Rachel Cusk’s novels are merciless. She believes nerviness and irritation are necessary habits of mind to explore and put down on paper. Difficulty is her bread and butter. This is not to say her work is mean or mean-spirited. But her exacting mien makes me, as a reader, feel awkward: too large, too wrinkled, too eager to please. There is a spare intensity to her prose that makes it seem written with a thin person’s pen: a control that implicitly criticizes sloppiness of body or mind. Which is why her new novel, Second Place, is so perplexing.
The novel has a conventional frame: an outsider enters a constricted space; a woman looks outside her marriage for sustenance; an artist destabilizes a family’s life. These things all happen in Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos (1932), on which Second Place is based, as the brief afterword explains. Luhan’s book tells the story of D.H. Lawrence’s visit to her ranch in New Mexico in 1922; in Cusk’s version, Lawrence is a famous portrait painter named L, and the story is set not in Taos but on the edge of a marsh, presumably in present-day England or Wales, though that, like much in the novel, remains deliberately opaque. The novel’s setup is similar to one Lawrence often used: a cryptic figure sows discord in a small community. Cusk, too, has written about the ways outsiders unsettle marriages, and about how one person’s isolation complicates social interactions. But the trio of artists here—Lawrence, Luhan, and Cusk—fold in on one another in unusual ways as Second Place develops.
Cusk’s narrator, M, is a minor writer, on her second marriage, and the mother of an adult daughter; the novel takes the form of letters from M to Jeffers. (In Luhan’s memoir, this is the poet and critic Robinson Jeffers.) The method by which Cusk draws details from Luhan’s work is provocative—for example, Luhan’s Taos Pueblo husband, Tony Lujan, becomes in Second Place a cryptically racialized marshman named Tony: “I have seen photographs of Native Americans,” M writes, “and more than anything he looks like one of them, though how that could be I don’t know.” There is no clear reason for M’s husband to appear to be Native American: he was adopted, but he is presented as a child of the marsh, more in tune with his environment than even his parents’ biological son; his possible connection to America or to native peoples is left unexplained.
In making him “the only dark-skinned person for miles around,” Cusk suggests other ambiguously racialized inhabitants of marshes. Is there some Heathcliff in Cusk’s Tony? And indeed, Cusk borrows some of Emily Brontë’s unrelenting intensity in her characterization of M and L, though their connection is not the mind-altering romance of Cathy and Heathcliff: instead, M and L are acquaintances, not very close ones, who make unreasonable emotional demands on each other. The problem of quasi-violent emotional intensity in such a deflated, and deflating, social interaction is surprising, and not just for what it says about the marginal connections we have with mere acquaintances.
It is the marshland setting that makes Second Place so distinct from Luhan’s memoir. The isolation of the homes is similar, as is the constriction of the social worlds: each book presents a minuscule stage for human interaction. The marsh’s peculiarity is its amorphousness, the way the land and the ocean meet and seem to mingle at its horizon. M and L may be avatars of Mabel and Lawrence, but the marsh is not an analogue of the desert—it is its inversion. Life survives in the desert but thrives in a marsh, the nursery space for oceans and rivers.
The murky setting of the novel is an important aspect of M’s very un-Cuskian tone; the style of her narration feels uncontrolled and emotionally needy, plangent and demanding, mud-like and sticky. Cusk draws inspiration from Luhan’s conversational and at times tetchy voice in Lorenzo in Taos, borrowing the memoir’s epistolary form for a chatty, casual openness. When the novel begins M writes to L, inviting him to stay at her remote property’s “second place,” a guest house where M and her husband often host visitors. M hopes that L will come to paint the marsh, telling him that it’s “one of those conundrums people are drawn to, and end up missing the point of entirely,” but that there might be “something here for you—and perhaps only for you.” For a while L demurs, traveling instead to a private island and then to Rio. M’s invitations persist, as she has become fixated on the idea that he alone can capture the marsh’s elusive appeal.
