Sympathy for the Devil

Second Place by Rachel cusk. new york: farrar, straus and giroux. 192 pages. $25.

The cover of Second Place

SINCE THE 2014 RELEASE of Outline, the first novel in her acclaimed trilogy, Rachel Cusk has acquired an aura of unimpeachability. This is not to say all reviews of her work have been positive; many invoke the question of “likability,” that awful barometer women are metered against, but the general tone conveys her moral fiber, her strength of character. Not only is her work brilliant, but she herself stands as a kind of moral benchmark. Her position on her themes—womanhood, fate, will, art—has been taken as correct. This is likely in part because she has not come by her reputation easily (attacks on her memoirs, particularly the divorce tale Aftermath, were vicious), nor at a young age (she is now fifty-four).

Second Place, Cusk’s latest novel, begins from the perch of moral certainty, and never quite lets go. A psychosexual drama with no sex, the book revolves around two characters, referred to only as L and M. L is a male artist, M a female patron. The novel centers around the questions these differences reveal. Or, closer to the truth: these questions and differences reveal Cusk’s predetermined moral universe. Questions are illusory; there are deterministic stances. The standpoint of the main characters reflects this. L, fey and ascetic, is a thinly disguised version of D. H. Lawrence, whom Cusk has called her mentor. L is a painter, not a writer, but the specter of Male Genius is made clear. His foil, M, the writer-narrator, reveres his paintings, seeing him, by extension, as a kind of oracle. She makes the natural assumption and casual error of conflating the virtues of the work with the character of the artist. Cusk’s own devotion to Lawrence makes these metatextual tricks all the more fraught. Is there a more intimate and controlling way to pay homage to your literary idol than by turning him into a fictional character?

It’s a funny time to write a novel about Lawrence, though not necessarily more so than any other: too romantic to be modern, accused by his contemporaries of being a pornographer—that is, part of the avant-garde—he has never been contemporary, not even in his own time. A man whose tragedy, according to Angela Carter, was that “he thought he was a man,” a pious man who wrote frankly about sex, Lawrence suffered his aloneness. Poor, childless, mostly itinerant, he shares little biographical similarity with Cusk, who has turned her children, her career success, and her home into subjects for her fiction. What the two writers do share is a basic and unassailable belief in the individual, a belief that underwrites their obsessive preoccupation with will, intuition, and transformation. Above all it’s women—as question and problem—that drive their work and fetter their hearts. How can women give voice to themselves? What can love look like? And freedom?

In the Outline trilogy, the Cusk-like narrator existed as a scrim for the stories of those she encounters. With Second Place she returns to a narrator-centric account, writing in the immediate voice of M, recording with tense frenzy her exchanges with L for the unseen “Jeffers,” an addressee with so little context he may well be God. The novel’s setup is biblical: there’s a man, a woman, good, and evil. M is a “young mother on the brink of rebellion.” She encounters L’s paintings one morning in Paris and feels herself beseiged by awe. Hours later she sees the devil, a man, “bloated, yellow-eyed,” who stalks her on the train from Paris. The chill of fate follows their encounter. L’s paintings, which “picked [her] up off the street,” have a similar feeling of inevitability.

Years later, M, now approaching fifty, writes to L, inviting him to the marsh where she lives with Tony, her second husband, and where her daughter Justine and her boyfriend Kurt come to stay. The location of the marsh is unspecified, as is the global catastrophe that has befallen the world but somehow left theirs intact. L, a powerful, petite man with “lamp-like eyes,” brings with him an unexpected guest, Brett—young, blond, dilettantish. M, so attuned to danger she often seems to court it, immediately senses, upon picking them up, that the invitation has been an error in judgment. Almost overnight, the air in the marsh seems to thin. It’s a chamber drama with five people, but the interactions between the characters is bad puppetry, and they parallel one another in ways so pat as to be unbelievable. Tony is saintly and strong; L incalculable and domineering; Brett beautiful and breezy; M matronly and neurotic. A string of theatrical antics follow. A representative scene: Brett and L, “howl[ing]” with demonic frenzy, paint a mural of M as Eve tempted by the devil on the walls of the guesthouse.

