Review: Tom Leeon Rachel Cusk

The Borrowed Finery of Male Freedom

Rachel Cusk has given readers something to puzzle over with Second Place, at least those of us who saw the Outline trilogy as the invention of an entirely new literary form, demolishing the artifice of the novel. This new book is different again, and yet recognisably Cusk. Surely, after all the effort of demolishing and rebuilding the novel — or some other form in its place — Cusk would linger and occupy her new house for a while? Not so. Second Place is new territory again, which makes me wonder: to what extent were the three previous books really of a piece? Were they rooms in the same house? Different houses on the same property? Or simply three different kinds of object? Was the trilogy really a radical break from Cusk’s earlier fictional works? Or, as Cusk herself has suggested, were they part of a continuum?

These taxonomical questions do not have definitive answers.  Literary kinds and lineages are convenient ways to conceptualise the trajectory of a writer. However, to interpret Cusk’s oeuvre as a sequence of discrete chapters, radical breaks, or indeed different rooms in a house, is to overlook the way each new work evolves from and remodulates the expressive activity of earlier efforts. In this sense, different fronts in a weather system or ocean currents might provide a better model to understand the evolution of a creative practice over time.

Cusk uncovered a particularly generative set of problems in her earlier works of fiction and memoir, two genres that, for different reasons, she came to regard as inadequate to the demands of truthful public expression. With A Life’s Work (2001) and Aftermath (2012), she moved away from the artifice of fiction into memoir to obtain a more direct access to the truths of her experience as a mother and a divorcee, respectively. Much to Cusk’s surprise, the biographical self she laid bare in these works was viciously attacked in the public response to the books.

Unable to confront living in the old house of fiction—what she cuttingly described as ‘making up John and Jane and having them do things together’—or the more recently tarnished home of memoir—she described Aftermath as ‘creative death’—Cusk faced the challenge of developing a form that would allow her to speak in a direct and truthful way, though without exposing anything that could be straightforwardly attributed to her life experience. Such a challenge has to varying degrees been taken on by a lineage of authors stretching from Proust, through Marguerite Duras, W. G. Sebald, and more recently Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, and in the Australian context, Gerald Murnane, to name only a few. In Cusk’s case, the cumulative lessons from her own perceived public failures as an author, and indeed, as a woman, have produced remarkably fresh results: three books that, in the strikingly appropriate words James Wood used to describe W. G. Sebald’s fiction, ‘have found a way to protest the good government of the conventional novel form and to harass realism into a state of self-examination’.

With Second Place, Cusk has modulated her response to the problem of the literary form, letting more novelistic conventions back into the work: a more noisily introspective narrator, more character, more suspense, more humour, less auto and more fiction. These last two, of course, only become separate if we choose generic abstractions that favour a sharp divide between life and artifice. In the concrete, mixed realities we daily inhabit, and in hybridised writings like Cusk’s, taking the fiction out of auto and the auto out of fiction is like trying to take chocolate out of chocolate cake.  

I say ‘modulated’ because despite these changes, in Second Place Cusk continues to confront the problem of literary form. She has once again hidden herself in this work, behind a narrator, a voice, characters, and a plot in part derived Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos (1932). The paradox, however—and it is the same with the Outline trilogy—is that Cusk has used the necessary artifice of narrative to create something that is at once more and less truthful than both memoir and fiction, or at least the examples of these genres that obscure other routes to expression that in her eyes are more important.

Second Place explores the complex relationship between fantasy and proximity. What happens when we contrive situations such that ephemeral, seemingly freeing, transcendental experiences — ‘the possibility of disillusion of identity itself, of release, with all its cosmic, ungraspable meanings’ — are domesticated, or brought within the sphere of reliable access? Specifically, in this instance, the narrator M experiences a quasi-religious sense of intimacy with a painting by an artist known as L. Many years later she arranges for L to be a guest in residence at the ‘second place’ on her property, a relatively remote location that adjoins a tidal marsh, where artists and writers habitually stay for periods of varying duration. As M notes towards the end of the novel: ‘I had summoned L across the continents intuitively believing that he could perform that transformative function for me, could release me into creative action.’

