By Rachel Cusk
I can’t consider one other strategy to say this: Rachel Cusk’s eleventh novel, “Second Place,” is de facto bizarre. In her celebrated “Outline” trilogy, three concatenations of digressive however exquisitely managed narratives, and in her 2019 essay assortment, “Coventry,” the prose is analytical and exact, as if Cusk had internalized Isaac Babel’s definition of favor: “No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.”
“Second Place,” then again, is elliptical and at occasions annoyingly obscure and mystical. Exclamation marks abound, as if it had been a letter from a garrulous aunt. The novel, in truth, could also be a letter (although it is also a monologue), addressed to at least one Jeffers, whose identification is rarely revealed. Could or not it’s the poet Robinson Jeffers? But he died 59 years in the past! Stories start ominously, portentously: “It will take a moralist to understand how it was that one of the fires that started that day was allowed to keep on smoldering over the years. …” “What is certain is that afterward many changes occurred. …” But the reader is rarely fairly positive which hearth smoldered and what modifications occurred. The narrator tends to allude to previous occasions relatively than clarify them, presumably as a result of Jeffers is anticipated to know a lot already.
And but I saved studying, pulled alongside by the enigmatic tone, which is the actual thriller of the novel. The habits of the unnamed narrator can also be baffling, although her flights of introspection are authentic, honest and genuinely fascinating — if, once more, filled with gaps. It could also be that the gaps keep the spell. The narrator is a girl of a sure age who has survived a painful life (the precise explanation for the ache is just not revealed for a very long time). She has discovered refuge removed from civilization on the fringe of a lovely marsh (the precise location can also be withheld; in truth, we by no means know the nation or the continent). She has additionally discovered peace with Tony, a robust, regular, silent man of all trades. He farms, fishes, does carpentry and loves her unreservedly.
The couple have constructed a cabin — the “second place” of the title — shielded from their home by a stand of timber, and invite artists to spend a season or so there. The laconic Tony doesn’t object, and the narrator “needed some degree of communication, however small, with the notions of art and with the people who abide by those notions.” She additionally needs to share her marsh with individuals who can recognize its magnificent, mutable moods. These she describes with Cuskian specificity, the “sweeping passages of color and light, the brewing of its distant storms, the great drifts of seabirds that float or settle over its pelt in white flecks, the sea that sometimes lies roaring at the very furthest line of the horizon in a boiling white foam and sometimes advances gleaming and silent until it has covered everything in a glassy sheet of water.”
The artist she actually needs to draw to the “second place” is “L,” whose work she stumbled upon a very long time in the past, earlier than these “many changes” occurred. Indeed, it was the work that set the modifications in movement, as a result of they revealed to her secrets and techniques she had stuffed deep down; the artwork pushed her “out of the frame” she had allowed to restrict her. These revelations led to “much suffering and cruelty,” she says, however as Rilke mentioned (although she doesn’t), when “there is no place that does not see you,” then “you must change your life.” The manner in which the narrator describes L’s work, nevertheless, is as disorienting as every part else in the novel, as a result of her phrases appear to put the story in some indeterminate prefeminist previous, making the time-frame as arduous to determine because the place. The work affected her deeply as a result of that they had the aura of “a freedom elementally and unrepentingly male,” she says. Women may by no means paint like that, she thought. Some elements of this male freedom they “can’t make sense of” and others they’re “not entitled to.”
From her marsh, the narrator writes to L, inviting him to dwell in the cabin. He accepts, noncommittally, and when he lastly deigns to point out up, he seems to be a coddled, curdled, getting old brat with a ravishing younger girl in tow. The narrator follows L across the property, making an attempt to fake that she isn’t. He alternately bares his soul and skitters away, at occasions exhibiting stunning disrespect. In his protection, her expectations are unattainable. L is to show her beloved wetlands into the artwork she believes she will be able to’t make herself. If he had been to apprehend it along with his personal eyes and wrestle it onto the canvas, she thinks, that might free her, validate her, consummate her life.
The novel takes place in opposition to a blurry background, giving it the dreamlike, often ominous, high quality of a fable. A “global pandemonium” of some kind has introduced the narrator’s daughter and her boyfriend dwelling from Germany and worn out the marketplace for L’s artwork. The little band of refugees takes up hobbies, goes on excursions, fights and makes up. We come to see that “second place” additionally refers back to the narrator’s sense of the place she belongs — “where that egotism should have been, I had only a great big vacuum of authority” — although her self-image is clearly distorted. She learns that artwork is just not at all times “higher and better” and involves see the worth of Tony’s unmatched potential to dwell in the actual. But different questions go unanswered. Why does the narrator maintain these outdated notions about artwork and gender? What yr is it? What is that this place?
Not till the novel ends, or appears to finish, can we get a resolution, of kinds, to those puzzles. In a brief paragraph not even offered as an afterword, Cusk declares the novel “a tribute” to a memoir by a very uncommon, largely forgotten early-Twentieth-century American author. I received’t title the ebook or the author, besides to say that she’s a girl having fun with a minor revival, positive to be boosted by Cusk; that the ebook in query is as bizarre as “Second Place,” possibly weirder, although it too has many pleasures; and that the writer is profligate with exclamation marks. If I say rather more, I’ll want a spoiler warning. I’ll add that “Second Place” is greater than a tribute, and that, although Cusk’s novel stands by itself, that is a case in which that means actually is made in the area between books. “Second Place” is a transposition, a riff, a gloss, with parallel themes and scenes and even names that, put aspect by aspect with its supply textual content, flip floor readings the other way up, and assist clarify these curious gender politics. Marking the many years that separate one work from the opposite forces us to reckon up how a lot has modified for girls who would commit themselves to artwork, and how a lot has not.