Apprentice to the Sentence

by Lucy Thynne


Second Place

Rachel Cusk, Faber & Faber, 2021

Outline Rachel Cusk, Faber & Faber, 2014


Why is it that the only word I can come up with to describe this novel is weird? Some people are afraid of weirdness, and some would say that this is no way to start a review, but I decide to keep it in when I remember a line in an interview with Cusk from 2019. ‘To become a writer basically means you’re weird’, she says. Elsewhere, she describes the ‘weird’ process of doing something ‘perhaps odd for a person of the age I was then’: leaving university and walking away into the isolation of her parents’ unused house in the countryside to write her first novel, Saving Agnes. ‘I effectively turned away from everybody in my world ... I didn’t know quite why I wanted to do that, but it was what I felt compelled to do.’


During that first lockdown, I often thought of that young woman in the lonely house, as though a 23-year-old Cusk was suspended in time somewhere across the country, putting together the drafts of what would be her bestselling first novel. Call it romanticised, but I found, and still find, the image strangely moving. The reality, it turned out, was not much different: from the first day of lockdown, Cusk began to write her latest novel from her remote home on the Norfolk Broads.


The result is the bafflingly charming Second Place. Told from the perspective of a narrator only known as M, much of the novel is addressed to someone called Jeffers, who is neither seen nor contextualised. Alone in Paris, M wanders into a gallery of paintings by an artist she calls L. It is the first time that she has ever felt understood — or seen — by a painter. Her experience is transcendental, a reawakening. When M returns to her desolate, marshland property that she shares with her husband Tony, it is clear to her that L must be invited to live in the Second Place.


Isolation — its fracturing and its compulsion — runs deep throughout Second Place. The title refers to the property adjoined to the narrator’s house that began its life as a ‘parcel of wasteland’, and now serves as a renovated artist’s retreat as a ‘place of great but subtle beauty’. With no specified continent, country or era, the novel could well be playing out in the 19th or 20th century that critics often attempt to situate Cusk’s style within — were it not for a few references to limited international travel, a failing economy for the arts, a ‘global pandemonium’. Cusk places us gently in the early days of COVID-19 and strands us there.


So begins the trouble in paradise. L is infuriatingly aloof and lecherous; his paintings frustrate M for their ‘aura of male freedom’, which she reflects ‘belongs likewise to most representations of our world’. Tensions arise when accompanying L arrives an expected guest: Brett, a self-absorbed girlfriend who in turn antagonises M and fascinates M’s daughter, Justine. L paints everyone but our own narrator, claiming to be unable to ‘see’ her.


Distress sets in for M, told in a breathlessness that pinwheels up through Cusk’s prose like a balloon — exclamation marks flit between feeling like a text message from an overexcited aunt, to holding a banner that seems to say LET’S MAKE PUNCTUATION COOL AGAIN. Sure, Cusk, I think. It’s a balloon that sinks a few layers when M dives into moments of deep, psychological insight: she writes of her beauty as something she ‘might find’, something that she ‘had temporarily lost’, something that she is always ‘pursuing’. And then, the balloon is off again: ‘I put my face in my hands and wept!’


In some ways, this feels like new territory for Cusk, so the inevitable praise for her experimentalism in Second Place seems justified. But Cusk has always been good at disrupting formulas. Her Outline trilogy, for which she is best known, was the product of a period of ‘creative death’, prompted by her much-lambasted memoir of divorce, Aftermath. Reviews ruthlessly focussed on her ‘bitchiness’, which critics had drawn from her cold, detached tone. Outline was a phoenix from the ashes, taking the shape of a string of monologues that are mediated through the narrator Faye but are never spoken by Faye herself. And within the trilogy, Cusk is always unwrapping the gauze of the previous novel, refashioning it around the wounds she sees in the form. In her view, as she told The Guardian in 2014, contemporary fiction was ‘fake and embarrassing’. Fans of Outline will recognise the same, sharp sense of observation in Second Place, where Cusk is treading similar thematic ground.


And yeah — the themes. With the risk of sounding like a GCSE English teacher, there are many to unpack: Cusk rotates adeptly between motherhood, male-female power relations, art, nature and marriage. Much of Second Place reads as a manifesto for artists and art-consumers — indeed, Cusk’s publishers have tellingly called it a ‘fable’. Justine’s idiotic boyfriend, Kurt, is typical “softboi” material, a term au courant millennials will use to describe men who believe their “alternative” interests set them apart as superior and sensitive. He decides, at one point, that he is a writer, and treats the household to a two- hour reading of his fantasy novel-in-progress. M, we sense, is too self-deprecating about her own ‘little books’, which are rarely mentioned. Her husband Tony, by contrast, ‘didn’t believe in art — he believed in people, their goodness and their badness’.