On one level, Second Place tells the story of M’s failed project to be released into ‘creative action’. On another, perhaps less obvious but more important level, the book allows the reader to witness that very transformation. The book is, in part, Cusk’s effort to create a place for the spirit of Luhan, whose memoir inspired the work. More specifically, as Cusk notes in an acknowledgement at the end of the book, Second Place draws from Luhan’s account of her relationship with D.H. Lawrence—also an important figure for Cusk—including the time she hosted him at her literary colony in New Mexico. The relationship between a host-devotee and an ostensibly free, blissfully indifferent artistic spirit, the way such a relationship maps onto attitudes and expectations concerning gender; these are the most significant emotional and conceptual problems explored in the novel.  

Whether Luhan would be entirely happy with the outcome remains an open question, for M is by no means a straightforwardly likeable character. Speaking as Cusk writes, she possesses a peculiar cruelty, perhaps in part prompted by Lawrence’s own work, though less unhinged, destructive, totalising and dogmatic. As M notes very early in the book, in a series of remarks I interpret as offering exegetical insight into Cusk’s creative project more broadly, it is a cruelty that seeks to immunise beauty from stupidity. Everything in the Cuskian universe—a sunny day, a domestic interior, laying irrigation pipe, and certainly a literary festival—seems to possess this quality of being beautiful, vaguely menacing and, testament to her success, anything but stupid.

Second Place’s connection to Luhan’s memoir is an invitation to go back and read the original. I’ve since read the book, and the letters from Lawrence and extended reflections from Luhan are fascinating, offering a deep and troubling insight into how visions for freedom (in this case Lawrence’s) can conveniently serve the desires of the visionary and reflect warped versions of the prejudices—in this instance in particular, those to do with gender and race—they seek to transcend. The memoir is also testament to Luhan’s own prowess as a writer, her descriptions of character, landscape and ideas show that she was far more than just an enabler of the creative genius of men.

There are other layers to this psycho-spatial drama, aside from M’s efforts to house her inspiration. Parents, particularly mothers, finding a space — both physical and psychological — for their children is one of them. Cusk alludes to the uncertainties of parenting in the Outline trilogy, though she does not let them take up too much space in the interior life of her narrator, Faye. In Second Place, M’s daughter Justine and her boyfriend Kurt are also on the property, which makes for a heady mix of equivocations about child rearing and wishful thinking for M, with L playing the demonic element, creating familial chaos.

First, L takes the eminently unlikable Kurt under his wing, encouraging the young man into a creative vocation, for the cynical and cruel reason that there is no better weapon to control and disempower Justine. L’s support is, however, short-lived. He delivers a bracing and, considering Kurt’s fragile narcissism, amusing critique of a story the budding author reads aloud at a family gathering: ‘My time belongs to me,’ says L. ‘Be careful what you make people endure.’ Ouch. If only we all had the luxury of such possessiveness over our time. This, indeed, is the point of L: ‘he believed himself responsible for nothing’. In the end, it is Justine who supports the ailing, pathetic L after he suffers a stroke. For her troubles, she becomes the recipient of L’s most valuable and, in M’s eyes, most inspirational painting.

At the beginning of the narrative, before all of the above takes place, M and her reticent, ever-dependable husband, Tony, finally finish renovating the cottage on their property, which will be used to house visiting artists — the eponymous ‘second place’. Tony remarks: ‘Justine will think we made this place for her.’ This throws M into a spin. She then voices the conundrum of her daughter in explicitly spatial terms, describing Justine as seeming ‘to want to stand in the same spot I stood in, only I was there first’. M wonders ‘whether we ought to offer the second place to her straight away and get it over with’. Justine does inherit the house, but not before L has territorialised it with his sinister but evidently impressive — at least to M — creative activities, including a (not so impressive) grotesque mural of the Garden of Eden, with M represented as a moustached, fat-bellied Eve.

