Nic: Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk's day-in-the-life tale of five housewives who are not so much desperate as thoroughly bored (and, let's not beat about the bush here, thoroughly boring), has a rather inauspicious beginning - if perhaps not quite for the reasons intended by the author:
All night the rain fell on Arlington Park.
The clouds came from the west: clouds like dark cathedrals, clouds like machines, clouds like black blossoms flowering in the arid starlit sky. [...]
In Arlington Park, people were sleeping. [...] A handful of dried leaves shuffled on a pavement.
If you're wondering how a sky can be "arid", or leaves still dry, in the middle of a rainstorm, well - welcome to the club. Several paragraphs and a page later, it becomes apparent that what Cusk actually meant in her opening line was "All night the rain fell on Arlington Park... except for the part of it I'm about to spend two pages describing."
This rather muddled fidelity to an unfortunately-clichéd image - yes, stop me if you've heard this one before, but a storm is preparing to break over emotionally-repressed suburbia - proves to be characteristic of the novel as a whole. Just a little later, we are told that the nearby city is filled with - surely not? - "relentless activity"; emotions are, on more than one occasion, experienced "like vertigo". Not coincidentally, I suspect, it is also a tic shared by most of Cusk's viewpoint characters: during a single chapter, part-time teacher Juliet envisions her stored-up resentment as 'lead in her veins' not once but four times.
Yet the frankly mediocre opening passage is punctured, over the page, by a snippet of dialogue between two anonymous characters:
There was no one to see the rain coming, except a couple hurrying down the silent streets on their way back from an evening out.
'I don't like the look of that,' said the man, peering up. 'That's rain.'
The woman gave an exasperated little laugh.
'You're the expert on everything tonight, aren't you?' she said.
They let themselves into their house. The orange light showed for an instant in their doorway and was extinguished again.
An entire relationship dynamic in three lines, this brief exchange comes as a considerable relief: so pithy, so observant - who doesn't know couples who sound like that? (Who hasn't sounded like that themselves?)
But in this apparent success lies the problem, I would suggest. Because it is observation, rather than imagination and empathy, that is at work throughout the novel. The characters talk and act like snapshots of real people, people you've overheard, people you've spoken to - but snapshots are, for the most part, what they remain. There is no filling in of gaps; these people are little more than the sum of their neuroses and over-familiar soundbites.
Juliet has surrendered her ambition at the feet of her husband's, retaining a part-time job she has little passion for while raising their children. Amanda, adrift without the sense of autonomy and responsibility she found in her job, diverts her controlling energies into relentless housework ("It was messy work, the unending struggle to maintain separation between outside and in"). Solly seeks diversion through 'exotic' (non-English) lodgers while quietly dreading the birth of yet another child. Christine throws dinner parties, ignores her children except when they get in her way (as do all the women bar Solly), airs her petty received prejudices at every opportunity, and makes pronouncements like the following, regarding the mall:
"I just love coming here," Christine expostulated, surveying the brutal grandeur of the car park. [...] "I don't know, it just makes me feel good. It makes me feel that life is full of possibilities."
If Christine felt remotely like a real person - a well-rounded portrait of a dim, bigoted Little Englander - this level of meaningless might be striking and rather disheartening. But the statement seems to be there more to get a reaction (disdain and/or pity) from the reader than to illuminate who Christine is. The women's mental voices read like externally-accessible (and essentially fabricated) presentations: self-help books or columns in the less-thoughtful end of the women's magazine market. This effect might be intentional - so worn out are they that they have even lost touch with their inner monologues - but, given how Cusk fudges the non-PoV transitional passages such as the one discussed above, I find it hard to grant her the benefit of the doubt on this point. Either way, it has the effect of blurring the characters together, making them difficult to tell apart except by external markers (names of husbands, home furnishings, etc). One particular scene, which follows Christine as she prepares for the dinner party, could have been told from the perspective of any of the cast; in no way do the thoughts feel intrinsic or unique to her personality (indeed, quite the opposite). Their neuroses are all much of a muchness, and their responses to them are likewise interchangeable: dreamy, dreary disengagement, with occasional detours into histrionic self-pity.
