By Jake Regan
Second Place centres around a visit to the narrator’s house by an eccentric artist and his young companion. The guests proceed to wreak emotional havoc and domestic turmoil upon the long-suffering protagonist and her unwitting family, crossing all sorts of interpersonal boundaries, testing marriages, and essentially making everyone around them miserable for the sake of the “greater good”: producing art. While reading this novel, I found myself thinking of other instances, in both history and fiction, of artists – particularly writers – being dreadful houseguests, and I wondered whether this was an acknowledged phenomenon. Do artists make for such difficult company because of or in spite of their creative instinct?
In September 1922, D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, arrived in Taos, New Mexico at the behest of Mabel Dodge Luhan, a prominent socialite who had moved to the remote area several years earlier. Luhan, a devotee of Lawrence’s writing, wished dearly for a literary representation of Taos by her favourite author (Silverblatt). The Lawrences stayed as guests in Luhan’s mansion, “Mabeltown”, and spent the next few months exploring, participating in local Hopi ceremonies, and socialising with Mabel and her husband Tony.
Regrettably, the visit was not at all what Luhan had wistfully imagined before her guests had arrived. Her dreams of a D.H Lawrence novel about Taos were quickly dashed when Frieda, suspicious and jealous of Mabel’s affection for her husband, banned Lawrence from working on the project with her (Panovka). Lawrence himself turned out to be a rude and conceited nightmare of a houseguest, frequently ridiculing Mabel for staying in bed too late, instructing her to scrub her floors and bake bread, even going so far as to suggest she dress differently. Tony, a Native American, found himself under regular and intense scrutiny from Frieda, who was scandalised by his and Mabel’s mixed-race relationship (Panovka). Luhan eventually wrote a memoir about the encounter called Lorenzo in Taos.
Houseguests make the worst company. It’s often impossible to find common ground at first. Something to talk about before the first glass of wine takes effect and a semblance of casual conversation ensues.
Rachel Cusk’s Second Place is a beautiful, contemplative, pastoral novel in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, whose rural setting informs the self-reflection and existential ponderings of our protagonist – an unnamed middle-aged woman modelled fairly transparently on Mabel Dodge Luhan. In fact, Second Place is entirely based upon Luhan’s memoir, albeit with some crucial changes of detail. Firstly, it is set in the moors of the English countryside, as opposed to the deserts of New Mexico. The Lawrence character (referred to only as “L”) is a painter, not a writer, and has brought with him a younger, unaffiliated guest named Brett, whereas Lawrence had brought his wife.
The dissimilarities end here, however. In the dedication at the back of the book, Cusk writes, “Second Place owes a debt to Lorenzo in Taos… My version – in which the Lawrence figure is a painter – is intended as a tribute to [Luhan’s] spirit.” The novel, then, could be read as a re-writing of Luhan’s narrative: an attempt, perhaps, to interrogate Lawrence’s character, and to expose a tendency in artists to justify their appalling behaviour with good art. Cusk portrays L as an arrogant genius who acts as a constantly disruptive force, upending the delicate harmony forged by the narrator’s family. Our narrator is so enthralled by L’s mystique and work that she often overlooks his various transgressions – similar in nature to those of Lawrence towards Luhan – and allows herself to fall under his spell. She is thus stripped of her agency and begins to lose her sense of individuality, noting at one point that “[L]’s refusal to know anything about me had felt like a refusal to grant my existence” (Cusk 119). This sentiment echoes throughout the second half of the novel as Cusk wonderfully demonstrates how L, and by extension every self-aggrandising artist, feeds on the insecurity and subordination of his admirers for personal validation. As the narrator’s character diminishes, L’s prospers. Lawrence once said that he wished to “destroy” Mabel Luhan (Luhan 215). L says the same thing in Second Place (139).
Admittedly, it can be pretty fun for a while.
