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Rachel Cusk's 'Second Place' Offers Sharp Perceptions About Love And Creativity


This is FRESH AIR. The English novelist Rachel Cusk is best known here for her three books known as the Outline Trilogy. Her new novel, "Second Place," tells the story of a writer who invites a famous painter to stay at her guesthouse on the marshy coast of England. Our critic at large John Powers says it's an enjoyably feverish tale about what we expect of art and artists.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Of all the big British novelists of the 20th century, none is now less fashionable than D.H. Lawrence. It's easy to see why. He could be a bullying gasbag. He flirted with fascism. And his gender politics were, to put it generously, retrograde. At the same time, Lawrence was a genuine seeker, a genius obsessed with addressing big questions about the nature of the self, what it means to love and how to be authentic in the world. This quest still makes him a lodestar for many of today's writers, ranging from the sneaky-brilliant Geoff Dyer to fierce Rachel Cusk, who calls him her mentor.

Cusk grapples with his spirit in "Second Place," her first novel since the Outline Trilogy, which is one of the great fictional achievements of the new millennium. Where those crystalline novels were largely plotless and had the chilly burn of dry ice, this fascinating book finds her moving in a messier new direction. Loosely inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan's memoir of hosting Lawrence in Taos, N.M., in the 1920s, "Second Place" tells a layered tale that, in its heightened fervor, feels as humid and murky as its marshy seaside setting.

The narrator, M, is a willful, sharp-eyed, not especially likeable writer whose strapping second husband Tony is a mensch who looks after their property. Although their life seems happy, M keeps stewing over her sense that she's somehow insubstantial, invisible even to herself. In hopes of changing that, she offers up their rustic guesthouse to a famous painter called L, a child of the working class, whose art she found life-changing in Paris many years ago. When he accepts, she expects something transcendent to happen. Instead, L turns up with a gorgeous young woman who makes her feel old and unattractive. And even worse, he treats M dismissively. While L has time for Tony and M's daughter Justine, with whom M has a tricky relationship, and even Justine's boring, entitled boyfriend Kurt, he can't be bothered with the one person who brought him there in hopes that his art might somehow rescue her.

Now, if you've read any Cusk, you'll know two things about her. First, she writes with a knife-thrower's precision and showmanship. "Second Place" is filled with sharp perceptions about love, child-rearing and creativity that are, alas, too long to quote. Second, her books repeatedly explore the same themes - fate, family life, real estate and the tug of war between art and life, especially the attempt to shape our lives into meaningful narratives. Cusk is clearly searching for a life that feels unified and free, a way of being that will do what M says that L's paintings do - tell the world, I am here. Her work is acutely intelligent about how hard this is for women, who are pulled in countless direction by family, by social expectations, and by internalized social expectations that lead one to argue with one's own feelings and desires.

Small wonder that M finds herself pulled between two self-contained men who, in very different ways, symbolize freedom. The quiet, nurturing Tony is a figure of light who believes in nature over art. He doesn't fret, doesn't gossip, doesn't compete. He's complete in who he is. But while M adores Tony, she's also drawn to creative darkness, a quality she finds alluring in L's art and in his thoroughgoing immersion in it. Trouble is, L is the walking embodiment of male privilege. He's selfish, amoral, irresponsible, flagrantly misogynistic and monstrously at ease with all this.

That said, Cusk is too ambitious a novelist to create a privileged male artist simply to flay him. Instead, she confronts her heroine with the painful truth about L and his kind. There's an abyss between what she calls his, quote, "ability to be right about the things that he saw and how, at the plane of living, this rightness could be so discordant and cruel." She might well be talking of Lawrence, Picasso, Philip Roth and countless others of inspiring artistic vision and depressing personal behavior. Yet contrary to what many people seem to fear these days, Cusk doesn't let M get destroyed by her dealings with a reprehensible artist. Life is more complicated than that. Everything I determined to happen happened, M tells us, but not as I wanted it.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new novel "Second Place" by Rachel Cusk.

The CDC has loosened its COVID guidelines for people who are vaccinated, but in India, the pandemic is rampaging across the country. On the next FRESH AIR, New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman joins us from New Delhi, where the world's worst coronavirus crisis is advancing around him, and sickness and death are everywhere. This out-of-control surge in India has undermined confidence in Prime Minister Modi, who was a Trump ally. Gettleman has reported from war zones, was kidnapped in Iraq, but finds this frightening in a totally different way. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.


John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.