:: Article

That Deep Kind of Talk

By Sam Burt.


Rachel Cusk, Second Place (Faber & Faber, 2021)

When I was 22, fresh out of university and into the Job Centre, I spent a night in a guesthouse. I wouldn’t recommend it.

It belonged to family friends, a husband and wife who should have been my parents. They had made it themselves and so it was perfect. It belonged in a Beatrix Potter book. The whole get-up was unnerving as hell. It brought home to me the detritus I generate simply by existing. There was this immaculate space, which they had carved into their garden just for me (I was welcome to revisit but never did) and there were my tiny hairs and skin flakes, waiting to be found like some dirty protest.

This is the paradox of staying in a guesthouse belonging to someone you know: it’s both a gift (your very own unlived-in space!) and a burden (just make sure to leave it unlived-in after you’re done living in it, OK!). If you’d stayed in their actual house, of course, your markings would be less obvious. (And anyway, why don’t they want you to stay in their house?)

I mention this anecdote to flag up one of the ways in which guesthouses can be strange and liminal spaces. To stay in one is to feel a guest in someone’s house but not necessarily their home, to feel simultaneously included but excluded, or at least held at a distance.


Second Place is a novel about appropriate distances between people. A woman called M invites a painter called L, whose work she has revered for fifteen years, to stay in a guesthouse on the marshland where she lives with her husband Tony. The guesthouse, which they call ‘the second place’, was built as a means for M to reconcile her interest in art and literature — which presumably doesn’t exist on a marsh, because of all the saltwater — and has housed other visiting artists, none of them memorable enough to warrant an honorary mention. L’s arrival, accompanied unexpectedly by his young and ‘ravishing’ friend Brett, coincides with ‘global pandemonium’ (unspecified but similar sounding to Covid-19), which thus sees M’s twentysomething daughter Justine return to the family stead, with boyfriend Kurt in tow. Over the course of his stay, L keeps his distance from M, insults her, paints demonic scenes on the inside walls of the second place, and then, in tragic personal circumstances, leaves.

Written as a one-sided address from the writer ‘M’ to the mysterious ‘Jeffers’ (about whom we learn virtually nothing, despite his being mentioned in almost every paragraph), and containing section breaks but no clear chapter demarcations (whether it is meant as letter or monologue is unclear), it provides a claustrophobic reading experience, M pouring forth incessantly about an artist and his friend visiting her home. One wonders if M. would like Jeffers to occasionally speak too, if only because she insists she does not require ‘special attention’. But perhaps it is only in dialogue (even one so lopsided) that M. gives herself permission to put her inner life into words, life on the marsh, with gruff but loving husband Tony and his ‘oceanic silences’, having failed to inspire any new books.

So, it’s about people — friends, family, strangers — sharing confined space, and all the domestic politics, misunderstandings, compromises, hurt feelings and longings for escape that that involves, as well as possibilities of (re)connection, charity, community and blurring of the self. And all of that features — but mostly, the novel is about people re-establishing boundaries and distance from one another when there is so little physical space between them. Germaine Greer, it seems, was right to say that ‘Even crushed against his brother in the Tube, the average Englishman pretends desperately that he is alone.’

Like Cusk’s Outline trilogy, there isn’t much in the way of plot but there is a lot of storytelling, the principal storytellers being M and, to a lesser degree, L, who periodically exchange personal histories. But the novel’s ‘real time’ events are, mostly, small-scale, repetitive and domestic, depending for their significance on M’s interpretation of them. From the very first page, which describes, matter-of-factly, her having seen ‘the devil’ on a train home from Paris, we are alerted to M’s metaphysical frame of mind, and left wondering whether, all along, she is reading too much into everything. To keep us on our toes, Cusk sprinkles in clues that it isn’t pure psychodrama, such as Kurt’s warning that L ‘says he intends to destroy you’.

Nonetheless, whatever is signified seems to constantly strain the rope tethering it to a signifier, only just stopping short of taking flight. M sees signs wherever she looks but tells us (Jeffers) far more about signified than the signifier. It often feels as if, for every line of reported fact, there is a page of interpretation of its meaning. (We’re told little about what actually happened on the train, but that it was the kind of ‘moment when your moral duty as a soul is most exposed’.) Several critics have described M as ‘breathless’ but on the contrary, I felt her breath on my face throughout. Isn’t she just a bit too sensitive for her own good? Isn’t this cosmopolitan visitation just more excitement than she is used to, which can’t be more than slipping up in some mud? (It’s a testament to Cusk’s skill that I found myself, against my better judgment, sympathising with L’s wish to keep her at arm’s length, the novel’s close focalisation through M and one-sided running monologue leaving the reader feeling as if she has robbed them of their sight and speech.)

