Oh to have a midlife crisis as fruitful as Rachel Cusk’s! The 54-year-old novelist has been in a state of inspired cataclysm for at least two decades now. It was motherhood that prompted it – her memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (2001), was about as pure an expression of outrage at the indignities and injustices of childbearing as seems publishable, and marked a shift from the acerbic social comedies of her early career. Three vivisections of English middle-class domesticity followed (In the Fold, Arlington Park and The Bradshaw Variations), interspersed with two more unsparingly candid essayistic works, about her disastrous attempt to move abroad (The Last Supper: a Summer in Italy in 2009) and then her divorce (Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation in 2012). Each memoir appeared to be on the rebound from the one before, a phoenix-like act of self-destruction that laid the path for creative reinvention.
But not without burning the author. Following the critical mauling of Aftermath, Cusk found herself unable to write for several years. By the time she recovered from what she described as “creative death”, she had made some important decisions. Novels, she realised, were full of artificial and embarrassing contrivances: plot, character, dialogue, suspense. Taking her cue from the autofiction of Karl Ove Knausgaard (who has also had an extremely productive midlife crisis), she created her own form with Outline (2014): plotless, semi-autobiographical accounts of one woman’s conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers. This woman is a divorced middle-aged writer, Faye, who has left her old life behind. She has lost her belief in reality and appears withdrawn, acting as a passive receptacle for other people’s stories, which are marked by catastrophes, epiphanies, transitions.
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The trilogy that followed with Transit (2016) and Kudos (2018) was rapidly recognised as a new path for the novel, and transformed Cusk into one of the most celebrated and cited of all British writers. It also, paradoxically, suggested a triumph of self-will. The very existence of these highly stylised, deliberately wrought books tells us that Faye’s noticing is anything but passive. The text may resemble the formlessness of reality but is undeniably the product of artistic choice and a steely resolve. The trilogy has an arc, too: a woman who has become detached eventually reattaches herself to life and engages with the idea that living in the world involves suffering.
A large part of Cusk’s appeal, I suspect, is that she represents a fantasy of the dramatic, destructive midlife crisis over the slow, corrosive one. “People enjoy combustion!” as Faye’s publisher tells her in Kudos. She speaks to a secret urge in her reader – and especially her female reader – to burn their life down and begin afresh, to try to live more truthfully, liberated from social structures, cultural identities, capitalism, the doctrine of self-acceptance, conventional forms. We all know how much suffering this kind of transformation entails – but there’s a strange fascination in surveying the damage. Never settle!
Cusk’s latest novel, Second Place, takes this idea of suffering as a point of departure. It’s a psychodrama filtered through the anguished confession of a middle-aged woman known as “M”. It is highly charged and unsettling from the first page, where M recalls meeting a figure that she describes as “the devil” on a train home from Paris 15 years previously. After that encounter “the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of life”.
Addressing her friend Jeffers, M describes how she endured a torrid divorce from the father of her daughter, Justine, and “nearly died” trying to begin a new life: “What I couldn’t understand was how the simple revelation of personal truth could lead to so much suffering and cruelty, when surely it was morally inoffensive to seek to live in a condition of truth.”
M is voluble about her emotions and her needs. She tells us she has spent much of her life living off “nerves and adrenalin”, though she is now passing her days in idleness on the isolated marshland property where she lives with her second husband, Tony. She couldn’t, however, be described as passive. She has no inhibitions in writing a letter to an artist, known as “L”, whom she has never met, inviting him to stay and work in the “second place” – a cabin that she and Tony have built on their grounds.
M first encountered L’s landscapes during her crisis in Paris and felt an immediate kinship. They emanated an “aura of absolute freedom… unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke”. The artist, surprised to have been reminded of his Paris exhibition, immediately writes back, making M wonder, “Who else I could summon up, simply by sitting down and directing my will at them!” So begins a story about self-will and the unintended consequences of exerting it. As M says, “everything I determined to happen happened, but not as I wanted it”.
Initially, L cancels on her – so her daughter Justine moves into the cabin with her pretentious boyfriend Kurt. However, then L does show up, with a gorgeous, brattish young woman called Brett. L turns out to be a wiry, evasive, “goatish” man, who lives up to the stereotype of the male artist. He is selfish, indifferent to others and prone to biting the hand that feeds him. M is fascinated. Can his “disregard for convention” really be maintained over time? Is this image of male freedom real or a pose?
