It Is Either This or That – Rachel Cusk’s ‘Second Place’

 by Laurynas Petrauskas

The term “second place” presupposes a multitude of places, the amount of them being any whole number. Second place implies that somewhere out there exists a first place. Second place evokes inevitable comparisons and juxtapositions. Second place is either a win or a loss; after all, the first place is always already the best option. Think of any invention, of the Mars Race (or the Space Race in the 20th century), and of the ways in which symbolic immortality and commemoration is given to the first. Think of almost any sport. Think of such notions as “the First Lady”. In another way, think of the Booker Prize longlist as being the second place and, consequently, the shortlist as the first. Competition rules the world. Comparisons and juxtapositions aid it.

Rachel Cusk’s most recent book, Second Place, was “only” longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, but it is my bet that Cusk is not disappointed. To her, one can assume, the notion of second place does not mean something necessarily negative, something that supposes a sense of inferiority per se. Cusk’s “second place”, deem it a physical or mental place, indicates that any second place can indeed be as equally comfortable as the first, whether initial or better, place. 

Cusk is a British-Canadian author and a frequent nominee for various literary prizes, often praised for her unconventional way of writing. Her previous novels, the Outline trilogy in particular, offer a transgression, “a new breakthrough in the novel form, or at least an imaginative contemporary reckoning”, according to Andrew Schenker’s review for The Los Angeles Review of Books. Schenker also claims that Rachel Cusk is “one of the last great novelists of contemporary life.” Bold, but not wrong. The contemporary world is a monument to polarity, and Cusk’s Second Place seems to align with it as it attempts to juxtapose almost everything: urban with rural, art with reality, men with women, feminism with misogyny, extreme opinions with indifference, and so on.

Second Place is a monologue-like, first-person narrated novel in which M tells her story to Jeffers, an unknown character for the reader. M begins her story by sharing a memory from the time in Paris when she “met the devil . . . and about how after that meeting the evil that usually lies undisturbed beneath the surface of things rose up and disgorged itself over every part” (1) of her life. While wandering the streets of Paris after a night out with a male writer, M encounters a sign, an image of one of the paintings that are exhibited in a gallery nearby and are produced by L – later introduced as an obnoxious artist and snob who is not even slightly bothered by his own overt misogyny. To her, L’s works appear immensely relatable and signify a very much needed sense of freedom at the time, as she has just divorced her husband and lost custody of her daughter.

While reflecting on L’s painting, the narrator writes: “But my point is that there’s something that paintings and other created objects can do to give you some relief. They give you a location, a place to be” (13). This insight of M quite literally brings us to “a place to be”. Around fifteen years later, M is seemingly joyful – she is married to Tony, a composed man who “doesn’t comment and . . . doesn’t criticise and this puts him in an ocean of silence compared to most people” (22). Together they live in a so-called “second place,” on a remote marsh where M invites different artists to their guest house in order for them to pursue their artistry and, presumably, get inspired by nature. After many months of correspondence, M manages to invite L to the second place, and so the frustration begins.

Right from the moment L arrives, one is immediately struck with Cusk’s ability to represent (and produce) discomfort. The awkward scene of L’s arrival, and his unexpected accompaniment by his younger female friend Brett, exposes M’s inner turmoil and offers us one of the first juxtapositions. After having been picked up from the harbour and commuting to the second place, Brett comments on M’s hair and says the following: “I can colour your hair for you to hide the grey, you know. I know how to do it so that no one would ever guess . . . it’s really quite dry” (55-56). One will agree that it is somewhat odd to offer this kind of unsolicited opinion and a wish to help as one of the first instances for a conversation. However, Cusk’s deliberate juxtaposition of this young and confident lady with M and her insecurities allows us a glimpse of M’s state of mind. M writes to Jeffers:

