Second Place by Rachel Cusk

In her trademark stye, cold yet piercingly personal, Cusk explores the elusive quest of rebuilding one's selfhood.

Rachel Cusk’s 11th novel Second Place owes its inspiration to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir Lorenzo in Taos, depicting D.H. Lawrence’s stay at her artists’ retreat in New Mexico. The reference, revealed as late as in endnotes, provides Cusk with an alibi of sorts. After receiving excruciatingly judgemental feedback to her autobiographical books A Life’s Work and Aftermath, the author has chosen to shelter behind 3rd-person narrators: in her much-celebrated Outline trilogy, the narrator Faye tells us stories heard by others met on her journey. Cusk’s 2019 essay collection Coventry is rich with personal reflections, yet the argumentation is handled with glass-sheet wariness as if there’s a threat contained under their brittle texture.

In Second Place, Cusk is relying on her protagonist M (Mabel) to recount the tale to an unknown confidante Jeffers (Robinson Jeffers was a poet and a guest to Luhans’ New Mexican estate). And while L, the name for the artist visiting M, stands for D.H. Lawrence, the philosophical questing towards existential salvation – the overarching subject of this book – is unmistakably Cusk’s own.

We’re all given a single body, but our selfhood is home to multifarious personae. M, the narrator, describes her self-image as one of compartmentalized 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!”As social beings, our selfhood’s a kaleidoscope of reflections from others around us, existing among people requires a neverending synthesizing of the I. We need each other to confirm our own existence just as much as we need to tell ourselves stories in order to live. During the year of unsolicited confinement solitude, many people deprived of social interaction had their personal image altered to the point of unrecognizability.

Second Place has been called “one of the first pandemic novels” and while I’m reluctant to second this characterization (there are other more fitting classifications e.g. “soulsearching while depressed in the modern ever-accelerating hubris,” the current darling of publishing houses), the exploration of selfhood and dissolution of self are befitting subjects to help distill the past 18 months’ events. Not having the regular flock of friends and colleagues to confirm our self-image, we’re left in a nightmarish flux comparable to others saying that they can’t really see us.

There is a scene in Cusk’s novel where M, the protagonist, tells L, her coveted houseguest and painter, that if he’s about to paint anyone at the estate it ought to be her. ‘But I can’t really see you,’ the devilish L replies. M, instead of being taken by surprise, sees this as a welcome opportunity to unearth a primal truth, the key to salvaging her from abstract misery. ‘Why not?’ she asks L, receiving no answer as the painter’s beautiful, young and accomplished companion Brett enters the scene, giving way to one of the many loaded scenes of the book.

Do we really know ourselves and our selves? If one believes there is such a thing as a self, how to sanitize it when it feels uncurably contaminated? Before the invention of mirrors, all we had was the gaze of people surrounding us. For M, there aren’t all that many other-mirrors to reflect upon as she lives next to remote marshlands with her second husband Tony. She credits Tony with saving her from a depression that followed her divorce and is infinitely grateful to him for having enlightened her gloomy existence, seeing his unrelenting love as a balm for appeasing her existential angst. Yet M is not at all happy, there’s an irremediable discontentment gnawing at her. This is how she comes to write L, an artist whose exhibition seen years ago led to a self-acknowledging revelation. After a year of written correspondence, L arrives to stay at the “second place”,  a refurbished cottage on M and Tony’s estate.

Cusk seems to take unmerciful pleasure in throwing her characters into unforgivingly stormy waters and reporting from a position of haughty safety as they fight or flight. Or drown. As M is soon to realize, L’s visit is not at all what she’d expected. As she remarks to her assigned listener Jeffers: “I often think that there’s just as much to be said about what you thought would happen as about what actually did.” We do not learn much about what she thought would happen, but we are given enough material to form assumptions. L’s visit is a symbolic lifeline for M, she counts on it to change her life, to return her womanhood and happiness. M keeps seeking throughout the book, but for what? Her psychosomatic self-loathing seems parallel to depression thrust upon us by the constant idealization of – unattainable and unrealistic – love and happiness carelessly tousled around in the lexicon of modern society. 

The cast of characters is not limited to M, Tony, L, and Brett. Cusk has thrown in another couple, M’s 21-year-old daughter Justine and her German boyfriend Kurt, both idle and penniless after losing their jobs as the pandemic hit. Each character, except for Tony who’s the epitome of peacefulness yet for some reason still not enviable, is miserable in their own way. Brett, a rich heiress, is struggling to find any higher purpose for herself. Justine is going through a period of young-adult spleen. Kurt, the poor thing, is landlocked with a bunch of touchy strangers. And L, the greatest enigma of them all, is fighting to retain his freedom after having lost all his former glory and money. In the serene surroundings of the marsh, five bodies containing a raging inner storm walk around.

