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Second Place by Rachel Cusk review – psychodrama in the shape of a social comedy

Cusk’s puzzling reworking of a 1932 memoir by an American bohemian suggests she’s in creative limbo

Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy essentially took the form of a string of monologues heard by a silhouetted but recognisably Cusk-like narrator as she teaches writing, renovates her flat and embarks on a book tour. As well as a way to shrug off the obligations of plot and scene-setting, the structure was a smart response to the hostility that greeted Cusk’s 2012 divorce memoir, Aftermath; if you want me to shut up, she seemed to say, then so be it.

The result was sophisticated and stimulating but also highly mannered, with the polyvocal conceit increasingly at odds with Cusk’s cool monotone. By the third part, Kudos, with its never-ending parade of self-absorbed ignoramuses, the narrative engine felt pretty nakedly rigged for the purposes of marrying her trademark philosophical reflection with her other calling card – the kind of poison-pen portraiture for which she has had a reputation at least since 2009’s The Last Supper, her disputed memoir of a summer among English expats in Tuscany.

So what now? Brexit apparently encouraged Cusk to quit England for Paris, only for coronavirus to stall the move; her new novel suggests she’s in limbo creatively, too. Second Place is the first-person testimony of another Cusk-like writer, M, who invites a celebrated painter, L, to stay in the annex of her marshland home. Craving his attention while her husband installs irrigation for the garden, she’s more than a little touchy when L arrives with Brett, an aggravatingly multi-talented heiress who further rubs M up the wrong way when her style tips are gratefully accepted by M’s 21-year-old daughter, Justine, formerly impervious to her mother’s advice.

So begins an intimate psychodrama in the shape of a social comedy about the hazards of hospitality, as L’s studiedly aloof manner fuels M’s horror of her “small and suburban” middle-aged obsolescence. Cusk’s sans-serif Optima typeface, now as much a part of her brand as high-pressure deliberation on gender and selfhood, adds to an indefinable sense of threat, with the novel’s diction caught between the lecture hall and the analyst’s couch. “So much of power lies in the ability to see how willing other people are to give it to you,” M says; when her annex gets trashed, she’s “shocked, and shock is sometimes necessary, for without it we would drift into entropy”.

As a tale of midlife malaise, Second Place glints with many of Cusk’s typically frosty pleasures

Continue reading...


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