She claims that she has invited him to her home to paint the marshland, but as the novel goes on we realise she hopes he can satisfy other urges. She longs to be seen through L’s eyes, to be given a shape, to know: “I am here.” She describes her feelings as being like caged animals and believes he can teach her something about artistic and (possibly) sexual freedom. When she hears he wants to “destroy” her, she wonders whether his “violence” might end her “lifelong pain” that has not been healed by psychoanalysis or conjugal love.
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But far from entering an abundant, imaginative new world, M finds that her new guest and his glamorous companion trap her in a role of domestic servitude. The presence of her grown-up daughter complicates the dynamic. Brett encourages Justine to experiment with her power as a young woman, while L indulges Kurt’s naive dreams of becoming a writer. Meanwhile, a backdrop of Covid-esque “global pandemonium” makes ideas around proximity, freedom and self-will more urgent. How much can a person’s will override the natural course of things? And how much will should a person exert?
The template for much of this story comes from Lorenzo in Taos (1932), a rather bizarre memoir by the American arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan about the time that she “willed” DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda to come and stay at the art colony that she and her Native American husband, Tony, ran in Taos, New Mexico. Dodge addressed her memoir to the poet Robinson Jeffers, and writes of how she summoned Lawrence to come by channelling a “plangent force lying passive” within her.
Cusk adopts a tone of breathless melodrama and frequent exclamation marks (“I have known enough artists to understand that I’m not one of them!”), which is highly reminiscent of Dodge’s writing. She blends this with details from her own life: the location is strikingly similar to Cusk’s Norfolk eco-house overlooking the North Sea. But M’s husband Tony is very much based on Dodge’s, a gruff, gentle giant who has always lived on the land. Cusk casts aside Lawrence’s wife, Frieda, and instead reworks the character of Dorothy Brett, a young English aristocrat and painter who travelled out to Taos hoping to help him build a utopian society out in the desert.
Lawrence is one of Cusk’s literary heroes and in many ways Second Place feels like a tribute to him, with its profound interest in selfhood, self-will, ecstasy and dissolution, as well as what Cusk describes in an essay on The Rainbow as “the sanctity of the body’s wants”. L’s pledge to break M’s will is an echo of what Lawrence apparently wished to do to Dodge, whose “wilful female principle” she claimed he hated and feared.
But L is not just Lawrence. He is also moulded from one of Cusk’s favourite painters, the German-born Lovis Corinth (1858-1925), whose childhood surrounded by animal carcasses and midlife health problems have been incorporated into L’s story. In 2019 Cusk delivered a lecture about Corinth, in which you can detect the themes of Second Place taking root, including one of its most distinctive questions: “Does catastrophe have the power to free us?” Here, destruction and rebirth are inextricably linked, though perhaps not in the way we might predict. When L does eventually agree to paint M, his condition is that she cast aside her shapeless clothes and wear something close fitting. We are left wondering whether M will always be dependent on others to give her shape. Do you try to find a form, an outline, or does true freedom mean allowing yourself to dissolve?
This tension between self-will and passivity became the animating force of the “Outline” trilogy. In Second Place, the theme is addressed more explicitly. Tony tells M she has more power than she knows and in fact would prefer it if she would practise more “mental passivity”. But her intensity of feeling suggests that Cusk is pushing back at her own construct of the invisible female protagonist – which in itself was always a slightly stagey contrivance. Another contrivance is the withholding of key information about her narrators. We only learn that M has had a writing career after 119 pages of confession. She blames this on L’s “refusal to grant my existence”. But why couldn’t M disclose this information, given she is telling her own story?
And yet despite these evasions, Second Place feels more exposing than anything Cusk has written in recent years. It is unsparing in its account of the shame and ugliness M feels as an ageing woman. “You can’t just blot me out, because it makes you feel sick to see me,” she sobs to L. It’s in dramatic scenes like this that we spy the creeping return of plot, suspense, character – all of which Cusk claimed to have jettisoned.
With its unity of time, place and theme, Second Place has the feel of a well-made play, or a classic country-house novel, in which a group dynamic is disrupted by a mysterious stranger. Relationships are tested. Characters experience emotional and sexual awakenings. Tensions reach boiling point.
But ultimately, the power of Cusk’s novel lies in the fullness and intensity of M’s confession as she tries to navigate late middle age with all its thwarted hopes and humiliations. Having first encountered L’s work at a point of crisis, she is now inviting the same agent of change into her life, only this time in the flesh. She sees his devilish desire to turn her into a figure of fun or pity, but she takes the risk anyway and there’s something brilliant and hopeful in this defiance.
“Shock is sometimes necessary,” she says, “for without it we would drift into entropy.”
Faber & Faber, 224pp, £14.99
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This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?