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Second Place by Rachel Cusk review – psychodrama in the shape of a social comedy | Rachel Cusk

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Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy essentially took the form of a string of monologues heard by a silhouetted but recognisably Cusk-like narrator as she teaches writing, renovates her flat and embarks on a book tour. As well as a way to shrug off the obligations of plot and scene-setting, the structure was a smart response to the hostility that greeted Cusk’s 2012 divorce memoir, Aftermath; if you want me to shut up, she seemed to say, then so be it.

The result was sophisticated and stimulating but also highly mannered, with the polyvocal conceit increasingly at odds with Cusk’s cool monotone. By the third part, Kudos, with its never-ending parade of self-absorbed ignoramuses, the narrative engine felt pretty nakedly rigged for the purposes of marrying her trademark philosophical reflection with her other calling card – the kind of poison-pen portraiture for which she has had a reputation at least since 2009’s The Last Supper, her disputed memoir of a summer among English expats in Tuscany.

So what now? Brexit apparently encouraged Cusk to quit England for Paris, only for coronavirus to stall the move; her new novel suggests she’s in limbo creatively, too. Second Place is the first-person testimony of another Cusk-like writer, M, who invites a celebrated painter, L, to stay in the annex of her marshland home. Craving his attention while her husband installs irrigation for the garden, she’s more than a little touchy when L arrives with Brett, an aggravatingly multi-talented heiress who further rubs M up the wrong way when her style tips are gratefully accepted by M’s 21-year-old daughter, Justine, formerly impervious to her mother’s advice.

So begins an intimate psychodrama in the shape of a social comedy about the hazards of hospitality, as L’s studiedly aloof manner fuels M’s horror of her “small and suburban” middle-aged obsolescence. Cusk’s sans-serif Optima typeface, now as much a part of her brand as high-pressure deliberation on gender and selfhood, adds to an indefinable sense of threat, with the novel’s diction caught between the lecture hall and the analyst’s couch. “So much of power lies in the ability to see how willing other people are to give it to you,” M says; when her annex gets trashed, she’s “shocked, and shock is sometimes necessary, for without it we would drift into entropy”.

As in Kudos, the glassy prose can feel like a two-way mirror with the author smirking on the other side; when Justine’s execrable boyfriend unselfconsciously treats the household to a two-hour reading from his dragons-and-monsters fantasy opus-in-progress, I rather feared for anyone Cusk’s own daughters had ever brought home.

The setting, which recalls the much-publicised £2.25m Norfolk home Cusk recently sold, is among several details teasingly congruent with the author’s own life (“I can’t imagine your little books make all that much,” L says, needling M about the property). But while Second Place indeed turns out to be fictionalised memoir, the twist is that it isn’t Cusk’s. An endnote advertises the novel’s debt to the bohemian socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir Lorenzo in Taos, about DH Lawrence’s chaotic stay at her artists’ colony in New Mexico, where he ended up threatening to “destroy” his hostess, as L does M here.

While reading Second Place together with Luhan’s florid memoir (freely available online) shows the novel’s more jarringly melodramatic elements to be preordained, it also casts doubt on Cusk’s decision-making, since the book doesn’t fully make sense without reading Luhan, and even then it’s a close thing. Yes, Luhan addressed her memoir to the poet Robinson Jeffers, but does that justify Cusk having M continually address a never-explained “Jeffers”? Is the fact that Luhan married a Native American man reason enough for a passage on how M’s husband looks like a Native American?

Ultimately, there’s something excessive and undigested in the novel’s bid to recast Luhan’s thwarted longing for Lawrence’s recognition as a modern-day battle of wills between a sympathetically needy writer and standoffish painter. It’s a pity, because as a tale of midlife malaise, Second Place glints with many of Cusk’s typically frosty pleasures; she’s especially sharp, for instance, on the fraught enterprise of parenting grownup children who return to the nest. In the end I couldn’t help feeling that, freed from its source, the story would have got along just fine by itself.

Second Place by Rachel Cusk is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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