May 2021

Noted

‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk

By Stephanie Bishop
After her landmark ‘Outline’ trilogy, the author’s latest novel is inspired by a memoir about D.H. Lawrence in New Mexico

In Rachel Cusk’s extraordinary Outline trilogy (2014–18), her narrator adopts a stance of radical passivity; she rarely talks, mainly listens and ventriloquises the stories of others. A landmark series that gutted the novel of many of its conventions, it was hard to imagine what Cusk would do with fiction after this. The answer comes with Second Place (Faber Fiction), a work that doesn’t mark a break with Cusk’s distrust of narrative, but heralds a deepening of her investigations.

Second Place is inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir of D.H. Lawrence’s stay with her in Taos, New Mexico. The novel opens with M, a writer, telling someone called Jeffers about a recent upheaval in her life. Some time ago, when M was living through a crisis, she found herself drawn to the works of a famous artist, known as L. His paintings had a profound effect on her, leaving her in a “strange, exalted state”, and she sensed a deep kinship with the artist. Years later, happily married to her second husband, Tony, and living in a house on the marsh, she wrote to L and invited him to stay, offering him their second place, a cottage in the woods, where he might work. Conflating the power of art with that of the artist, she thought L had the ability to transform her. She wanted to see her immediate world through his eyes, to have him paint it, and she believed this would give her “a version of the freedom I had wanted my whole life”.

L arrives, but the relationship is fraught. He is contrarian; a man who “could not be controlled”, “caught” or “coerced”. M is drawn to this despite him patronising her writing and avoiding her at every turn. L isn’t interested in the landscape, and when M asks if he could paint her, he refuses, replying that he “can’t really see” her. “Why not?” M asks, but she is never dignified with a response.

Her fear is that he finds her repelling, and that she exudes something abject that is endemic to the discomfort she feels towards her own womanhood. She is rendered invisible, she realises, because her “used-up female body was disgusting to him”.

In the Outline trilogy, the narrator rarely speaks. In Second Place, M cannot be properly seen. If the purpose of art is, as M claims, to “show us what our own assumptions and beliefs are made of”, and if the “higher moral function” of art “extend[s] to the artist himself as a living being”, what happens when the artist is blind to a certain type of subject, a woman of a certain age? L’s negation unleashes in M a wave of violent feeling, a desire to destroy or be destroyed, a need to force change.

Cusk has long interrogated female subjectivity and the crushing ways in which this can be received. In Second Place she takes her themes further still, and the result is a stunningly powerful novel of interweaving philosophical digressions in which Cusk seizes the authority that L claims for himself: the force of the artist to transform our understanding of experience by showing us things for what they are.

Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. Her new novel is Man Out of Time.

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