I found myself comparing this to a novel on last year's shortlist, Ali Smith's entirely splendid The Accidental, which covered a certain amount of the same thematic ground that Cusk aims for: a small group of characters are confronted with the essential emptiness of their lives during a bounded period of time, experience semi-crisis, and on the whole emerge from the novel little changed and only slightly more self-aware. But whereas Smith experimented with form and drew even her most unsympathetic characters with sensitivity and compassion, Cusk seems to be only interested in setting up straw men to make her hardly-revelatory points, about the pitfalls of homemaking and letting creative and mental energies go to seed in the face of the daily grind. Five women's whole lives in a single day, and in that day little but hackneyed phrasings and caricatures: it's like Mrs Dalloway as retold by someone who only heard about the original through a game of Chinese Whispers.
To clarify: I don't believe that my issue here is that I simply didn't like the characters. As I said in my previous post, being dislikeable is no barrier to being interesting, when it comes to fictional characters; and in any case, disliking these women would be like shooting fish in a barrel. They're soft targets, created to be this banal, this sunk in their subjectivities. The problem was that I didn't engage with any of them, that they drew distressingly little reaction from me at all; I wasn't interested in them one way or the other.
What frustrated me, I suppose, was not the lack of self-awareness - since that so often devolves into tedious navel-gazing - but of a sense of irony, of the absurdity of oneself. The situations they face are hardly unique, after all; we get several hints that their mothers went through similarly unfulfilling family experiences. It was hard to escape the notion that, by inflating and wallowing in their misery rather than spotting it for what it is - universal, temporary, shareable, solveable - they create the rods for their own backs. Which may be Cusk's point... but the getting there is so tedious, and there is no attempt to go beyond making this (not exactly new) point, despite the promise raised by the Woolfian structuring of the narrative. They have no personality other than their banality.
Another lack, and one that the novel does evoke deliberately (I think) and well, is of any awareness that goes beyond the self. None of the characters possess much empathy, or sympathy, or any but the most shallow attempts to understand and connect with the people around them (including their children and partners). All find it impossible to imagine any configuration of life beyond their own. Solly's observation of one of her lodgers, a single and successful Italian woman, is very telling in this regard:
She couldn't bear the idea of loose threads, of open spaces, of stories without endings. Did Paola not want to get married? Did she not want children, and a house of her own?
This seems to me to be the crux of so many of the characters' problems: deeply-ingrained social habit, whether it lies in gender roles, in class, or in education. Most of these women are raising a family because that's just the thing that one does, the next stage on the ladder of life, regardless of whether or not they truly want to, or are equipped to, or might have waited until they had a secure enough life of their own to withstand the crushing pressures of parenthood. We might imagine that they got married for the same reason, that likewise this might be why they also renovate their kitchens and throw dinner parties and spend their spare time shopping at soulless malls. They have no imagination, or even when they do life eventually beats it out of them; the result is stagnation.
Which is sad, granted, but I'm not sure it will come as much of a revelation to anyone reading the book.
Vicky: I disagree with Nic on this one - I think that Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park is in with a good chance of winning the Orange Prize, and that it expresses the vapid pretentions of middle-England quite brilliantly and that its women, sloughed in depression and doubt, are both individual and nascently self-aware. What Cusk does so well in Arlington Park, in my opinion, is lift the roof off suburbia, tweak back the stifling blanket, to reveal what is most disturbing, distressing *and* familiar about our (women's?) neuroses. And I disagree that it lacks irony; I think the narrator - omnipotent and wry - has a strong sense of the vacuous and the ridiculous, conmingled with a cloying sadness and resignation.
That is not to say that it is a perfect novel, although I did think it a deeply enjoyable one. I share Nic's qualms concerning the opening passages, and with Cusk's descriptive prose more generally. The effect is clearly meant to mimic 'Time Passes' from Woolf's To the Lighthouse - that virtuoso performance of characterful emptiness - but is weighed down by its own momentous cliche. I too was puzzled by the 'arid' sky and the 'dry leaves' of the first paragraph, and uncomfortable with the affected park scenes just past the novel's halfway point. In these instances, away from her characters and the dialogue she excels at, Cusk hams up her meaning to the nth degree. The angst is sometimes too much; smattered with exclamation points, it swells toward the hystrionic:
The whole mechanism of the world, running on, running like a machine: time poured into it like a blank river, and set off all these infinitesimal movements! It was painful, in a way, for them [the women in the park]; for them it was a form of agony to watch it. Standing on thier wood chippings in the playground, the women were as though snared in the mechanism. They were caught between the blank river and the churning wheels. Trapped as they were, every movement caused them pain. The diving kites hurt them. The people in thier white shoes seemed to be trampling them underfoot. The dogs frightened them, and made their hearts thump in their startled chests.
And I don't think her prose is Woolfian enough to bear it. It flows by happily enough, but the raging torrent is too much. Cusk does much better - much, much better - when she confines her mad dash of emotions and images to her character's interiority.
