“There’s an idea that a successful narrative is one that gives you no choice in the matter; but mostly I imagine it’s a question of both sides conspiring to keep the suspension aloft.” So writes Rachel Cusk in my favourite of her essays, the titular work from her nonfiction collection, Coventry. The essay is about Cusk’s dysfunctional relationship with her parents, but more broadly it explores a state of psychological banishment that requires suspended belief on the part of both the banisher and the banished. You can’t be banished to Coventry unless you believe that Coventry exists, and that someone else has the power to place you in it.
Cusk’s most recent novel, Second Place, is essentially about Coventry, as I have come to believe all her novels and words are. Articulate but existentially adrift, narrator M sees herself as living in the Coventry of female middle age: she can no longer access the cultural currency of feminine youth, yet neither is she welcome to play the role of misanthropic intellectual elder – that role is reserved for old men. M’s second husband, Tony, is her equilibrating counterpoint: contented, gruff, and practical. She also has a 21-year-old daughter, Justine, who has come home with her foppish boyfriend Kurt to ride out (what we assume to be) the coronavirus pandemic. M invites a famous old male painter, L, to come and stay at her family’s “second place” – an outhouse for artists on M’s property. Much to M’s chagrin, L deigns to paint everyone but her. He says he cannot “see” her. Philosophically charged and aesthetically rendered gendered power-play ensues.
Second Place strongly recalls Chris Kraus’ autofictional cult classic I Love Dick. A commentary on agency, power and gender in the worlds of art and academia, it follows a female artist alienated by the sexism of high culture, who drags herself and her husband, Sylvère, into an erotic epistolary tryst with a cultural critic called Dick. Ultimately, Dick simply will not engage with Chris as he will with Sylvère, as Chris is not part of the boys’ club. The letter Dick sends to Chris at the end of the novel is simply a xeroxed copy of a letter he has sent to Sylvère.
Second Place takes I Love Dick’s premise and refuses it: Tony will not play the game. He is, dare I say it, a good man. M and Tony respect each other; neither places the other in Coventry. Better than just a smart commentary on gender, Second Place ends up being about the negotiations we make with ourselves and with each other in order to live as we can. As M finally ponders, “Might it be true that half of freedom is the willingness to take it when it’s offered?”
Faber, 216pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 8, 2021 as "Rachel Cusk, Second Place".
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