The secondary characters, nineteenth-century pastiches, are relatively insignificant; what matters is the interplay between M and L. Second Place is loosely based on Lorenzo in Taos (1932), Mabel Dodge Luhan’s epistolary account of D. H. Lawrence’s time in New Mexico, where he and his wife Frieda lived, intermittently, from 1922 through 1925. This recollection of the “painful days that brought about changes in us all” documents the strained and often antagonistic relationship between patron and artist.

It’s not necessary to read Lorenzo in Taos, or to know anything about Lawrence, to understand Second Place, but it does help make sense of some of the novel’s particularities: its overwrought symbolism, its bombastic statements about men and women, its out-of-sync temporal quality. Luhan was closely involved in the lives of artists, building communal movements in New York City, Italy, and New Mexico. Her belief in artistic freedom was one she never accorded herself. Her hope in inviting Lawrence was that he would “take my experience, my material, my Taos, and to formulate it all into a magnificent creation.” She longed to be taken seriously as a writer by Lawrence. (He wrote candidly that he would never take her seriously as a writer, “or even as a knower.”) With Old Testament solemnity Lawrence threatened to break Mabel’s will, as she represented what was for him “that greatest living abomination, the dominating American woman.” (His resentment of his financial dependence upon her seems the truer cause of his distress.) “A test of the soul is its insouciance,” Lawrence advised Mabel at one point, a maxim neither seemed able to take to heart.

The conflict between Cusk’s M and L never quite reaches the heights of Lorenzo’s inspired screwiness. Second Place is stagier, and Cusk seems less interested in human particularities than in the allegorical aspects of M and L’s relationship. Like the people whose stories Faye recounts in the Outline trilogy, M and L are pegs on which Cusk hangs her broader concerns about art and freedom. M believes that freedom will come through L: that once he sees what she has been looking at, and renders it legible, she will be free. Like Lawrence, M has left the bourgeois world and abandoned ideas of traditional success. But here is as restraining as there, and she remains trapped within a world not of her own creation, to whose rules she must adhere. In inviting L, M at least in part seeks the “destruction” of will that he promises, destruction of this kind being “the form freedom took out of necessity, the final form, when every other attempt to attain it had failed.” The problem with waiting for someone else to accord you freedom, Cusk knows, is that you might wait forever.

In Second Place, art is the place where questions of freedom come to the fore. An artist’s soul must be “amoral” and “free of personal bias,” thinks M, framing the question of freedom as one that’s solely individual, or necessarily self-interested. Freedom and “manhood” are often dubiously conflated: L’s paintings “emanate” an “aura of absolute freedom” “unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke.” If art is the only place where freedom is truly attainable, and art is unrepentingly male, it’s unclear what women can do other than to mimic or annihilate.

The “second place” of Cusk’s novel refers most evidently to the guesthouse M has made available for artists and writers. Place here is accorded moral character. It upholds the possibility of and right to artistic creation, and asks how artists might make and inhabit a place for themselves. It’s also how Mabel feels about her own position:

that “second place” pretty much summed up how I felt about myself and my life—that it had been a near miss, requiring just as much effort as victory but with that victory always and forever somehow denied me, by a force that I could only describe as the force of pre-eminence. I could never win, and the reason I couldn’t seemed to lie within certain infallible laws of destiny that I was powerless—as the woman I was—to overcome.

Neither M nor L are free. Both resent the other for what they have. M envies L his freedom; L envies M her will and her place in the world. Cusk presents this conflict as insoluble. Has Cusk herself, by being a writer and a woman, solved it? In her essay on Celia Paul and Cecily Brown, Cusk asks the question that preoccupies this novel: “Can a woman artist—however virtuosic and talented, however disciplined—ever attain a fundamental freedom from the fact of her own womanhood?”

In the novel’s one funny moment, L, who has painted everyone else in the household, has finally asked M to sit for him. (She has taken his prior lack of invitation as a pointed rejection.) “Wear something that fits,” he says. The promise of him looking at her makes her look at herself. She runs to the house, and, filled with daring, puts on her wedding dress. On the way to the second place she runs into Tony, who commands her to return home. She keeps running. What a fool, I thought tenderly.

Janique Vigier is a writer from Winnipeg.