It’s a task to stretch this material over the running time of a novel, even one as slim as this, but a task that will feel strangely familiar to those of us who have stretched our own domestic rituals to breaking point over the past year. The strain shows — it feels long, not least because the beginning and end are compressed, leaving an extended middle. Structurally, as an evocation of what living through the pandemic has felt like, for those who’ve done so in relative quiet and comfort, it cannot be faulted — even if it doesn’t sell itself as a Covid novel. After all, we didn’t notice the beginning. Will there be a clean transition from ‘middle’ to ‘end’ in real life, whatever that might mean? (Or, more likely, will our return to ‘normal’ be the sorites paradox writ large?)


Brett and L are unquestionably terrible guests and suspect human beings. Moments after arriving, Brett gives M tips on managing dry hair. L is surly and self-absorbed at best; ungrateful and spiteful towards M at worst. L keeps himself to himself, venturing out only to criticise M’s son-in-law’s novel (‘Why does it have to take up time?’) or to exchange terse assumed familiarities with M (‘Why do you play at being a woman?’). Later, M finds them vandalising the guesthouse while high.

When L turns his disdainful gaze on her family, M is overcome with guilt for having exposed them like this, for failing to safeguard ‘our privacy and our dignity of life’. There is guilt, too, at slipping so easily into seeing them through L’s eyes: ‘he filled one with the dreadful suspicion that there is no story to life’. But given M’s familiarity with L’s ‘cosmic coldness’, one has to ask what she expected to happen. She speaks vaguely (she often speaks vaguely) of bringing the two halves of her life together; it was her first encounter with L’s work that had inspired her to leave an unsatisfying first marriage and begin again. But a guesthouse is not a home. The gulf that exists between her family in their home and Brett and L in the ‘second place’ does not correspond to the walking distance between the two. For most of the novel’s length, all that their invitation seems to have accomplished is to bring into sharper relief that distance.

M tells Jeffers that she has spent her life being criticised. She needs to be criticised to know that she exists. When L expresses gratitude for letting them stay, she rebuffs him; she wants criticism, not thankfulness. In L’s self-portrait, the painting whose ‘cosmic coldness’ first caught her attention, she glimpsed a model of self-criticism, a way of seeing oneself ‘at about the distance you might keep between yourself and a stranger’. But although L says outrageously cruel things about M — to her face and, worse still, in letters to various newspapers (the novel was inspired by the real-life account of D. H. Lawrence’s visit to the arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, Lorenzo in Taos (1932)) — he will neither paint her nor criticise her, because both acts would require seeing her, which he claims he cannot. In which case, who or what is the subject of his bile? Not M as a human being, but what she represents to him: her apparently unbreakable force of will, an obstacle to his conception of freedom.

M is, to some extent, caught in L’s trap: he goads her because he wants her to flare up, to demand his respect, to — in short — reveal herself as prudish, stuffy, dull, humourless. In a word, provincial. When L describes himself as ‘nothing more than a beggar’, M checks his white male privilege: ‘To beg was a freedom in itself — it implied at least an equality with the state of need’. But, equally, indulging his bullying ways is unlikely to placate him. The trouble is, his kind of bullying is a long way from creative destruction. When Kurt tells M that L told him he intends to ‘destroy’ her, it rings false. L may have said this to cause mischief — on the other hand, still smarting from L’s takedown of his novel, Kurt may not be a reliably impartial informant, but the general impression is that L sees M as a plaything rather than something in need of destruction. M takes Kurt’s warning at face value but, frankly, an intention to destroy someone requires a greater level of interest than L seems to have in her. He seems content to jape and tease, jump up and dance on her table and destroy her interior designs. The ‘violent change’, which she sometimes equates with the force of revelation, was always unlikely to be delivered by L’s hand:

The thing was, Jeffers, part of me wanted to be destroyed… There was a greater reality…and it seemed to me that a lifelong pain would be ended if only I could break through to it. […] It needed violence.

M wants L to paint her with merciless objectivity because, in her quiet family life, she is starved of criticism. She did not anticipate his not being able to see their underlying commonalities, his being unable or unwilling to see past their surface differences. She hoped that he would see, and be intrigued by, her inner self, a radically different person from who she appears to be on the surface. But he does not see this distance between her inner and outer self; he thinks he knows everything there is to know about her, hence his unnerving assumed familiarity and incuriosity in her from the start:

Painting people, he said…was an act of both scrutiny and idolatry in which — for him, at least — the coldness of separation had to be maintained at all costs. […] The quality that attracted him now was unavailability, the deep moral unavailability of certain people… was the antidote to it, to the sickness that overcame him whenever he caught the stench of human familiarity.