M had first come across L’s work years before in Paris, when she saw a poster of one of his self-portraits on the street. Its combination of effects—it is at once distant, “compassionless,” and deeply bathetic—arrests her at a moment when her world is dissolving around her: “Looking at [the self-portrait], the emotion I felt was pity, pity for myself and for all of us: the kind of wordless pity a mother might feel for her mortal child, who nonetheless she brushes and dresses so tenderly.” M’s Parisian revelation comes just as she has decided to leave her first husband and start a new life with their young daughter.
What M perceives in L’s work seems filtered through her maternity, which is under pressure as her first marriage is unraveling. She describes the tension between the “coldness” of L’s gaze (he seems “almost surprised to see himself” in the portrait) and the “human and loving” rendering of his parted hair and buttoned shirt. M senses fragility in the painting that the artist himself might not fully accept, yet her perceptiveness when it comes to L does not mean she is any clearer-sighted about her own desires.
Like Luhan’s prose, M’s narration is filled with exclamation points and emotional outbursts: when she tells her now twenty-one-year-old daughter Justine, who is also staying at the marsh house, that she and her boyfriend will need to move into the main house with M and Tony so that L can have the second place, Justine asks why L can’t stay at the main house. The thought makes M “want to shrivel up,” but she can’t bear to explain her feelings to Justine. “It made me feel old, older than the most ancient monument, which is how children make you feel when you still presume to produce an original feeling,” M writes. “I didn’t want to be anyone’s parent in that minute!” The exclamations read to me like poisonous darts aimed at my eager soul: I identify with them more than with the style of Cusk’s previous narrators, in part because M seems less exacting, more tentative, and much more emotionally volatile.
This isn’t to say that M isn’t self-aware, but she is also embarrassed, anxious, self-critical. M is self-conscious during L’s visit when Brett, a younger heiress and L’s sometime lover, appears by her side, “all fresh and lovely in a primrose-yellow dress, with silver sandals on her feet that offered the greatest possible contrast to the muddy, ogreish affairs on mine.” A friend told me the narration felt tendentious, and I see what she means: there is a lot of pleading in the exclamatory mode. The distance M feels from others, especially from other women, feels Cuskian, but her higgledy-piggledy nervousness, her awkwardness, feels new, the exploration of a less disciplined persona.
When L does, eventually, come to stay, it is under the gathering storm clouds of a world-historical blight (the Covid-19 pandemic, the reader assumes), and after he has lost his own homes in an economic downturn. He brings with him Brett, who quickly ingratiates herself with Justine. L spends most of his time in a kind of monastic retreat in the second place, rarely coming into contact with M, which unsettles her. She feels a strong proprietorship over what form L’s paintings will take, and throughout his stay, she berates him about his coolness toward her, the haphazard manner of his arrival, the presence of Brett.
Though she insists that she has invited L to her marsh to paint the landscape, she has suppressed—not very effectively—her real hope, which is to be seen and painted by him. M is used to seeing herself through men’s eyes, and she seems desperate for L to respond to her as a painterly subject, so her antagonism toward him is perplexing: Is it designed to draw him in or to push him away? At any rate, throughout the novel, L struggles, or refuses, to perceive either M’s individuality or the marshy landscape that he’s supposed to be painting.
While we seem meant to censure M for her neediness, L’s major flaw is his selfishness, his startling inability to think of anyone other than himself. From inviting Brett along to pulling down the second place’s curtains because they “got in the way,” his behavior shows a disregard for the usual considerations of host and guest. He is also nasty: he tells Justine’s boyfriend Kurt that he “intends to destroy” M. This is of a piece with the sexual nastiness of an attractive man who has aged, as Brett makes clear to the whole household, into impotence. His main attitude in the novel is one of aggressive solitariness.
The dynamic between the two characters, with its sublimated sex and almost familial antagonism, is unpleasant. L resents M’s femaleness, which he perceives as a demand upon him, but which is in fact something like motherliness. M resents L’s seeing her as a desexed nonentity. She writes to Jeffers, at one point, that L “emanated a kind of physical neutrality that I took personally and interpreted as a sign that he did not consider me to be truly a woman.”