The cast of supporting characters — Tony, L’s girlfriend Brett, who accompanies L to M’s residence, and Kurt and Justine — are some of the strongest and most humorous aspects of the book. They would seem to contradict Cusk’s well-known provocative remark about character not existing anymore. These four characters are distinctive presences in the narrative – and a further reminder that the remarks of novelists about the limitations of the form often indicate ambitions to renovate rather than demolish.

The relationship between M and L’s girlfriend Brett is perhaps the most amusing in the book. M and Tony drive two hours to a nearby town to pick up L and ferry him back to the residence in their embarrassingly cramped and clapped out truck. Brett, described repeatedly by M as ‘ravishing’ and dressed for ‘a cocktail party on Fifth Avenue’, is a surprise. M thought it would only be L staying. The four bundle into the truck, with M and Tony in the front seat and L and Brett ‘crushed together into the bench seat’ in the back. M, who is reeling from the presence of the uninvited guest, recalls little of the journey apart from Brett offering to help hide her grey hairs and suggesting that her hair is ‘really quite dry’.

Over time, however, more of Brett’s character is revealed. She becomes close to Justine, something which at first troubles M, but only until she perceives that Justine is empowered on account of the friendship.

One interaction between Brett and M stands out, not so much for its humour, but as an example of how fiction can awaken us to the ease with which we judge and caricature the unfamiliar, and how greater knowledge can invite our sympathies and compassion. These are long-established themes of the literary novel. M is doing a rare bit of gardening and Brett offers a hand:

Brett had seemed to me to have everything, and yet in that moment I saw in a flash that she had nothing at all, and that her intrusive and uninhibited manner was simply a means of survival. She was like one of those climbing plants that has to grow over things and be held up by them, rather than possessing any integral support of their own.

Cusk resists using this encounter as a chance for a redemptive swerve in the relationship, whereby Brett and M might become bonded in a tropey, shared, sisterly struggle. Instead, the moment of awakening is transient and seemingly forgotten in the events that follow; it is an ephemeral, speculative insight into the interiority and situation of another being, which is then subsumed into a bubbling swamp of tension and obscurity. This, it seems, is Cusk enacting her ambition to resist the temptations of the narrative structure, which require events of a certain type to obey a logic that prioritises resolution and definiteness of consequence, rather than charting the more difficult to account for flickerings of emotion that structure relationships between people.

As I have already suggested, the opposition between male entitlement and freedom and female confinement and responsibility is central to Second Place. There are, however, more complications to this supposedly bipolar relationship. Cusk certainly gets L’s breezy ignorance — whether deliberate or naïve — about the demands he places on other people just right in the early letters he sends to M, in which he accepts her invitation to visit. It is a way of communicating and relating to the world that comes with having one’s own desires as the dominant orienting force in life. But M shares in this fault. She puts her otherwise stable life in jeopardy by cleaving close to her own desires and inviting her hidden love to stay on the property.

There is a peculiar communion going on between M and L, for M is a creator too, a fabricator of events both in life and in the text we read. She attempts to bend the world to her will on account of an effervescent, risky dream. But her situation as woman means the failure of this effort has different ramifications; it is bound up with other struggles.

M is also a virtuoso. She crafts her story and write-speaks it — in Cusk’s distinctive fashion — to the obscure interlocutor Jeffers, who listens silently like a psychotherapist (or, indeed, like a reader). In addition to being a voice that tells the story of the cruelty of some men mixing with the structural and biological forces that work against women, it is also the voice of Luhan ventriloquised by Cusk to compelling effect. In this sense Second Place is also story whereby the conditions of passivity or receptivity, which are forced on those who listen, can become a creative project that shifts—which isn’t to say reverses—the power dynamics operative in such situations. As Patricia Lockwood writes of Cusk in the most astute review I’ve found of the Outline trilogy: ‘She has had the last word’.

