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Compassion Is The True Test Of A Person In 'Second Place'

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy, which so brilliantly pushed against the confines of fiction to explore the power of narrative, left us wondering what she would write next. Would she go back to her earlier, more conventional satires of the stresses of family life? Or would she continue to probe questions about the connection between freedom and gender and art and suffering in serial conversations with strangers?

The Outline trilogy is a hard act to follow, but Second Place is an excellent next step. A writer we know only as M delivers a long monologue relaying the story of her obsession with a famous painter dubbed L. Unlike the trilogy, it is neither episodic nor plotless. Essentially, it's a domestic novel combined with a novel of ideas in which Cusk continues her cerebral exploration of issues of freedom, how art can both save and destroy us, the rub between self-sacrifice and self-definition in motherhood, and the possibilities of domestic happiness.

Second Place traces the arc of M's fraught relationship with L, beginning with the moment, as an unhappy "young mother on the brink of rebellion," she first saw his paintings in a Paris gallery. Later on, she tells L she was so struck by the sense of freedom his landscapes emitted that they gave her the courage to change her life. But instead of freedom after leaving her disapproving husband, the immediate result was the loss of her home, money, friends, and, for a year, her daughter, then just four years old. (This, of course, is somewhat akin to Cusk's experience in the aftermath of her first marriage, which she chronicled with blistering fury in Aftermath, garnering harsh opprobrium, in part for what was seen as her anti-domestic stance.)

Fifteen years after these dark times, M is happily married to Tony, a large, loving, uncomplicated, outdoorsy man who "didn't believe in art — he believed in people, their goodness and their badness, and he believed in nature." They live comfortably on the isolated English coastal marsh where he was brought up by his adoptive family. Yet she continues to think about the visceral connection she felt with L through his work, and invites him to stay in their guest cottage in the woods, which they call the Second Place.

What follows is a dramatic account of a difficult guest's effect on his intense hostess and her family, including Tony and the narrator's grown daughter, Justine, as told after the fact to someone named Jeffers. We have no idea who Jeffers is, but rather irritatingly, Cusk repeats his name every few pages, lest we suspect that she's speaking into a void: "Do you understand it, Jeffers? I have wanted to be free my whole life but haven't managed to liberate my smallest toe," she writes. Many pages later she asks, "Does catastrophe have the power to free us, Jeffers?" The conceit feels forced.

The drama of the ruthless artist is not new, but as plumbed by the ever-probing Cusk, it still feels rich. That said, some readers may lose patience with M's ungrateful artist-in-residence — who sneers at her "little books" and insultingly asks why she "[plays] at being a woman" — and with M's fixation on him.

The drama of the ruthless artist is not new, but as plumbed by the ever-probing Cusk, it still feels rich.

In an author's note, Cusk credits Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan's 1932 memoir about the time D.H. Lawrence (one of Cusk's literary touchstones) came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico, as an inspiration. Cusk actually presaged the relationship between writer M and artist L in Transit, the middle volume of her trilogy, when a blocked writing student tells the narrator, Faye, about her obsession with American painter Marsden Hartley, who seemed to channel her acute loneliness. Faye told her student, "It was perfectly possible to become the prisoner of an artist's vision ... Like life, I said, being understood created the fear that you will never be understood again."

As always, Cusk doggedly teases out her complex, occasionally mind-numbing concerns. There's also some beautiful prose. A description of Paris is surprisingly Hemingway-esque: "The sky got bluer and more blue and the green fresh banks of foliage were motionless in the warmth, and the blocks of light and shadow that bisected the streets were like the eternal primordial shapes that lie on the faces of mountain ranges and seem to come from inside them."

M describes Tony's surprisingly effusive courtship letters as "this sparkling river of words that flowed through me and irrigated me and began to bring me slowly back to life" — and also allowed her "ever after to live with his silence, because I know the river is there."

Cusk's narrator is tough minded — similar to how the author herself comes across in her recent essay collection, Coventry (2019). But although she still values truth-telling over likability, she's softened somewhat — at least on the evidence of Second Place. M's appreciation for Tony, and for her daughter's blossoming into maturity, help her weigh the wages of art on more finely tuned scales. Although Cusk doesn't explicitly address specific instances of artists who have been called out for their reprehensible behavior, her novel channels a moral reckoning we see taking place more widely in our culture. Even in artists, her narrator comes to realize, "The truest test of a person is the test of compassion."

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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