In March 1857, beloved Danish author Hans Christian Andersen announced that he was coming to visit Charles Dickens in London. After a gruelling five weeks of hosting, Dickens lost his patience, writing to another acquaintance that “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!” (Thorpe). Andersen had, variously, asked to be shaved every morning by one of Dickens’s sons, thrown a tantrum involving flailing on the lawn when he received a negative book review, and made a fuss any time he felt he was not the centre of attention (Philippas). When he finally left, the two authors promptly lost touch.
But then, inevitably, the conversation takes an uncomfortable turn. Or you start feeling tired and your table-mate shows no signs of hitting the road imminently, despite multiple facial and verbal cues (yawns, nods, polite “hmm”s).
Early in the novel, we are blissfully drawn into an indeterminately old-fashioned, rustic environment, gesturing to a bygone era. It is free of modern technology and interested instead in a slow, meditative pace of life, with a tone that occasionally verges on transcendental in its reverence for mindfulness: “If we treated each moment as though it were a permanent condition, a place where we might find ourselves compelled to remain forever, how differently most of us would choose the things that moment contains!” (176).
Yet ultimately, insofar as the novel is spiritual, it is a Biblical backdrop upon which the action unfolds. The predominant allusion throughout the narrative is to the Garden of Eden: our narrator and Tony have created a paradise for themselves, only to find their inner and domestic peace shattered by an intruder who appears, at times, to be nothing more than a manifestation of temptation. The reference is made explicit in an episode that depicts L and Brett painting a grotesque scene on the walls of their guesthouse: Adam and Eve tormented by the serpent (161).
You start to question why your life is like this.
In Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery, Paul Sheldon, a popular crime author, gets into a car crash and is rescued serendipitously by Annie Wilkes, a fanatic reader of his books. Instead of taking him to the hospital, she brings him to her home, where she traps him and forces him to write a new novel for her. She also chops his foot off with an axe. Of course, it is the host, not the writer, who radically transgresses here, but perhaps this is an indication that discretion is also advised to authors who find themselves considering entering their readers’ homes.
The weird thing is, after you say goodbye and find yourself in glorious solitude again, you’re immediately struck with a bout of amnesia that makes you forget every single thing you despise about hosting, and you invite another guest over on Thursday.
Cusk’s treatment of the plotline as a grand, Miltonian catastrophe, although powerful, is undermined by the book’s top-heavy structure. About 80% of the plot happens within the last 20% of the novel, and although plot is by no means the metric by which this book should be judged, as readers we are asked to rapidly readjust our relationship to the text, shifting from slow, pastoral writing, to what feels like a period social drama: more akin to a D.H. Lawrence novel, perhaps, than to Luhan’s memoir. This gear shift towards the “third act” is not necessarily a bad thing; after all, some plot development is a welcome surprise following roughly 150 pages of introspective musing in bucolic settings. The problem, as I see it, is that the escalation towards the end of the book tries, in a way, to tell a different story, leaving us with the impression that something unclear has changed within this pivotal sequence. We know what has changed in a literal sense: the breakdown of the family structure, L’s deteriorating health, and our narrator’s mental stability. But we are not given much of an insight into what has brought this shift about, besides L’s mere presence. The clearest way I can trace this ill-defined shift is in terms of a scale that leads from love to disgust. The first half of the book is replete with lyrical descriptions of scenery and people as seen through a lens of love:
The sky was like a blue sail overhead and the waves crashed on the shore below and the water had that coruscation of the surface that is the surest omen of summer. How fortunate we felt to be there together, Tony and I – the debt of our isolation is paid back in an instant by times such as these. (44)
As time passes, however, the descriptive passages become tainted with a dismaying melancholy: “I sat and looked out of the window at the falling water without speaking or moving at all . . . How sad the rain was, falling after all these weeks of warmth and sun.” (163); the tone occasionally veers all the way into revulsion: “I didn’t quite like being touched by him. It made the question of disgust, which I had tried to stamp down, rise up again, except that this time it felt as though it was I who was disgusted by him” (150). Cusk’s writing here is potent in its ability to evoke an increasingly visceral response as the narrative unfolds, reflecting the deterioration of the previously established harmony. However, the stakes are heightened to such an extent towards the climactic sequence that the novel is in danger of going too far and taking the reader entirely out of the otherwise expertly crafted world.