The story of redemption through creativity or simply through having the last word, is not, however, the story M tells her addressee or herself directly. There is a dissonance between the story we hear of her failure and the voice in which we hear that story, which is anything but a failure:

My difficulty, I saw then, had always lain in finding a way to give back all the impressions I had received, to rend an account to a god who had never come and never come, despite my desire to surrender everything that was stored inside me. Yet even so my receptive faculty had not, for some reason, failed me: I had remained a devourer while yearning to become a creator.

While framed in the negative, there is an indication earlier in the narrative that M does indeed know more than the mythical L about the creativity she imagines herself not to possess:

Least of all I could understand what freedom was and how I could attain it. I thought 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.

Like M, Cusk may feel as though she is at times speaking in the ‘borrowed finery’ of male freedom—freedom that perhaps receives its most intense expression in the writing of authors  like Lawrence. This supposedly secondary expression or creolisation of masculine virtue is however no lesser on account of a perceived supplementary quality. Indeed, if Cusk’s writing is the evidence, her self-described ‘impersonation’ transcended the original some time ago.

I wrote my doctoral thesis on the prose fiction of W.G. Sebald in the years spanning 2009-2012. Sebald died in 2001. During the time I apprenticed myself to this author, immersing myself in his books on most days for three and a half years, I fantasised about what it would have been like to write about his works were he alive, for him not to have died in that car crash a little under a decade before I began my thesis. I came as close as I could to a communion of sorts, visiting Sebald’s grave — a modest granite headstone against a hedge in the churchyard of St. Andrew’s in Norfolk — and left a pebble there in place of a word. The silent gesture seemed appropriate for Sebald, as did the churchyard, and my disorienting journey there (I should have known there’d be more than one St. Andrew in the region).

If I were to write another thesis it would be on the works of Rachel Cusk. I dedicated three and a half years of my life to Sebald’s books on account of the enduring pleasure they gave me, pleasure in good part inspired by the problem they seemed to pose, a problem that at some level was one of genre: what kinds of things are these? What makes them so? Cusk’s recent works of fiction inspire similar questions.

That Cusk is alive has loomed over me while writing this review. It is not a feeling I have ever experienced while writing, at least not that I can remember, and I have had to discipline myself not to slip into hagiography and become distracted by the remote but nonetheless titillating possibility that the figure whom I so wish to praise will be the living recipient of the emotions I translate into words. Indeed, at times I have felt like M encountering L or one of his paintings, taken up by the dream of an ‘intimate familiarity’ of a second place, where that hidden part of myself might reside in a condition both of perpetual wonderment, safety and nourishment.

While there are a number of verging on clunky or at the very least hazily resolved moments in Second Place — the sometimes too lengthy convolutions of M’s inner monologue, the hard to envisage scene with L and Brett painting, the regularity with which hyperbole is used to stamp supposed moments of pathos, the penchant for charismatic paradox — what is unmistakable in reading the work is the immensity of Cusk’s literary talent. Any looseness of construction is secondary to an overwhelming feeling of coherence that comes only from a writer who has mastered her art. For an author to create strange, utterly absorbing works that are also impressively well-tuned technical and formal responses to the problem of who speaks, who listens and who has the last word, is an achievement that inspires explanation: what has she done? Why am I so involved in reading this work? Why is it following me around all day, pleasurably and alarmingly insinuating itself into my imagination? Surely, I am fallible in finding this so unique? These are the stones I now place. 

Works Cited

Cusk, R. (2012). Aftermath: on marriage and separation. London: Faber and Faber.

Cusk, R. (2001). A Life’s Work. London: Fourth Estate.

Lockwood, P. (2018). Why do I have to know what McDonald’s is? London Review of Books. Vol. 40, No. 9-10.

Wood, J. (1999). The broken estate: essays on literature and belief. London: Pimlico