I have mentioned, Jeffers, my relationship to commentary and criticism and the feeling of invisibility I very often had, now that I lived a life in which I was rarely commented on. I suppose I might have developed an oversensitivity or allergy to commentary as a result – whatever the reason, I could barely stop myself from screaming and lashing out at the feeling of this woman’s fingers in my hair! (56)

What does this suggest? Through M’s reflection on her relationship with the past we get to know that she is afraid of criticism. She is afraid of being at the centre of attention and would rather enjoy the feeling of invisibility. One is able to assume that the second place, being either physical or mental, paved her way to the current state of life where she is barely commented on and is therefore happy. It also suggests that the second place altogether with the company of Tony fulfils her strong desire to be in the periphery, yet L and Brett’s arrival makes M realise that this periphery is not intact anymore. In the case of Brett, it is her confidence that evokes M’s lack of it.

It is also through M’s juxtaposition with L that Cusk manages to open up another dimension in the novel. In the beginning of the book, M tells Jeffers that she met the devil in Paris. Halfway through the narrative that devil appears to be her guest. It is no surprise that while reading M’s interactions with L, one could sense that L’s persona is somewhat reminiscent of Professor Wolland’s – a spiteful and malevolent creature in Michail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Although he does not own a cat like Wolland does, in one of the scenes he behaves as if he was one himself. We read about L’s sudden wild and even devilish behaviour through M’s focalisation, when by the end of their conversation L “suddenly spring[s] to his feet and to my very great surprise leap[s] onto the tabletop like a cat!” (120).

Like L’s sudden leap, Second Place as a whole is an extremely provocative piece of writing. It invites its readers to argue and reflect. It captivates. One will not be able to skim through the novel, as almost every single conversation that L contributes to leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. In the beginning of the scene described above, M brings a parcel which has just arrived for L and sits down for a chat. During the conversation, she senses “that he could burst out at any minute in some violent physical act – a feeling of impulses under continual restraint” (105). Through her reflections we get to know that L also makes her feel inferior. She says: “Yes, he was an attractive man, though somehow illegible to me: he emanated a kind of physical neutrality that I took personally and interpreted as a sign that he did not consider me to be truly a woman” (106). This quote sheds light on two intertwined aspects. The first one feeds into the notion of M’s insecurity, which stands as one of the most prominent themes in the novel. The other one deals with L’s explicit misogyny and sexism. Unfortunately, his toxic masculinity operates on various levels.

One could argue that M interprets L’s behaviour in such a way that it makes her feel inferior. But as we follow the narrative, we get to know that in fact she is not wrong. That is, at some point L is not bothered to ask her: “Why do you play at being a woman?” (118). Such a remark, I am certain, will throw anyone off. When M responds to him that she is not sure how to be a woman, as no one has ever taught her how to be one, he says: “It isn’t a question of showing . . . It’s a question of being permitted.” (118). Permitted? By whom? By a white cis male full of hatred towards women? This is audacity that makes one irritated – and it is the writer’s skill to provoke.

But it does not end there. When asked who pays for the house, M answers: “The house and the land belong to Tony. I have some money of my own,” to which L mockingly responds that he can’t imagine her “little books make all that much” (119). These words come from a male artist on the brink of total bankruptcy. Having been on top of the arts scene, L allows himself to criticise M’s books in a mocking manner. One could argue that he is in the position to do so as he has been part of the cultural elite but let me disappoint you here: He is merely an obnoxious misogynist, and the example above portrays that quite well. 

The beautifully composed Second Place is much more than juxtapositions and misogyny. Second Place is indeed a better place. By the end of the novel, M receives a letter from L, in which he writes: “I miss your place” (207). Perhaps these are the only words of L’s that I can agree with. After reading this novel, I miss M’s place, and you will too.

Laurynas Petrauskas is a student of the MA Literature Today programme at the University of Utrecht and an intern at The Lithuanian Publishers Association. His most recent professional achievement was taking part in organising the International Vilnius Book Fair 2022. 

Works Cited

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