Another thing: we don’t hold ourselves to anything near the standards we expect of others when we visit their homes. Why is that?
Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 film, Mother! makes possibly the most convincing argument against houseguests yet (it is also a fitting companion-piece to Second Place). Jennifer Lawrence, playing a thinly veiled metaphor for Mother Earth, marries Javier Bardem, a poet/God. They live in bliss for a while, until an unannounced guest appears, soon followed by his wife, their two sons, and very quickly afterwards pretty much all of humanity (it’s a Biblical allegory, you see, Aronofsky all but winks at us). Their house gets destroyed, ravaged by plights including a condensed World War and the accidental “sacrifice” of their new-born baby. Although kind of dramatic, the equation of unwanted houseguests with the destruction of the entire planet by humans is not wholly unwarranted.
We just live in denial, I guess.
Overall, Second Place is a unique departure for Cusk. Retellings of stories are constricted by their source material, especially in the case of nonfiction. Often, the relationship between original text and retelling are tenuous, as with Ulysses and The Odyssey, or the film 10 Things I Hate About You and its inspiration, The Taming of the Shrew. In other cases, retellings take the tack of merely updating or modernising old stories, such as the bizarre “re-imagining” of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey in 2014 by Val McDermid. Cusk, on the other hand, manages to honour Mabel Luhan’s memoir without making any ambitious Tarantino-esque attempts at re-writing history, or using familiar tropes like mythology – Biblical allusions aside – as a crutch to write an original story. Instead, Second Place creates its own distinct space, carefully toeing the line between fiction and biography, imagination and fact. It raises questions about artistry, and the abuse of power that accompanies it; domestic environments and the importance of preserving them; and the fragility of familial units. It shows us the ways in which retelling a story is similar to being a houseguest, by taking up residence in a previously inhabited framework, for better or for worse.
In many ways, authors are the perfect houseguests, provided they stay within the confines of their books. I myself have hosted hundreds of writers on my shelves over the years and have never once had a problem. The moment Johnathan Franzen gets on my nerves, for example, I can happily snap my book shut and wander off to do something else.
Jake Regan recently compiled and edited an anthology of Irish short fiction called The Globe and Scales for Marrowbone Press, where he also worked as a copyeditor on several forthcoming novels. He has also been published in This is Not Where I Belong and Hunt and Gather.
- Aronofsky, Darren, director. Mother! Paramount, 2017.
- Cusk, Rachel. Second Place. Faber & Faber, 2021.
- King, Stephen. Misery. Hodder & Stoughton, 2007.
- Luhan, Mabel Dodge. Lorenzo in Taos. Martin Secker, 1933.
- Panovka, Rebecca. “The Strange Revival of Mabel Dodge Luhan.” New Yorker, 2 June 2021,
https://www.newyorker.com/books/underreview/the-strange-revival-of-mabel-dodgeluhan. Accessed 10 October 2021.
- Philippas, Anne. “Hans Christian Andersen: The Eccentric Guest.” Charles Dickens Museum,
https://dickensmuseum.com/blogs/charlesdickens-museum/hans-christian-andersenthe-eccentric-guest. Accessed 12 October 2021.
- Silverblatt, Michael. “Rachel Cusk: Second Place.” Bookworm from KCRW, 6 May 2021, https://
http://www.kcrw.com/culture/shows/bookworm/rachel-cusk-second-place. Accessed 8 October 2021.
- Thorpe, Vanessa. “How guest Hans Christian Andersen destroyed his friendship with Dickens.”
The Guardian, 10 September 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/10/
charles-dickens-hans-christian-andersenletters-correspondence-auction. Accessed 12