Evaluate: Rachel Cusks’s bracing new novel ‘Second Place’

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Second Place

By Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 192 pages, $25

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In a 2019 profile of the long-neglected artist Celia Paul, Rachel Cusk mentions a scene from a movie in regards to the painter Alberto Giacometti through which he jams dozens of his sketches right into a firepit and watches them burn. The consummate swigging, stomping, scolding male virtuoso, Giacometti is performing a task he’ll by no means be requested to step out of. “The male artist,” Cusk writes, “in our picture of him, does the whole lot we’re instructed to not do: He’s violent and egocentric. He neglects or betrays his family and friends. He smokes, drinks, scandalizes, indulges his lusts and in each means bites the hand that feeds him, all to be unmasked on the finish as a peerless genius.”

Artist and male artist usually are not distinct phrases. As Cusk writes within the profile, which lastly located Paul, at 60, as greater than Lucien Freud’s nubile muse, feminine artists must work by or round or beside their gender. “Of any girl creator, an evidence is required of whether or not, or how, she distributed along with her femininity and its limitations, along with her feminine organic future; of the place — so to talk — she buried the physique.”

“Second Place,” Cusk’s first novel after the conclusion of her radical, sensible “Define” trilogy (“Define,” “Transit” and “Kudos”), scratches at that variance, popping it open like a fat-domed pimple. Structured as a letter from the narrator, M, to her pal Jeffers, it claims to be an try at a portrait of an artist referred to as L — a painter whose work violently rattled M on a long-ago go to to Paris. Alone within the metropolis, with out her husband and younger baby, M was drawn to a gallery the place certainly one of L’s self-portraits stared again at her. “ it,” she explains, “I felt myself falling out of the body I had lived in for years, the body of human implication in a specific set of circumstances. From that second, I ceased to be immersed within the story of my very own life and have become distinct from it.” It so shakes her that after she returns dwelling to England she leaves her husband.

Fifteen years later, remarried and dwelling on the coastal marshes of Norfolk, M invitations L, whom she’s by no means met, to remain on the “second place” behind their home, a cottage of heat wooden and lime-washed partitions. Different artists have stayed up to now, she explains in a letter, and located the “nice however refined magnificence” conducive to working. L comes the next spring.

The go to disappoints M in virtually each means. L is an skilled within the artwork of passive cruelty. He gained’t paint her as a result of he “can’t actually see” her; he avoids her presence and befriends her college-aged daughter in a form of silent sucker punch; most gallingly, he brings alongside a bubbly younger girl referred to as Brett, a “ravishing creature someplace in her late twenties.” M recoils. “I had summoned L throughout the continents intuitively believing that he may carry out that transformative perform for me, may launch me into artistic motion.” However he gained’t. Or can’t.

Cusk is influenced right here by a 1922 go to from D.H. Lawrence (whom Cusk has referred to as her “mentor”) to Mabel Dodge Luhan, an arts patroness who coaxed the novelist to New Mexico with guarantees of inspiring magic coursing by the panorama. Simply as M does for L, Mabel laid fires in look forward to Lawrence, spruced up the sunny dwelling that backed onto the sacred Taos Mountain and plotted his journey as an opportunity to soak up a few of Lawrence’s efficiency by osmosis. Mabel thought of Lawrence the person “who may perceive issues for me” — artist as talisman.

The cover for Rachel Cusk's "Second Place"

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Although Lawrence is the inspiration, it isn’t his power that dominates “Second Place.” As a substitute I sensed the residue of Anita Brookner’s weary protagonists: brilliant, cultured ladies who know what they’re lacking out on and resent those that maintain it from them. M wonders if reproducing herself — in L’s portray or in her writing (“little books … my very own work — if it may be referred to as that”) — will agency her up by some means, easy out some inner defect. She needs artwork to save lots of her. Within the meantime, she fumes. As Cusk hits all of the excessive notes of indignant rage, this e-book snaps and steams.

Cusk remains to be banging up in opposition to the identical considerations which have animated her work for many years — the compromises of motherhood, the catharsis of journey, how we demarcate our personal house. (Generally I wish to yank her out of that mire, most likely as a result of it consumes my work as effectively.) However the mere existence of “Second Place” makes me marvel if she discovered the “Define” trilogy as cleaning as so many people did.

I additionally marvel if readers will discover “Second Place” much less palatable than the trilogy as a result of its protagonist is a lot extra forceful than Faye. She virtually bleats out her complaints, and slashes almost 130 exclamation factors (by my rely) into 192 lean pages. Readers like to hate feminine characters — and Cusk — for inflicting momentary discomfort, as if studying must be a salve. However on this e-book greater than ever, Cusk is astringent, unsugared. Straight vinegar. It’s scrumptious and good for the intestine.

The trilogy was a gargantuan house, an ethereal, three-dimensional cathedral. “Second Place” looks like a sketched panorama, a tough draft of concepts outdated and new that Cusk is gently making an attempt out in narrative kind. Relatively than feed her efforts to the flames like Giacometti, she packages them. I can think about this one in a museum, its title card explaining that “Second Place” is how Cusk received from Faye to _____. That’s a praise, even when it doesn’t appear one; Cusk’s open experimentation is refreshing, as is her perception {that a} author should maintain transferring ahead, forging a tough chain.

Cusk has made her popularity by self-consciously interrogating her personal daring endeavors, together with the “Define” trilogy, which was partly in regards to the intestine renovation of a flat however actually (as Judith Thurman put it) a intestine renovation of the novel. Right here she is determining what comes subsequent in a novel that serves as a actuality examine on the guarantees of artwork, together with her personal.

In 1982 the Atlantic printed a “poem” by Williams Carlos Williams’ spouse Flossie, a response to his raid on her plums in his well-known work “This Is Simply to Say …” It begins, “Expensive Invoice: I’ve made a few sandwiches for you./ Within the ice-box you’ll discover/ blue-berries–a cup of grapefruit/ a glass of chilly espresso.” I’ve at all times beloved the zest of Flossie’s reply, how ably she mimics his meter and steals again her picture from his work.

M’s letter-as-novel is such a reply. L invades her dwelling, adulterates it along with his grimace, after which turns his canvas in one other course. However his dismissal does ignite one thing in M in spite of everything. He doesn’t paint her, however she writes him.

Kelly’s work has been printed in New York Journal, Vogue, the New York Occasions E-book Evaluate and elsewhere.

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