Intuitive ploys in fiction can be a tricky business. If they work, there’s often no real telling why they do. If they don’t work for you, it feels only fair to admit they might work for someone else.
The strange ploys that British novelist Rachel Cusk used in her “Outline” trilogy worked with a vengeance, to my mind, as her self-effacing narrator — like a Scheherazade in reverse — elicited startling, intimate tales from people she encountered on her travels and in her day-to-day routines … to whom she revealed next to nothing about herself.
The opening salvos in Cusk’s new novel, “Second Place,” by contrast, set up expectations the book doesn’t quite meet — at least for this reader. Others might have no problem with it at all.
On its first page, the female narrator — identified only as “M” — recalls a time years ago when she “met the devil on a train leaving Paris.” The result, she says, was that “the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part of life.”
The person she’s telling this to, and to whom she relates all the later events in the novel, is a certain “Jeffers.” While she repeatedly evokes the name, she never offers detail on Jeffers’ role in her life. Nor does the devil, with its “bloodshot bile-coloured eyes,” make another appearance.
Instead, a dense, coiling tale ensues concerning M’s invitation to a renowned artist — referred to simply as “L” — to come occupy the “second place” (i.e., guest cottage) that M and her husband have at their disposal at their country retreat. M’s idea is that L will use it as his studio over the winter. She hopes he’ll become as smitten with the surrounding landscape as she is. She even dreams of a meeting of minds with him — or maybe more. But L, while accepting her offer, is a stubbornly aloof guest.
The invitation to L comes against a backdrop of catastrophic events that M describes as “familiar to everyone … so I needn’t go over them, except to say that we felt their impact far less than most people did.” In keeping with Cusk’s strategy of withholding as much information as possible, we learn next to nothing about these events.
What, one wonders, is Cusk up to?
It helps to turn to her explanatory endnote, which really ought to preface the novel. In it, she reveals that “Second Place” takes close inspiration from arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir, “Lorenzo in Taos,” recounting the time Luhan hosted author D.H. Lawrence in New Mexico. “Second Place,” Cusk says, is intended as a tribute to Luhan’s spirit. A little Googling reveals that Luhan had her own “Jeffers” — American poet Robinson Jeffers — to whom she addressed her memoir.
M’s hope in luring L into her isolated world is that it will trigger new paintings by him. But M’s husband Tony (Luhan’s husband was also a Tony) thinks her scheme may end in disappointment.
“Tony refuses to see anything as a game,” M confides to Jeffers, “and by being that way he reveals how much other people play games and how their whole conception of life derives from the subjectivity of the game-playing state.”
“Second Place” itself is filled with ruses as its players seek to affirm or destroy one another’s agendas. These can sometimes be hilarious — for instance, when one character, abruptly deciding he wants to be a writer, thinks the first step is to don the right outfit. “As a choice of costume for his new career,” M drolly remarks, “Kurt decided on a long black velvet housecoat, a red tam-o’-shanter jammed far back on his head, and to top it off, rope-soled espadrilles on his bare feet.”
M is similarly wry about herself: “I’m not the kind of woman who intuitively understands or sympathises with other women, probably because I don’t understand or sympathise all that much with myself.”
Men, seen by M as the stronger sex, come in for equally skeptical commentary: “Some of them admit their strength and use it to the good, and some of them are able to make their will to power seem attractive, and some of them resort to deception and connivance to manage a selfishness of which they are themselves somewhat frightened.”
With her oddly high-minded yet self-sabotaging stalking of L, M can’t hope to come out ahead. (“[S]econd place,” she quips, “pretty much summed up how I felt about myself and my life.”) But Cusk has fun with her. The result is a beguiling, sidewinding meditation on “the possibility of dissolution of identity itself, of release, with all of its cosmic, ungraspable meanings.” That’s no small deal.
Still, the anecdote about meeting the devil on the train from Paris feels like unfinished business.