The novel draws attention to the way that women are always second to men: we are objects to ogle, and then we become objects to pity. In both situations, the woman’s need—to be seen as a human being rather than the occasion for a man’s gaze—is experienced by the woman as embarrassing and by the man as irritating. In this, Cusk shows how little separates us from Lawrence. Recall, for example, the way the aims of the Brangwen sisters in The Rainbow and Women in Love fizzle the moment they express any desire: Gudrun’s lover Gerald Crich fights with her for a dominance that seems both necessary for and destructive of love; avant-garde Ursula’s life becomes conventional once she is subjugated by Rupert Birkin.
In Lorenzo in Taos, Luhan’s writing is sharp, chatty. There are aspects of it—its habit of exclamation, but also its interest in the routines of daily life and the awkward ways those routines vibrate when new people encounter them—that feel pointedly female and demotic. But Luhan is clearly, like Cusk, posing larger questions about art’s relation to everyday life. She is especially sensitive to how for many of us aesthetic desires are mingled with erotic ones:
I wanted Lawrence to understand things for me….
I almost succeeded in fooling myself into thinking I was in love with him and into hiding my real intention from myself. Sometimes he would need to come nearer to me. He was so sensitive that he could get one’s emanation and one’s vibration by coming near one; and he would pass behind me and stand a moment in the radius of that swinging, swirling circle of force of which each one of us is the core.
Lawrence’s writing, unlike Luhan’s, is marked by a feeling of erotic rapture, bound to a sexual life free of social conventions. This is, I think, one of the reasons Lawrence is so little read now: his indulgence is embarrassing to many contemporary readers. Luhan’s tone is less embarrassing, less unsettling. She is charming and silly, but also intense and introspective, quick to focus on the inability of language to adequately represent lived experience:
I always mistrust, in written or recounted memories, those long, interesting conversations that we sometimes enjoy very much. Because talk, real talk between people, is as unexpected and surprising to them as it is uttered as any movement in nature…. Does the sea remember every pattern in the sand? One cannot remember one’s own real talk.
Cusk’s book dramatizes this tension. M is both flip and searching, not either/or:
Looking back on it now, I see that what I was experiencing might simply have been the shock of being confronted by my own compartmentalised nature. All these compartments in which I had kept things, from which I would decide what to show to other people who kept themselves in compartments too!
She doesn’t always fully comprehend herself, but why should she have to? L clearly doesn’t understand her, and his lack of perceptiveness, his selfishness, allows him to ignore the demands of other people in his quest for…what else really but comfort? “Things have been awfully sordid these past months,” he tells M, speaking of his new homelessness, “but now I’m starting to wonder whether I even care…. It isn’t so bad, dispossession.” M points out that “that was a sensation only a man—and a man with no dependents—could enjoy,” but she acknowledges that she is supporting L’s rootlessness by offering him a place to stay.
The conflict between M’s desire to provide for L and her desire to make him aware of the support that women give him to keep his life comfortable is a major driver of Cusk’s plot. Over the course of his visit, L’s emotional détente with M becomes something more like emotional torment; his indifference to her becomes something like mockery. But, at the end, he seems to relent: “Did you tell me it was a bad idea to come here?” he writes to M at the book’s close. “If you did then you were right. You were right about quite a few things, if it makes any difference. Some people like to be told that.” The aggression in this letter, apparently a sort of blinkered apology, is palpable. Some people like to be told that—suggesting not only that M is one of these people, but also that M is still seeking his affirmation.
If the central tension between M and L is one of neediness, it isn’t precisely a sexual one, though it is shaped by an impersonal sexual desire—to be wanted, rather than to want. His encounters with her reinforce M’s sense that the world no longer has any use for her as a sexual person. Her anticipation of being asked to sit for a portrait grows more and more intense as the novel progresses. In an emotional encounter, she reminds him “that there was one human subject [in the marsh] that he hadn’t yet attempted—me!” M notices the disgust she inspires in him:
While he spoke, a feeling had been growing inside me, of the most abject rejection and abandonment, because what I understood him to be saying underneath all his explanations was that my used-up female body was disgusting to him, and that this was the reason he kept me at a distance, even to the point of being unable to sit next to me!