I disagree that they are all 'much of a muchness', or that their neuroses are interchangable. The five women from whose point of view Arlington Park is narrated - Juliet, Amanda, Solly, Christine and Maisie - are disparate and pointedly so. It is true that their despair and disappoint springs from a similar source - their unfulfilling lives, as mothers, wives and domestic lackeys - but the flavour of it, and the tenor, is different in each case.
Juliet, with whom the book opens ('aged thirty-six, mother of two, a teacher at Arlington Park School for Girls - a person regarded in her youth as somewhat exceptional'), spends her time chafing against the bit of her domesticity and of the feminist backlash. Her anger is palpable, directed against men, against her children and against herself, and her sections of the novel are filled with notably violent images. At a recent dinner party she argued with her host about the legality of extended maternity leave, an exchange that saw her branded as 'strident' and led to an entirely inappropriate joke about her breasts (made by her demure husband). Recalling it on the morning of the narrative she thinks:
All men are murderers... All of them. They murder women. They take a woman, and little by little they murder her.
Intelligent and observant, she realises the fixedness of her situation and that she is, in part, its architect:
Really they were only the dreary lineaments of her mother's life, a husband, a house, children - but to Juliet they seemed mysterious, full of foreign, ineluctable glamour... It almost made her laugh now, to think of it. A woman a hundred years ago knew her life would be over the moment she got herself pregnant. But Juliet had thought it required a degree of cleverness, that there was something difficult about it.
As Nic points out, she (and her counterparts) are ploughing the same furrows as their mothers, bound up tight in social convention. Her attitudes though, particularly toward her children, is anything but conventional. Like all the women in the book, she displays no peculiar affection for her offspring. Instead, they're little aliens, signs of their mothers' repression.
Amanda, the novel's second protagonist, is perhaps the most disaffected and pathologically depressed of all Cusk's characters. Her relationship with her son, Eddie, is characteristic - she resents him, hates him and cares for him all at once. In what struck me as one of the most powerful scenes of the book she takes him to the butcher's to buy meet and, in a moment of glorious Freudianism, imagines him dismembered and on display in the cold cabinet:
Eddie stood and fingered the glass so that the spectacle of dismemberment behind it seemed to expand itself, to incorporate him. She saw his parts arrayed on metal trays, in fans and pyramids of flesh fringed with parsley.
Later in the day, just before she pulls off a coup of a coffee morning, she receives a telephone call from her sister to tell her that her grandmother has died. Unable to connect with the grief of the moment - she instantly resents the intrusion of the news and resents her sister's presence at the deathbed - she breaks the news to her son in a brusque, heartless way. When he hugs her legs and tells her 'I love you mummy', she calls him a 'silly boy' and disengages herself from his embrace. No comfort, no empathy. Realising how vulnerable she is, how empty, she prefers to fill her life with what is most vacuous - chores and social conventions will have to do in place of meaning.
A woman who has absolutely and totally embraced this option, unto the point of caricature, is Christine, the novel's proto-Clarissa Dalloway. Akin to Clarissa, who 'loves her roses' but can't remember whether it is the Albanians or the Armenians who have been massacred (it was the Armenians, in Turkey), Christine is a champion of misinformation. Unlike Nic, I think she is a well-rounded 'dim, bigoted Little Englander', a Daily Mail reader extroadinaire, and that she is brilliantly pathetic (in the traditional sense) into the bargain. Raised by a neurotic and (probably) alcoholic mother, she is not a native of Arlington-Park-esque suburbia and is painfully aware of her less auspiscious origins. She admits, in a moment of candid self-awareness, that the local housing estate, Redbourne, frightens her:
...everytime she passed through it, Christine felt a fear from which the plain unlikelihood of its realisation could not protect her. It was the same kind of fear she had felt in childhood, when pondering the secret possibility that she might not be the true child of her parents: a retrospective fear of unauthenticity which seemed to reveal to her the vulnerability of her grasp on the real, the authentic life. Redbourne reminded Christine of the insufficiency of her control of destiny, the fatal slightness of its degrees... Half a mile apart, in some places less than half a mile, Arlington Park and this textureless suburb were the very illustration of this principle. Geographically, half a mile was the slenderest of the threads: that was how close she had come to living in Redbourne. Its presence was a constant hazard, in that it sustained a distinction in the face of which she could never feel entirely safe.