Yet happiness seems to remain out of reach, occasionally revealing a glimmer like a sun peeking out from behind the clouds, disappearing the next moment. “The truth was I had always believed that pleasure was something I was amassing in a bank account, but by the time I came to ask for it I discovered the store was empty. It appeared that it was a perishable entity, and that I should have taken it a little earlier.” Yet she keeps up her relentless chase for happiness, making sacrifices for and of the people around her, only to discover that what she’d expected to bring her solace is not the right cure. M is struggling with the modern conundrum of acquisition: always building and improving, then looking for ways to dispose of things that turn out to be unwanted. We collect and we discard, never quite satisfied with the status quo. M wants to get rid of some unwanted compartments of her selfhood, yet is unsure how. “What I wanted to get rid of was the part of me that had always been there, and I believe that this was the essence of the feeling I shared with L, as he himself had explained it in our first conversation. There was a greeted reality, I believed, beyond or behind or beneath the reality I knew, and it seemed to me that a lifelong pain would be ended if only I could break through it.”

It is not the first time that Cusk, a fastidious observer of the human condition, explores the loss of self and the endless quest to find it. Her debut novel Saving Agnes follows a young woman, Agnes Day as she enters the realms of adult life, finding herself incapable of meeting everyone’s expectations. While Agnes is busy catching the reflections from all the people – the mirrors – around her, fine-tuning her self for each fast-passing setting, she has no time to explore who she actually is. All she knows is that there’s a lot about her that is not right nor lovable. In contrast, Cusk’s autobiographical books expose women with a solid grip on their condition, in command of navigating their life’s winds and storms, even if at times the ship may feel shaky.

In Second Place, the narrator’s condition is made all the more difficult by her distrust in everything she finds lovable about her life. If she herself is rotten, so must be everything she touches, loves, and owns. She tells Jeffers, her reader, “It seemed to me that all this beauty was no good if it had no immunity: if I could harm it, anyone could.” Whatever she wishes for, whichever challenge she overcomes, it becomes worthless the minute she’s been allowed to hold it. M wants to be free, and by any common standards the spectator could consider her to be just that, living a comfortable life of no obligations amid picturesque vistas. But all this beauty and calm becomes worthless and contaminated the minute she steps her foot in it. “Meanwhile, I just sit staring straight in front of me with nothing to do. That’s all I’ve managed as far as freedom is concerned, to get rid of the people and things I don’t like. After that, there isn’t all that much left!” she observes. Is this Cusk’s way of warning us against attaining a life too comfortable and flat? If we were to smooth out all the edges that occasionally push our lives over the edge, stop breaking the rhythm of routine life, we risk our life’s heartbeat becoming a straight line. Maybe all M wishes is for someone to place the defibrillator upon her heart and give it a shock to restore its beat. “Shock is sometimes necessary,” she tells, “for without it, we would drift into entropy.”

The subject of death as an act of decreation, cleaning off one’s self to reconstruct it with fresh building blocks haunts the novel’s second half. The problem with lives lived is that they’re stuck on us with heavy glue and thereby excruciatingly difficult to rub off. After L recovers from a severe stroke and moves back to the second place, M notes: “He met death the night of his stroke, and he lived with it – if not happily – ever after.” We know all too well that deals with the devil tend to turn sour. Instead of bringing a bulldozer to uproot the poison ivy roaming L’s soul, death turns out to endow yet another brick of concrete to carry on his shoulders. L does recover his inspiration for painting, resulting in a posthumous second wave of acclaim. The exchange was not a complete sham.

One day, M encounters L on the marsh and they have a surprisingly amicable conversation. “I have made a discovery,” L tells her. “Will you tell me what it is?” M asks and then describes what happened next. “He turned his empty eyes on me, and the sight of those dead circles made an awful pain go through me. I didn’t need to hear what his discovery was – I could see it right there!” What M thinks she sees is bliss, a redemption. “I think I understood then that his illness had released him from his own identity and history and memory so violently that he had been able at last to really see. And what he had seen was not death, but unreality.” If ignorance is the bliss that M has been searching all along, it remains out of her reach.

In Second Place, Cusk explores art’s power to induce life-altering revelations. M reminisces on what moved her so much the first time she saw L’s paintings. “It was: I am here. I won’t say what I think the words mean, or who they refer to, because that would be to try to stop them living.” This sounds uncannily like a slogan from flashy fashion advertisements telling us sweet nothings about new and better personhood. When stepping into the territory of art, things can go awry in several ways. It may help us unlock some layer of inner peace or act as an antipode to pleasant illusions. At the end of the novel, M perceives: “For the first time, Jeffers, I considered the possibility that art – not just L’s art but the whole notion of art – might itself be a serpent, whispering in our ears, sapping away all our satisfaction and our belief in the things of this world with the idea that there was something higher and better within us which could never be equaled by what was right in front of us.”

In a disturbing scene, Kurt who has recently befriended L, confides to M that the painter wants to destroy her. At first, she takes this as an assault, but as we come to learn, the dissolvement of her self may be just what she’s been searching for. After months of self-inspection, is M closer to salvation? Seems unlikely. As Cusk has shown us, knowing one’s self does not make it more malleable. After a year of tears and longing, could we put our questing on hold, choose to wear one of the available selfhoods, and go out into the real world? Could we just get over ourselves for once? At times when our friends and family need us the most, we are free to assume the selves of both the artist and spectator, of patient and therapist. For now, the bar across the street sounds like a good enough second place to inhabit. Be careful with the art galleries, though!