It’s not an attack on art that we’re dealing with here, but a lot of Second Place is a warning about its dangers. Will L paint M? What will he see — will his ‘sight’ be ‘murder’, as he teasingly suggests? If, in Outline, Cusk was dismissive of art collectors (who saw art as an accessory), or participants in creative writing workshops (who saw art as teachable self-discovery), in Second Place, she gives a greater voice to those whose unrealised artistic passions are tied to their limited freedoms. L cannot accept that ‘not to have been born in a woman’s body was a piece of luck in the first place’. ‘He couldn’t see his own freedom,’ M observes, ‘because he couldn’t conceive of how elementally it might have been denied him’.


I have met Cusk, briefly, in an interview for another student magazine. She was polite and funny, talking excitably over Zoom with a warmth I did not expect. Cusk is not Outline’s Faye, I reminded myself, almost scoldingly. This is a naughty and unfashionable thought, especially in discussions among young writers online where often, the low-hanging fruit for interviewers is to ask (almost always) female writers: so, how much of this is based on your own life? They are often asking: and what of your own trauma, what of your own sex life, what of this creation that is not from your head but from the life in front of you? Autofiction blurs this boundary, but still. How easy to fall into the trap of confusing the “I” for author! She does not, at least on the surface, project the coldness I have read about in other interviews. She speaks carefully, slowly, and seriously, about her craft.


Afterwards, I remember only small details that felt most out of place: a man she did not address appearing behind her to retrieve some wellington boots. Her laughing confession that in her university days at Oxford, she shaved her head and dyed it orange. All of it that gives her the ‘self ’ she says she no longer believes in. ‘Being a person always means getting blamed for it,’ she admits offhandedly to Judith Thurman, in a much- shared interview for The New Yorker.


But Cusk’s self is always there, I think, even in her descriptions of landscape:


There was the high tide and the water had stretched out to cover the land, in that silent and magical way of the tides here that is somehow like a body turning and stretching and opening in sleep.


This is Cuskian prose at its most beautiful. If much of the novel’s plot is scant and sometimes confusing, it is still pulled along by the dreamy, tidal quality of Cusk’s writing. Sentences stream fluidly and yet still hold themselves intact, as is impossible to do with water; I feel, on a second reading of the novel, that Cusk has achieved a kind of artisanal mastery. Such carpentry is now trademark: her pages of Optima sans serif font and clean-cut covers of conical seashells and airplanes are distinct, sometimes held up as further evidence of her cool ‘bitchiness’. Buying copies of Outline for a friend, though, as I have come to do for birthdays, I feel like a child collecting shells on the beach, gathering the covers to my chest in a bookshop. Another friend tells me she has only bought the book because it is ‘aesthetic’. For all her Tolstoian sentences and plots almost entirely devoid of the internet, Cusk sometimes offers herself perfectly for the millennial generation.


There are other strengths where we least expect them. For one, Second Place is particularly good on the push and pull of mother-daughter relationships. M witnesses Justine growing up before her eyes, a daughter once malleable as a child and now immune to ‘further alterations’. The book’s title is most obviously a pun on the gendered power struggle integral to much of Cusk’s fiction, but it reads better, I think, as a description of parent and child. How incisively Cusk writes on a child’s body becoming the adjoining property to its creator, the extension of the mother. Allow me to direct you here to a line in Cusk’s recent essay collection Coventry, where she describes feeling ‘the loss of old forms of control’, her eldest daughter washing up on ‘the wild shores of adolescence’. M and Justine. Mother and I. Me and mother. M articulates the eerie interchangeability that I feel keenly when I have spent more time with my mother in lockdown and sense, sometimes, that I could blur into her.


Perhaps now is a good time to say that Second Place is the child of another book. This is almost so irrelevant that I’ve left it for the end, as Cusk does in her novel. Second Place is a tribute, she writes, to the 1933 memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan, Lorenzo in Taos, about D.H. Lawrence’s eventful stay at her artists’ colony in New Mexico, which ended when Lawrence began threatening to ‘destroy’ his hostess. Things begin to click into place: M as Mabel, L as Lawrence, Jeffers as the poet Robinson Jeffers that Luhan addresses. But none of it feels necessary to shed light on a novel that stands, like one of Cusk’s own edifices, very well on its own. It feels, bizarrely, like the book’s only weakness — presented as a strange afterthought, when clearly it has informed a lot of Cusk’s decision-making.


Two years ago, now, I sat in the hall of the South Bank Centre to listen to the poet Ocean Vuong give a talk about his new book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. At my favourite point during the evening, he described the leap he had made between forms — from poet to novelist — and the scrutiny that each form demanded. Critics had made much of his “career change”, but, he insisted, there was only one key difference: as poet, his creation mattered on a minute word-level; as novelist, he was a self-professed ‘apprentice to the sentence’. Reading Second Place, it occurs to me that there exists today no greater apprentice to the sentence than Rachel Cusk. Her weirdness is a gift. We are lucky to possess it.


LUCY THYNNE reads English at Somerville College. She is mother to two: a needy ORB and a neglected degree.


Art by Jemima Storey