On Beauty and Madness

We have been conditioned to always aim for the first place. First place entails the very zenith of success. When you are first, everyone looks up to you. Being on top is viewed, marketed, and sold as the ultimate goal in life. It was an idea that was inculcated into our system at a young age. There is too much emphasis placed on excelling very well and reaching the first place that unnecessary pressure forms on us. Because of this pressure, we slowly frowned upon the idea of landing second place. For us, second place is no good. Second place means someone is better than us. There is no alternative for us but to strive for the first place. But is being second place necessarily a bad idea?

In her latest novel, Second Place, Rachel Cusk explored the different meanings of second place. At the heart of the novel is M, the novel’s main protagonist, and primary narrator. M is happily married to Tony, a man of profound kindness who loves the outdoors and had very few complications about him. They were living comfortably on a marshland property on the coast of England where Tony was raised by his adoptive family. However, to reach the level of comfort she attained, M had to go through the battlefield. Fifteen years before the novel’s present day, she was on the verge of a meltdown. Her marital life with her first husband was not going well. She was unhappy, a “young mother on the brink of rebellion.”

“He thought I should take pride in what I had survived and what I had achieved, and go around like a sort of queen bee, but meanwhile I had come to view the world as far too dangerous a place in which to stop and congratulate myself. The truth was I had always assumed that pleasure was being held in store for me, like something I was amassing in a bank account, but by the time I came to ask for it I discovered the store was empty. It appeared that it was a perishable entity, and that I should have taken it a little earlier.”

~ Rachel Cusk, Second Place

It was during this turbulent phase of her life that M first came across the paintings of L while browsing through a Parisian gallery. Prior to this encounter, she never heard of L but his paintings immediately absorbed her. In his paintings, she saw a sense of herself. L’s landscapes evoked a strong sense of freedom that inspired M to muster the courage to firmly take a grip on her own destiny. Unfortunately, her choice came at a steep price. After divorcing and leaving her disapproving husband, she lost her home, money, and even her friends. She reached the tipping point when she lost custody of her daughter, Justine, who was just four years old then. It took time but she was able to reverse the odds life has dealt her.

She managed to arrest the skid and start the long climb back to the top. In time, she reached the zenith but the passage of time did not dim the strong emotions she felt on that fateful encounter fifteen years ago. Her memories of her first encounter with L’s paintings still occupy her mind. She has eventually established herself as a patron of the arts. She extended invitations to writers, musicians, and painters to have full use of the family estate’s guest cottage in the woods. One of the artists she was keen on inviting was L. It certainly wasn’t a breeze having him visit their property. Several false starts later, L was finally able to arrange a visit. To M’s surprise, L was accompanied by Brett, a younger woman; she was reluctantly welcomed by M.

The titular Second Place took on a physical shape as it pertains to the guest house in the wooded part of the vast estate where L stayed. It was also where the majority of the novel’s actions took place. What transpired was an eventually dramatic monologue addressed to a man named Jeffers. Jeffers was repeatedly mentioned but he was largely an ambiguous presence whose role in the narrative or his provenance, along with that of Brett, was never defined by Cusk. “Do you understand it, Jeffers? I have wanted to be free my whole life but haven’t managed to liberate my smallest toe.”

In the story of M, we read of a woman in the midst of a proverbial midlife malaise. In the process, she was reckoning with herself, not for the first time. This provided a layer of existentialist philosophy to the story, with the narrator seeking freedom, and a level of self-understanding despite seemingly having everything that life can offer. This renewed vigor for understanding herself and the pursuit of domestic happiness was both anchored on the looming presence of L. Interestingly when M invited L, she was unsure of what to expect from or what to do with her visitor. But upon the arrival of her visitor, M started examining her relationship with Tony: “I feared, suddenly that my belief in the life I was living wouldn’t hold, and that all I’d built up would collapse underneath me and I’d be unhappy again.” L, an artist, was the antithesis of Tony who did not share his wife and her visitor’s passion for the arts. Rather than art, Tony believed

“There’s a certain point in life at which you realise it’s no longer interesting that time goes forward – or rather, that its forward-going-ness has been the central plank of life’s illusion, and that while you were waiting to see what was going to happen next, you were steadily being robbed of all you had. Language is the only thing capable of stopping the flow of time, because it exists in time, is made of time, yet it is eternal – or can be.”

~ Rachel Cusk, Second Place

The crux of the story dealt with M’s fraught relationship with L whose unexpectedly magnetic but disruptive presence had adversely affected his hostess and her husband Tony. L was exhibiting misanthropic tendencies. The beauty and comfort she sought in him and his works was replaced by the realization that her visitor was dismissive of her and her appeals to him. This situation slowly percolated into a gripping battle of wills between the hostess and her visitor. L gave her a chilly reception but, at times, it seemed as though he wanted to destroy her. It was not the idea of liberty that she had in her mind. Addressed again to Jeffers, she asked “Does catastrophe have the power to free us, Jeffers?”

In her personal pursuit, M was slowly finding herself being pushed down to second place on her own turf. No matter how hard she tried, she was unable to make a crack at his icy exterior; it was all for naught. L, dismissive as ever of her advances, even had the gall to sneer at her book collection: “I can’t imagine your little books make all that much.” At one point, he even insultingly confronted her vis-à-vis her unusual fixation on him. He kept pushing her back. This constant rejection she kept receiving from a person she looked up to made her start questioning herself. It also made her second guess and see the things she thought she understood through a different lens. His actions were eroding her notions of happiness, beauty, freedom, and of the arts.

