Fiction and the Limits of the Self: A Review of Rachel Cusk’s “Second Place”

"Second Place"

The projection of self as god works far better as a mantra of living if the reality around you is believable. If the narrative and the plot holds true, and if dreams and assumptions come to fruition, then the little world around you can be one of your own creation. Unless of course, the narrative you have created disintegrates before your very eyes, washed away by every adverse or unexpected event, the true events of life playing out incorrectly according to the preconceived story. Rachel Cusk, star auto-fictional writer of the twenty-first century, wonders at this self-as-god idea, and wars against her loss of attaining it, and returns to her dissection of the limits of the self in her new novel Second Place. The story is told by the narrator, referred to as M, to a Jeffers, a therapist-like presence, or maybe a pet. M recants the story of L, a famous artist, coming to stay at her and her husband Tony’s second place, a small artist’s studio near the main residence on the secluded marshland they live on (a Marfa-Marsh if you will.) 

Second Place begins from a common narrative origin: the one-of-one artist arrives with a young woman in tow (Brett) and begins to dismantle every hope M had for the time that L stayed on their property. “Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so, from the things we ourselves have invented?” asks the narrator at one point, before thinking, as she remembers staring at a portrait by L in a gallery: 

I saw, in other words, that I was alone, and saw the gift and burden of that state, which had never truly been revealed to me before. You know, Jeffers, that I am interested in the existence of things before our knowledge of them – partly because I have trouble believing they do exist! 

While this idea of what we attach to ideas and dreams before they come to fruition, and the obvious letdowns that occur from this sort of thinking drives much of the conversation between L and M, in truth the two barely speak to each other. For the most part, M ruminates on the seclusion that L has chosen for himself, and instead is forced into spending most of her time with her husband Tony, her daughter Justine and her boyfriend Kurt, who are staying in the main house as well. M spends much of her brain power trying to decipher the minutiae of the relationships being formed or not-formed between Tony, L, Brett, Kurt and Justine respectively and individually, while also examining her own relationships with the five of them. We see as M explains how she differs from them, in this world of her making, the one she had been comfortably in control of, down to the last detail. 

Even the differences between her and her husband are reinforced time and again: she the expressive one, Tony the unalterably realistic, reasonable one, he the god of nothing. (“I feel like my heart is talking to you all the time,” he says at one point, as a way of sharing his intimacy.) The story, as Cusk writes, however, is “partly a story of will, and the consequences of exerting it” and the aftermath of what happens when will exerted is left useless, or worse, ignored completely, is shown to have no effect on the existence of everything around. That she had invited L to their property, that she had no control over how he acted or how sociable he was, how he perceived her, how no matter what she did she could not force a permanent bridge between herself and L, that the permanence of anything between them was reliant on him as much as her. 

This lack of control also presents itself in the relationship M has with Justine, and more generally the relationship between parent and child, a topic that Cusk has surgically opened and explored in most of her previous work as well. 

Only tyrants want power for its own sake, and parenthood is the closest most people get to an opportunity for tyranny. Was I a tyrant, wielding shapeless power without authority?

Further, the lack of control extends itself into the future, into future decisions and possibilities. As the wishes M has for L’s stay with them drift further and further away from the story she had set in place to begin with, her perspective on how the others around her perceive reality becomes magnified, as her perception of her own reality becomes distorted and blurry. 

Tony accepted reality and saw his place in it as something he was responsible for: L objected to reality and was always trying to free himself from its strictures, which meant that he believed himself responsible for nothing.

It’s only after the events, of course, that M is able to realize she never had omnipotent control of what would happen once L arrived, that the plot was just a creation, an altogether fraudulent way of viewing the world and its happenings. 

At times the relationship between M and L, for all the time spent on it, seems superfluous to the familial details that Cusk focuses on. It’s as if the narrator to the very end believes that L is driving her towards something, that he is pivotal to the story as well as to her relationship with those around her, and so that must be the relationship on which to center the story. This somewhat exasperating way of choosing to narrate a story only serves to highlight how well done Cusk’s first novel after the Outline Trilogy is; it simultaneously dreams of the story wished to be told, while painstakingly giving ground and telling the story that we actually read, one of family relationships strained by the never-ending passage of time.  M thinks at one point: 

I suppose he [L] allowed me to realise the extent to which I had let my own life be defined by others.  Do such people have, in fact, a higher moral function, which is to show us what our own assumptions and beliefs are made of? To put it another way, does the purpose of art extend to the artist himself as a living being? I believe it does, though there’s a certain shame in biographical explanations, as though it’s somehow weak-minded to look for the meaning of a created work in the life and character of the person who created it.

By the end of the story, L has left to go to Paris and met his final end, and M and Tony once again have a second place that is artist-free. The journey that M goes through in this novel constitutes a changed existence for her, yet she fights dearly to make sure that the change doesn’t take place. Realizing personal truths can be ineffective to living, M argues, because people don’t like when you change; it affects them too. Even as Cusk writes about the shoddy nature of reaching for some sort of “higher ideal” in art, she reminds why she’s actually a one-of-one artist, because the story set out to be told wasn’t told, but maybe it will be next time, and the people around will let you change, or become something new, or realize a truth and be celebrated for it, just maybe that’ll happen. 


Second Place
by Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 192 p.

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