Finally, L concedes. “All right…. Come across later and let me look at you. Wear something that fits.” M is giddy with delight: “I felt all at once so light and unburdened, I thought I might just fly up to the sun!” Cusk marks M’s bliss at feeling wanted in this way as abjectly sexual, something her husband Tony understands (he eventually drives off in a rage). Searching for the right clothes, M reaches for a particular dress: “As I rummaged hopelessly in the cupboard I remembered that before I came to the marsh my clothes had been more fitted, and that perhaps the last day on which I had worn something fitted was the day I married Tony!”
When M puts on her wedding dress and goes to the second place for the sitting, she discovers L and Brett, barely clothed, painting an enormous mural of M as Eve. “Let’s give her a nice fat little belly,” Brett cries, “a barren belly like a middle-aged lady’s! She’s skinny all over, but that belly gives her away, the bitch.” The mural horrifies M, who rages inwardly at L and Brett’s cruelty.
This is the moment when the erotic and aesthetic desires come together. Throughout the novel, M’s anxiety about her age and dowdiness is expressed through a strange, ambivalent longing for L’s notice. She is aware that she wants an aesthetic encounter (to sit for a portrait by L), but it’s clear to the reader that the desire is also erotic. Cusk’s novel orbits around the ways that many women experience aging, sex, and motherhood simultaneously. It is in M as a mother that we see Cuskian characterization most clearly: this is a portrait of a woman aging out of motherhood as the world constitutes it, as a job of embodied work, physical and intimate, into something more etiolated and brittle.
Shortly after M comes upon Brett and L painting the mural, L suffers a stroke. He is not incapacitated, but his recovery takes some time. Brett leaves him soon after, and M and Justine care for him as he recovers. Eventually, L is able to paint again, and the work he makes after his stroke revives his reputation:
There were the scientists, poring over [his paintings as] evidence of a neurological event, so beautifully and accurately described by L’s brushstrokes. Those brushstrokes illuminated some of the mysteries that had taken place in the darkness of his brain.
One night, near the novel’s end, Justine and M walk through the dark to a sheltered spot to swim. As they reach their destination, they both realize they have forgotten their bathing suits:
The only thing for it was to swim naked, since neither of us wanted to go all the way back to the house, yet there was something taboo about this idea, at least for us, and I saw Justine hesitate as we realised our predicament. It is hard to understand, Jeffers, the physical awkwardness that grows up between a child and a parent, given the fleshliness of their bond. I had always been careful, once Justine was of an age to notice, not to impose my flesh on her, though it had taken me longer to accept her own need for privacy. I remember the surprise—almost the sadness—I felt, the first time she closed the door against me while she took her bath.
Some time after that night, L departs without saying good-bye, leaving behind the paintings he’s made during his stay at the second place. M discovers a painting she thinks he made of her and Justine on their night swim, which has “two half-forms in it—amid all the extraordinary textures of darkness—that seem to be composed of light.” L dies before M can speak to him about that evening, and we never learn if the painting is, indeed, a portrait. But it seems to undo some of the antagonism between them. Are we meant to see this painting as an apology to M? L bequeaths the painting to Justine, who hangs it in the second place, which has become her home.
Throughout the novel, M’s emotional intensity helps underscore the way she has become secondary in her own story. We remember that she is a writer—an artist herself—only hazily, in snatches, while the project of L’s art dominates the novel. Sex, child-rearing, art: all of these have passed out of M’s life. The propulsive force that motivates a woman at the outset of these activities has faded, and M’s voice makes clear the loss of that ambitious energy.
Cusk’s experiment with this new tone, which depends in large part on its plaintive and essentially unrequited need, offers a dramatic contrast to the minimal, self-sustaining voice of the Outline trilogy. The trilogy seemed to demonstrate that for a female voice to be read as sharp and discerning, it must be kept at a low boil. M often seems oddly unperceptive about her own wants and needs, making her appear muddled and, yes, irritating. I think this is partly why Second Place has received more markedly mixed reviews than the Outline trilogy. We don’t tend to be won over by women who can’t articulate their needs. The shock of Second Place is just how durable such responses are and just how self-controlled women must be to be heard.