HUMILIATION AT THE MARSH
On 'Second Place'
Rachel Cusk’s eleventh novel, Second Place, is a comedy of misrecognition. Six characters wind up together in a pair of houses located on a marsh, and the question of the novel is whether they can see each other for who they really are. Because one of them is a genius, it is his recognition that everyone craves. Second Place is based on Lorenzo in Taos (1932), Mabel Dodge Luhan’s book of letters documenting D. H. Lawrence’s visit to her home in New Mexico in 1922. In a note at the end of the text, Cusk calls the novel her “version” and says she intends it as a “tribute” to Luhan’s “spirit”.
Second Place is Cusk’s first work of fiction since she completed her Outline trilogy with Kudos in 2018. (An essay collection, Coventry, appeared in 2019.) The trilogy’s narrator, Faye, is a cagey storyteller, relating her encounters with various characters met on planes and at conferences, some of whom pour out their life stories and secrets, but revealing little about herself. M, the narrator of Second Place – which, after Lorenzo, is told in the form of a long letter to a friend – is by contrast effusive in her confessions, and not without the risk of her own embarrassment.
Cusk has in recent years made some pointed remarks about the status of fiction. After publishing seven novels and three memoirs she told the Guardian in 2014 that writing fiction was “fake and embarrassing”: “Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous”. And in 2018 she told the New Yorker: “I’m not interested in character because I don’t think character exists anymore”. So in the Outline trilogy Faye’s various interlocutors appear before her, unload their monologues, and, with a couple of exceptions, vanish from the narrative. If we define character as an entity with a set of more or less stable traits, under a name like Jane or John, which passes through the events of a plot saying and doing things to other similar entities, then Cusk had indeed abolished it.
In Second Place Cusk hasn’t exactly resorted to making things up. Rather, she has transformed her source material in incidental ways, moving it from a desert to a marsh and leaving the question of historical time a little hazy (there are hints that the world may be stricken by something like the current pandemic, but there are no mobile phones, or at least none apparent; with the exception of a couple of early scenes in Paris, all the action is so far removed from wider society that such questions become moot), while maintaining a deep fidelity to its people and the spirit of their brief collision.
The people are M and her husband Tony; M’s daughter Justine and her boyfriend Kurt; L and his youngish female companion Brett. Tony is the most vividly drawn of these figures: a tall stoic with long white hair said to resemble a Native American, though he is an orphan and his background a mystery. He always seems to be busying about the estate, planting crops or hunting minor game and pests, constructing an irrigation system, fixing things up. He is solid, and in the phase of their courtship was “poetic”; M relies and leans on him – the marsh estate is his – but we sense he is somehow not enough for her: why else is she so interested in L and his attention?