader stop and remember that they’re reading, that this is a constructed text, an artificiality, I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, and not an experience that they themselves are having. When M, or Cusk as M, writes, “the sky was like a blue sail overhead,” I cannot picture this, can you, Jeffers? Or when, on the following page, she writes, “life rarely offers sufficient time or opportunity to be free in more than one way,” does this make sense to you? Much of the claustrophobic isolation of M’s mind is ring-fenced and protected by dichotomous rules that she has adopted or constructed, perhaps in order to survive some previous time of trauma that she alludes to but does not reveal, and, although she may be drawn unconsciously towards transgression of these ‘rules’, she cannot relinquish her commitment to compliance and control. “But it is not Tony’s business to change places with me, nor I with him,” she writes. “We are separate people, and we each have our separate part to play, and no matter how much I yearned for an occasion for that law to be broken, I have always known that the very basis of my life rested on it.” Do you think, Jeffers, that M’s insistence on seeing all problems—existential, artistic, personal, or practical—purely in terms of reductionist and frankly quite regressive gender generalisations, and indeed her compulsion to explain every particular in her life in terms of a generalisation of some sort, blinds her to her own contribution to any particular situation and in effect alienates her from and disempowers her in these situations, even when, or even particularly when, her generalisation may be right? This contrary pull between the particular and the general has been a constant source of tension and risk in Cusk’s works generally, Jeffers. No-one can isolate and describe better than Cusk a particular or a telling detail that embeds itself in a reader’s mind and changes the way they see both the fictive and the actual world. Cusk’s ‘Outline’ trilogy is full of such wonderful splinters of hobgoblin’s mirror, so to call it, Jeffers. But can we be certain that it is Cusk’s intention that we regard M with the mixture of contempt and pity that we undoubtedly feel, or feel with perhaps a modicum of doubt, when M merely demonstrates or exaggerates the tendency to reductive gerneralising that Cusk has previously shown us of herself in her less convincing moments? Especially in certain of her non-fiction, Cusk has not infrequently moved from potent particularities to increasingly dubious generalities that reduce the insight inherent in the particulars. I wonder, Jeffers, could this book be a satire on or evisceration of Cusk herself? If not, and I think probably not, it is unclear, at least to me, Jeffers, to what extent Cusk and her narrator align. “Why do we live so painfully in our fictions?” asks M. And what, Jeffers, are we to make of the constant and presumably deliberate infelicity of description in the novel, the twee and old-fashioned turns of phrase, for example that the shelves are “higglety-pigglety” and the houses are “plonked down” somewhere or other? Cusk has created a narrator who is in many instances convincingly bad at writing, but this project, if it is her project, and I hope that it is for I hold Cusk in great esteem as a writer, comes at considerable risk to the author. Is Cusk intent on resisting our expectations of her? Perhaps, Jeffers, Cusk is trying to write in a way opposite to that of the ‘Outline’ trilogy, to react against the way of writing fiction that she developed there (if you are interested, Jeffers, you can read my ‘autofictional’ reviews of those books >here<), but it is hard to know, Jeffers, just what this opposite might be. One of the empowering strengths of the ‘Outline’ trilogy was the suspension of interpretation by their narrator, Faye, but in Second Place, all we have access to is the narrator M’s interpretation, and so much interpretation that we barely see through it, if at all. What are we to make of this, Jeffers? Perhaps the cleverness of Second Place is to suppress the unstated to a level within the narrator to which she does not allow herself to have access, leaving M superficial in the extreme and complicit in her own repression. Perhaps Second Place, Jeffers, sees the final relinquishment of M’s impulse to rebel, awakened perhaps by the devil-in-the-train episode with which the book opens, if that episode prefigures anything at all, and the ultimate victory of her already dominant impulse to comply. After all, the protagonist, so to call her, is caught in the past tense and unable to learn from her experiences. The book is written looking back from a time beyond the book’s occurrences, and she has evidently not been transformed by them, Jeffers. She has become a stagnant narrator, or one now utterly resigned to the compromise she had wrought before the book began. “L and Brett had imported a new standard, a new way of seeing, in which the old things could no longer hold their shape,” observes M, but, although she recognises that “this loss of control held new possibilities for me … as though it were itself a kind of freedom,” ultimately she affirms the rigidity of shape that she has constructed, just as — ‘Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room’ and all that — Cusk affirms a more traditional approach to the novel, but not without complicating it in interesting ways. Chekhov’s guns, with which the book bristles, are never fired: the devil on the train, M’s fainting event, the gunshots of the bird-cannons, and you, Jeffers. When Brett says of the Second Place, “It’s a cabin in the woods straight out of a horror story,” is this meant to heighten or deflate all that comes after? Do you think, Jeffers, that M is toying with you? Cusk, I think, is certainly toying with us. “It is important that I only tell you about what I can personally verify, despite the temptation to enlist other kinds of proof, or to invent or enhance things in the hope of giving you a better picture of them, or worst of all making you identify with my feelings and the way I saw it,” writes M. Yet this is exactly what she does to you, Jeffers, and also does to her readers, these Jeffereses-by-extension. Who, though, is she deceiving or trying to deceive? Perhaps only herself. M’s ultimately conservative impulses are confirmed by her encounter with L, who has been caught by the tide: “‘I was trying to find the edge,’ he said … ‘but there is no edge. You just get worn down by the slow curvature. I wanted to see what here looks like from there … but there is no there.’” And, excuse me for asking this directly, just who are you, Jeffers? M speaks to you in a tone that suggests you might be, variously, a friend, a servant, a psychotherapist, God, a dog, or a teddy bear, none of which you seem to be, nor do you seem to be someone in the field between these poles. She repeats your name hundreds of times, Jeffers, as if to remind you or the reader or herself that she is addressing you, you in particular, though you make no more than a passive contribution, the contribution of your absence. Perhaps, Jeffers, you are M’s imaginary friend, or you might as well be, even if you do exist. A note at the end of Second Place says the book “owes its debt” to Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 epistolary memoir of the time D.H. Lawrence came to stay with her in New Mexico but, even though the amount of debt the book owes is not specified, I do not think this adds anything to our reading of Second Place, other than providing a source for the names: Brett, Jeffers, M [= Mabel], and L [=Lawrence (much admired by Cusk)], not that I can say as I have never read that book. Perhaps you can help us there, Jeffers. 

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