In her 1932 memoir, Lorenzo in Taos, the American art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan writes that “life is not concerned with results, but only with Being and Becoming.” M, the nameless narrator of Rachel Cusk’s latest novel, Second Place, is similarly preoccupied with the act of Becoming. More specifically, she is preoccupied with bridging the terrifying gap that exists between self-regard and self-knowledge. To that end, she invites a long-admired painter, L, to spend the summer at her spare house in a marshland she shares with her second husband, Tony. M hopes to find, in L’s artistic gaze, the key to self-recognition, but the two clash catastrophically.
Cusk based her novel on Lorenzo in Taos, Luhan’s account of her own fraught relationship with D.H. Lawrence, whom Luhan called “a frail failure of a man among men.” Cusk’s M therefore can be understood to be Mabel Dodge Luhan, who invited Lawrence to her artist commune in New Mexico. Like Luhan’s portrait of Lawrence, Cusk’s L is an unpleasant man. He cannot handle the waning of his fame and potency, and arrives, to M’s dismay, with a beautiful and accomplished woman, Brett.
The cast of characters in Second Place is small, and the plot simple. The novel unfolds over the course of a hot summer, beneath the backdrop of a “global pandemonium” (maybe this is Covid-19, maybe a financial recession). M’s college-aged daughter, Justine, and her soft-boy boyfriend Kurt—the only two characters not also found in Luhan’s memoir—return for the summer. Brett and Justine are close in age and form a friendship that toes the line between companionship and mentorship. In the midst of a story about M and L’s rivalry emerges a subtle and touching portrait of Justine’s coming to confidence, which involves, comedically and thankfully, letting Kurt loose. Throughout the novel, M repeatedly expresses gratitude for Tony (Luhan’s last husband was also named Tony). Like the surrounding landscape, Tony cocoons M from the critical gaze she so fears and which so defined her life before their marriage. He does not say much and remains, through his wife’s descriptions, somewhat wooden, until one particularly poignant outburst across the marshes.
One of the joys of Second Place lies in the experience of being hypnotically carried across its pages from sentence to sentence, vista to vista. As usual, Cusk writes with sharp insight into human psychology. She gently dissects emotions readers might have otherwise thought to be well-understood. This lends her sentences an alluring potency that sometimes teeters on the edge of aphorism. At one moment, Cusk seems to ironize this tendency towards maxims, as M admits she believes that sometimes “a potato knows more than most people do.”
There is also something of D.H. Lawrence’s melodramatic prose in the novel, particularly around the gender dynamics of the cataclysmic interactions between M and L. Cusk’s admiration for Lawrence and other Modernist writers is well documented. But it is really to Luhan’s rhetoric that Cusk seems to have turned in Second Place. Some of the novel’s more inordinate language—“for all his talk of destroying me, I, it seemed, had destroyed him first”—parrots Luhan’s writing about Lawrence: “remembrance came back to me of his expressed intention to destroy me—repeated so often—so often defied.” There is a surprising resonance between Cusk and Luhan, especially in how they both write frankly and captivatingly about psychological agency.
Perhaps where Cusk turns most directly to Lawrence is in her embrace of the battle motif as a mode of representing the patriarchal world. Gender dynamics are not a new topic for Cusk; many of the tropes in the novel—motherhood and criticism, traumatic marriages, strange encounters with men while traveling—appear in her earlier writings as well. But Second Place’s repeated sense of battle is new.
Cusk invited comparisons to Homer’s Odyssey in her recently completed trilogy Outline, which purportedly “gut renovated the novel,” ensuring Cusk a spot on syllabi to come. In an interview with The New Yorker, Cusk said that while writing Outline she was “thinking about the Odyssey and about foundational narrative ideas and their relationship to therapy.” In Second Place, Cusk is not so concerned with foundational narrative ideas, nor particularly rosy about the value of therapy (M even once berates a therapist on the street after an upsetting session). Rather, Cusk depicts a battle between L and M. In this latest project, then, she turns not to the Odyssey, but to the Iliad, even making direct reference to the epic in her novel.
Cusk’s Trojan War is one of patriarchal tensions. L dislikes M and fears her middle-aged body, while M resents L’s cruel condescension and hatred. In the midst of this clash emerges another conflict, one to do with M’s dual desires of attaining self-knowledge and remaining blissfully invisible to others and herself. It is this latter, perhaps more interesting conflict, that makes Second Place such an alluring read. In searching for a sense of self in L’s misogynistic gaze, M shows us the folly and harm that can come with controlling self-knowledge. Put another way, M shows us that if life really is only concerned with Being and Becoming, then we have to sacrifice a degree of agency in that process.