There’s a tension in fiction that aspires to any degree of psychological realism: on the one hand, the author must craft characters who seem to operate with the sense of freedom of people in the real world; on the other, a character’s every move is dictated by the author – no action they take is freely chosen. In recent years, Rachel Cusk’s approach to this tangle has been akin to Alexander’s advance on the knot in Gordium: she moves with confidence and a sharp tool.
Second Place, like the novels of Cusk’s recent Outline trilogy, achieves psychological acuity precisely by excising many of the conventions of what the critic James Wood has called ‘commercial realism’, elements of which – metaphor and simile; the ‘telling detail’ – occasionally do crop up, but within or immediately beside monologues of such length, cogence and erudition that they do not so much argue for the reality of Cusk’s representations as offer a string of realist signifiers that prompt readers to suspend their disbelief. In Second Place, the narrator – in the letters that form part of the text, she is referred to as M – speaks, or more likely writes, to an interlocutor named Jeffers. The name crops up every few pages. The effect is increasingly comic (‘You know what I look like, Jeffers’; ‘I’m telling you all this, Jeffers’; ‘It almost goes without saying, Jeffers’), Cusk dutifully but with no little cheek reminding the reader that her narrator should be imagined either speaking at torturous length or writing someone a two-hundred-page letter.
That said, Second Place is, certainly by Cusk’s recent standards, eventful. M is by far a more active narrator than the Outline trilogy’s Faye, not only relating events but also playing a significant role in initiating them. M invites a famous painter, L, to stay in the guest house (the ‘second place’ of the title) that she and her second husband, Tony, have constructed on the remote marsh where they live. M hopes L will paint the marsh; she has been an admirer of his work since, years before, she happened upon an exhibition of his at a gallery in Paris. M was then at the beginning of the end of her first marriage, the decline of which was hastened by the transformative experience she had before L’s paintings. ‘I saw,’ M tells Jeffers, ‘in other words, that I was alone, and saw the gift and the burden of that state, which had never truly been revealed to me before.’
L’s paintings, as described, sound like Lucian Freud’s, though Cusk notes, at the back of the book, that he is intended as a D H Lawrence figure, and that Second Place itself ‘owes a debt’ to Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir of the period of time, near the end of Lawrence’s life, when he and his wife stayed with her in Taos, New Mexico. Luhan’s memoir takes the form of letters to, among others, the poet Robinson Jeffers.
M’s invitation is, after some delay, accepted and L arrives, bringing with him, unexpectedly, a young female companion, Brett. This surprise is a sign of disappointments to come, and the visit proceeds unhappily for M, whom L for the most part avoids. M, who has never considered herself particularly attractive and is now middle-aged, with greying hair and a wardrobe full of shapeless clothes, comes to suspect that her ‘used-up female body’ is ‘disgusting’ to L. When L does at last ask her to sit for him, M’s frenzied, desirous reaction is nearly the end of her marriage to Tony.
One obstacle to summarising Cusk’s writing is her aversion to plot, as opposed to argument, as a vector for conveying meaning. Another is that, because Cusk works largely in summary rather than in scene, she has in almost all cases got there first and done you one better. To meaningfully reduce Cusk, whose work is already one of reduction, is to attempt to relate the truth of a mathematical proof without recapitulating each of the intermediary steps. Presenting only the premises and the conclusion means asking your reader to take you on faith; but start walking her through Cusk’s arguments and before too long you find you’re merely rescribing the novel itself. More appropriate might be to respond in kind: to prove, using Cusk’s methods and departing from the same premises, a related principle.
Perhaps it is the fault of my own brain, but while I find Cusk irresistible on the page, I also find the content of her work – if not its rigour, if not the pleasures of its still-surprising form – in only the most literal sense forgettable. It does not deserve to be forgotten, and yet forget it I do. Second Place is brimful of moments of brilliant crystallisation, as when M remarks that, after she met Tony ‘and learned to override my own concept of reality, I became aware of how widely and indiscriminately I was capable of imagining things, and how coldly I could consider the products of my own mind’. Received ideas, Cusk seems to be saying – especially those received so early in life, especially in the life of a woman, that they come to constitute a concept of reality – are not to be trusted. Better to lean on, to seek counsel from, that more expansive faculty, the imagination, which is more easily infiltrated by the unconscious. Better to conjure the improbable than deal only in the possible or, worse, the actual. A precious gem, this line of thought, but still: I close my hand around it, I turn away, I turn back, I open my hand – empty.
A pleasant side effect of Cusk’s formal innovations is the dignity afforded each of her characters – each of her monologists. If a Cuskian invention embarrasses herself, it is her own fault; Cusk has given her the rope and she has hung herself with it. And with this dignity comes a kind of freedom: anyone in a Cusk novel might open her mouth and speak the truth of her life, and in a series of clean, clear phrases most of us wouldn’t be capable of uttering if they were written down for us to memorise.
‘I thought’, M remarks of freedom early in Second Place, ‘it was a mere unbuttoning, a release, where in fact – as you know well – it is the dividend yielded by an unrelenting obedience to and mastery of the laws of creation. The rigorously trained fingers of the concert pianist are freer than the enslaved heart of the music-lover can ever be.’ Cusk has rigorously trained her own fingers; she cannot play a false note. But how quickly the music, the transcendent music, fades into air.