Because the truth is that Christine is vulgur, and she knows it. The patterns of her speech give her away - 'I mean, when you think about it...'; 'I'm not being funny but...'; 'bloody' this and 'fucking' that (she is the only woman in the novel to swear) - as do her eating habits. On a trip to the mall, her 'friends' sit down to salads and sandwiches, while she orders a huge burger; at the end of the day, her dinner party is nothing but frazzled chicken breasts, bagged salad (which a guest perks up with fresh tomatoes) and a bought lemon tart that she forgets to serve. And when faced, on the same mall trip, with Maisie's subtle hints against purchasing a purple top that is too small for her, she erupts into a disgraceful display:
'Here comes the vicar in drag,' Christine persisted. 'Here comes the fucking Purple Lady.'
'Christine!' said Stephanie shrilly, 'I was only talking about the colour.'
'I like the colour.' Christine regarded her reflection with narrowed eyes. 'Ella, if you don't shut up I'm going to rip your tongue out of your throat.'
This last to her poor benighted daughter. Christine knows that she is something of the caricature about her, that her pretentions really are a pretence. A dim bigot, she lives in perpetual fear that something will give her away for what she is: lower middle, even working, class. Little does she realise that her lively brashness, the embarressment and display of it, is part of the reason Arlington Park's frazzled housewives are drawn to her - it can't be a coincidence that she is only woman in the novel to stand up to her husband and argue, or that she is the only one to have something in the way of a sex life.
Sex is something that the women in Arlington Park don't have, by and large. They have husbands and children by them, so they must, at some point, have engaged in the act, but otherwise they are almost holy in their celibacy. Solly Keir-Leigh's husband is almost always away on business and in his absence, and in the face of her three (soon to be four) children, she takes refuge in the sensual exoticism of her Italian lodger, Paola. As Nic intimates, Paola is everything Solly is not: stylish, mysterious and uncomprimising in matters of independence, she even has a son, but has left him behind in Italy with her ex-husband. In keeping with the cloistered traditions of Arlington Park, their relationship is not sexual or erotic, but it is both sensual and yearning. Solly is fatally attracted to Paola's self-possession, and also to her actual possessions, which seem to represent something she has failed to attain:
She looked in Paola's pink satin washbag and found make-up in heavy black enammelled cases, and a foil packet of contraceptive pills. She opened one of the drawers and took out lace garments, things with buttons and ribbons, a garter belt and a long, fine, gossamer-like pair of stockings... She felt a terrible pain at the sight of these things. What were her threadbare jeans and her string of beads compared to this? They were the abortion, the pitiful remnant of her femininity. She felt she had nothing - nothing... She felt like a machine, like an animal.
It is this animal despair, this incredible rage of wanting-something-more that rings so clearly and truthfully throughout Arlington Park. It is the threat of the ordinary and the violence of the everyday that strikes it major chord. Admittedly, it is a novel that has been written before, many times, and Nic is right to point out its fidelity to the topos of repressed suburbia, but I think Cusk does it exceptionally well. It is so wilfull and passionate about women's lives.
I have only one final qualm. The lives of five 'friends', in a single day, with a dinner party at the end? Arlington Park's homage to Mrs Dalloway is unmistakable, although its narrative structure has more in common with To the Lighthouse and Cusk makes several cosmetic allusions to Orlando (most especially the pair of swans that Juliet sees 'rising from the dark folds, rising from the trees', both exultant with hope and forbidding in their majesty, at the end of one of her chapters - the same 'omen' marks the ending of Orlando). I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this annexation of Virginia Woolf's cadences. On the one hand, I'm inclined to think it limiting and over-ambitious: Woolf already has the market cornered as regards her brand of the semiotics of interiority. Cusk would do better to make her own way, descriptively and structurally - Arlington Park walks a fine line between rip-off and variation. On the other, I recognise the richness and relevance of Woolf's approach to character - its intensity and scrupulousness, the way it tightly adheres to the e mundane while evoking the otherworldly - and I admire Cusk's audacity in seeking to replicate it. I also think that Woolf would have approved of the subject matter and of its trajectory because, like her greatest novels, it is both parochial and, yet, not. It is chokingly claustrophobic and particular (I think immediately of Woolf's Between the Acts), but widely relevant in touching a well-spring of anxiety about the vacuous, selfish and status-driven nature of middle-class British culture.
It is no shame to write a fiction about what is essential and relevant to its intended audience, nor to write a novel with precedent, so long as you do it well and with feeling. Cusk succeeds in both regards. I wouldn't be at all disappointed to see Arlington Park win.