She wants to be unreachable to him, to not be defined as only wife, mother, homemaker. But she comes to realise, painfully, eventually, that he cannot look past those things; they are objects of fear and fascination to him, or rather, he cannot reconcile them with M’s attachment to ‘the higher things…notions of art’ because he wishes to believe that, through the higher things, he has cut himself off from the lower, and left them permanently behind. He will not meet her ‘on the basis of that recognition’. When M first meets L, she thinks he is ‘the first integrated being I had ever met’, in contrast with ‘my own compartmentalised nature.’ But this isn’t true: as she later makes clear to him, L’s keeping his distance from her throughout his stay (even when they are sitting next to each other, he holds himself ostentatiously apart) is him compartmentalising the parts of himself he recognises in her, and wishes to avoid.

In this respect, the novel has the fable-like qualities some critics have attributed to it. M and L come to feel, progressively, like opposite halves of the same person. Each is drawn to, and repelled by, what seems unfamiliar in the other yet which turns out to be something familiar under a magnifying lens. Each is filled with self-disgust, but his, as M points out, is no realer than hers for its taking an external form, or for being a mostly male prerogative:

I’m also trying to find a way of dissolving… You’re not the only one who feels that way. You can’t just blot me out, because it makes you feel sick to see me — I’m just as untouchable as anyone else! I don’t exist to be seen by you.

That’s why M invited L — to help her ‘dissolve’; to see herself, reflected back in his canvas, at a distance, as unreachable. As she tells Jeffers, ‘my individuality had tormented me my whole life with its demand to be recognised’. L, too, is disturbed by how quickly the shrinking of his world has unlocked his introspective tendencies. In a phrase that speaks directly to locked-down readers, he misses ‘reality as a place where he himself did not exist’. Encountering his works for the first time, they’d had this same effect of freeing her from the limiting story she’d made of her own life:

I felt myself falling out of the frame I had lived in for years, the frame of human implication in a particular set of circumstances. From that moment, I ceased to be immersed in the story of my own life and became distinct from it.

Ironically, we might read her as having fallen out of one frame and straight into another; that is, another restricting story, in which only the genius artist has the power to free her from the criticism of society, to clear a space in which she can hear the words ‘I am here’. A dogmatic adherence to this story led her to bringing an unstable element into her placid private life without considering the full range of consequences — for her determinedly private husband, her pliant, impressionable daughter, nor her own need for safety and security.


Like any good fable, Second Place has at least one clear, resounding moral: that the impressions we form through our senses are as much to do with what we give back to the world, than with what we take from it. In a brief scene towards the end, M goes night swimming with Justine. Watching her daughter marvel at the phosphorescent lights, M has an epiphany:

…the human capacity for receptivity is a kind of birthright… Unless we give back to life as much as we take from it, this faculty will fail us sooner or later. […] I had remained a devourer while yearning to become a creator, and I saw that I had summoned L across the continents intuitively believing that he could perform that transformative function for me.

M’s conclusion echoes the sentiments expressed by Luhan in Lorenzo in Taos: ‘I had reached the saturation point in impressions. I had been taking life in, but never formulating it and giving it back to the universe’. L’s paintings were not — had never been — magical objects operating on a lump of M-shaped inert material. Perception is a two-way street.

In the juxtaposition of M and L, we are given two incompatible ways of seeing: her loving, careful habit of storing up impressions, like a diligent caretaker, as if each moment were an indispensable part of a collection; and his exacting, analytical gaze, in which there can be ‘no personal meaning beyond the meaning of any given moment,’ and which, therefore, finding many moments inevitably wanting in themselves, throws them aside. In spite of all the bitterness and pain his stay causes her, M still ‘loves’ L for bringing this contrast into sharp relief, as well as the harm done to life when it is experienced only as material for art: ‘he drew me with the cruelty of his rightness closer to the truth’.

Or, as Luhan says of Lawrence, he ‘was always right, though everything he did was wrong’.



Sam Burt is a writer/tutor and a student of creative writing at the University of Manchester. He has a particular interest in autofiction and fiction that explores the affects of internet dependence. His work has appeared in Ink, Sweat & Tears, Popshot Quarterly, the Guardian and London Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 24th, 2021.