Several years ago, Rachel Cusk broke with conventional fiction. Her Outline trilogy, which she began publishing in 2014, stepped so far from traditional plot and character that it seemed to render them both unnecessary. In the New Yorker, Judith Thurman wrote that the Outline books represent, if not a “‘reinvention’ of the novel, [then] a point of departure for it.” Surprisingly, though, Cusk’s first post-trilogy novel, Second Place, hews closer to the novel’s standard shape. Second Place is a fiercely odd, even unfashionably allegorical book. Structurally, though, it isn’t abnormal at all. It’s an epistolary novel — the most old-fashioned form! — and one that uses all of fiction’s standard tricks. I’d be disappointed if it weren’t so bafflingly good.
Bafflement, alongside art, is Second Place’s central theme. Cusk’s narrator, a middle-aged, retired-ish writer named M, is confused by her relationships with her daughter and her silent, saint-like husband Tony; she’s confused by femininity; she’s confused by art, though she also loves it to the point of worship. She and Tony even build a shrine to it, in the form of a “second place” on their rural property, which functions as an artist’s retreat. Second Place’s action starts when she invites her favorite artist, L, to work there. His presence is a catastrophe. L is astoundingly cruel. He belittles Tony; he claims he wants to destroy M. He torments her, but her devotion to his painting is so strong that, rather than kick him off her property, she tries frantically to persuade herself that his awfulness serves his art.
M’s excuse-making takes up much of the novel. Between painful scenes of L acting badly, she tests out different theories. Is he horrible because real artists are amoral, subject not to laws of kindness but to the “call of truth?” Has painting somehow made him manipulative? Is it his purpose in life to help others “accept […] ugliness?” None of these explanations hold water. Cusk, I think, intends them not to. Instead, they create emotional chaos.
Here, big ideas about art, coupled with M’s admiration for L’s work, lead the protagonist to disregard her own life — and, in fact, to jeopardize her happiness. After a novel’s worth of theorizing, M turns, finally, to the real world, which Tony very much represents. Instantly, L’s power over her — and over the novel — is gone.
It would be too much to say that Second Place rejects art, or asks readers to consider it unimportant. But Cusk’s ongoing skepticism toward artistic dogma is clear here, as it was in the formal experimentations of the Outline trilogy. In those three books, she turned from pure invention to what Thurman described as a merging of fiction and oral history. In the highly inventive Second Place, Cusk uses fiction as a tool to turn readers away from art, toward life. Surely, then, she must still believe we need both.
Second Place (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), by Rachel Cusk, will be available on Bookshop starting May 4.
MTV’s The Exhibit Is Back With an Inflatable Dolphin
Episode four, in which artists tackled themes of justice and injustice, was the most lifeless of the reality TV show so far.
Florida Principal Ousted Over “Pornographic” Michelangelo Sculpture
Parents complained that the famous sculpture was shown to their sixth graders.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
Tickets to Sold-Out Vermeer Show Are Going for Hundreds
The online resale market for the Rijksmuseum’s smash exhibition is booming, with tickets selling on eBay for over $2K.
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
Miniature Worlds: Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, Yayoi Kusama
Through small-scale works, this exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York examines Cornell’s prominent role in the lives and careers of Johnson and Kusama.
Three Looted Antiquities at the Met Repatriated to Turkey
Nine other repatriated works were seized from Met Trustee Shelby White, whose collection was subject to a criminal investigation.
This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?
The Wider World and Scrimshaw
On March 28, join the New Bedford Whaling Museum online and in-person for a symposium on global carving traditions from across the Pacific Rim.
Who Will Decide on the Future of a Miami Native Burial Ground?
Native activists say sacred remains and objects dug up from a Brickell construction site should remain there, but mega-developer Jorge Pérez is pushing back.
How Can a Curator Approach South Asian Futurisms?
How do I acknowledge my shortcomings while reckoning with obscured histories and the exclusion of subaltern narratives in the fine art landscape? A working checklist for curators.
MCA Chicago Presents On Stage: Frictions
Will Rawls, Shamel Pitts | TRIBE, and Barak adé Soleil explore Blackness, queerness, movement, and dance in performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The Complicated Legacy of Camilo Egas
The Ecuadorian painter, a leading figure of Latin America’s Indigenismo art movement, has been both praised and scorned for his representation of Indigenous peoples.
Tom Jones Zeroes in on Ho-Chunk Visibility
“I think about the young kids, the teenagers, and I think being able to see yourself represented in art is so powerful,” says the artist.