It was not the freedom or the happiness she was hoping for. The beauty that made her feel alive, that at one time awakened her spirit was also the one that spelled doom for her. She again found herself further dropped to second place with the unexpected arrival of Justine who also brought along with her another uninvited guest, her spoiled boyfriend Kurt. Their presence further amped the tension that has permeated the air, further compounding the complicated dynamics currently at play at the estate. M was hoping to have L paint her portrait, which never materialized. On the contrary, it was to Justine that L offered the privilege of being painted by his dexterous hands, a request to which Justine readily agreed.

Before L’s visit, M was ecstatic and his impending arrival breathed new life into her. However, what ensued was a total reversal of the image M had in her mind when she extended an invitation to an artist she admired. It wasn’t long after his arrival that it started spinning into a nightmare, one that had the host too invested. This, in turn, made her probe deeper into herself. His antagonism made her see the other side of the beauty she was yearning for. It was coming to a full circle of some sorts for M. While art can have the power to astonish and to make one feel alive, art also has the capacity to unmake the beauty it has built. But all was not lost. In the midst of the brouhaha instigated by L, the novel captured the wonders of sacrifice and the joys of motherhood.

“There is no limit to what certain people will do to you if you offend them or take away what they want, and the fact that at one time you liked or chose to be among those people is one of the central mysteries and tragedies of life. Yet it is only a reflection, I said, of the very conditions and substances out of which your humanity is made – it is the attempt by selfishness and dishonesty to reproduce themselves in you and to continue to flourish in the world. You might as well go mad, I said, as try to resist that attempt.”

~ Rachel Cusk, Second Place

The anti-social behaviors of artists, writers included, have long been documented through stories, both fiction and nonfiction. The novel was predicated on a real-life story, as Cusk credited in her author’s notes. Published in 1932, Lorenzo in Taos was a memoir by Mabel Dodge Luhan. Sher recounted the time she invited popular but reclusive writer D.H. Lawrence to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico. With Cusk’s astute and careful literary maneuvers, she was able to shed new light on the age-old story. Her prose and her storytelling made the story flourish, the result a rich tapestry. The plot was thin but Cusk made up for it with her graceful and fluent philosophical intersections. All of the short novel’s wonderful elements were carefully woven together by Cusk’s writing.

While it had its blunders, Second Place was a brief but thought-provoking exploration of a plethora of subjects, with art as its central theme. Art is an interesting entity. We can lose ourselves in it, in its beauty. But beyond beauty lies chaos and should we let it drown us, art can destroy it. But the novel does not reduce itself to a mere exploration of the arts. In the story of M, we see the portrait of a woman who seemingly has it all but found herself grappling with the inevitable realities of a midlife malaise. It was absorbing reading her explore the definitions of motherhood and of domestic happiness. Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Second Place was a ruminative literary piece that consolidated Cusk’s status as one of today’s most interesting and powerful storytellers.

“I said to him that ‘second place’ pretty much summed up how I felt about myself and my life – that it had been a near miss, requiring just as much effort as victory but with that victory always and forever somehow denied me, by a force that I could only describe as the force of pre-eminence. I could never win, and the reason I couldn’t seemed to lie within certain infallible laws of destiny that I was powerless – as the woman I was – to overcome.”

~ Rachel Cusk, Second Place
Ratings

72%

Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 
18%
Writing (25%) – 
19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

Had it not been for the Booker Prize, I would have not heard of Rachel Cusk nor would I encounter any of her works. When the Booker Prize released its 2021 longlist, Second Place was one of the books that immediately caught my attention; there is just that undefinable, perhaps even inexplicable, connection that is immediately established despite the lack of any prior knowledge. The book seduced my literary sensibilities by just being shrouded in enigma and besides, I am always up for a new adventure. Thankfully, Second Place lived up to my expectation; it was the eleventh book from the 13-book longlist that I read. I do admit, however, that I struggled at the start. It all felt new to me but I soon found myself warming up to Cusk’s prose. With this, the story started to unravel and I started losing myself within its premises. I was lost in the drama and the narrator’s voice. Despite being a little too short, the book held so much promise that I want to explore more of Cusk’s corpus. The Outline trilogy sounds like an interesting and thought-provoking piece.

Book Specs

Author: Rachel Cusk
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 180
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

A woman invites a famous artist to use her guesthouse in the remote coastal landscape where she lives with her family. Powerfully drawn to his paintings, she believes his vision might penetrate the mystery at the center of her life. But as a long, dry summer sets in, his provocative presence itself becomes an enigma – and disrupts the calm of her secluded household.

Second Place, Rachel Cusk’s electrifying new novel, is a study of female fate and male privilege, the geometries of human relationships, and the moral questions that animate our lives. It reminds us of art’s capacity to uplift – and to destroy.

About the Author

Rachel Cusk was born on February 8, 1967, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada to parents of British origin. She was the second of four children. She spent some of her childhood years in Los Angeles before the family returned to England in 1974, settling in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. She completed her early education at St. Mary’s Convent in Cambridge and studied English at New College, Oxford.

In 1993, Cusk made her literary debut with the publication of her first novel, Saving Agnes. It was an instant critical success that earned her the Whitbread First Novel Award. She followed it up with The Temporary (1995), and The Country Life (1997). The new millennium ushered in more success for Cusk, especially following the release of the Outline in 2014. The book was shortlisted for different literary awards such as the Folio Prize, the Goldsmiths Prize, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. It was also included by The New York Times in its Top 5 novels of 2015. The novel kickstarted what would eventually be known as the Outline Trilogy, with Transit (2017) and Kudos (2018). Her latest novel, Second Place (2021) was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. She has also published an essay collection and two autobiographical accounts of motherhood and divorce: A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (2001) and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation.

Apart from her literary endeavors, Cusk was a professor of creative writing at Kingston University. In 2003, Cusk was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 Best of Young British Novelists. She currently resides in Paris with her husband and her two daughters.