- Arlington Park
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp.
A Dispassionate Look Into the Lives of Five British Women
Rachel Cusk’s dissections of the mundanity and frustration of everyday life have won her several prizes. Her work is notable for its acute intelligence and dark, subtle comedy. However, it is her exquisite style above all which puts her amongst the ranks of the most gifted of modern writers. While some have criticised her for being opaque and mannered, others have praised what they see as sophistication and elegance. Whatever your point of view, you are not likely to have encountered the stately, sculptured poise of Cusk’s prose elsewhere in contemporary fiction. Reminiscent of the refined grace of Edith Wharton and the controlled fluidity of Virginia Woolf, it stands out as being still, composed, and commendably unfashionable in an age of cultural blitzkrieg.
Cusk’s sixth novel, Arlington Park, bears such a striking resemblance to Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway that there are moments, in particular a scene in a park, when it feels almost like an imitation of that novel. We are taken in an out of the thoughts of various characters in the course of a single day in which preparations are being made for a dinner party. The hostess, Christine, with her pretense to interest in things bigger than herself and concerns about what to have for desert, seems to be a twisted version of Mrs Dalloway herself. But Cusk is too good a writer to have done little more than update Woolf. She is capable of some extraordinary writing. One character wants to shield her daughter ‘from the bullet of an ordinary life.’ The self-absorption of a group of adolescent girls is captured superbly: ‘they were what was happening in the world: they were the latest, the news.’
Cusk’s decision to choose a single day time frame also reveals her willingness to take risks. Such a restrictive device makes great demands on a novelist but allows for the concentration of detail. Each thought, moment and object gains the sort of hyper-real significance which we would more commonly associate with the abbreviated nature of the short story form, where nothing must be wasted. The novelist is able to expand the fictional world through the memories of its protagonists and bring the characters more sharply into focus.
The Arlington Park of the title is a ‘green, ruminative, inchoate suburb’ with ‘avenues and well-pruned hedges’. We follow five married women who live there, all of whom, we are to imagine, are in early middle-age. They have young children and live in nice, comfortable houses. They do not want for money. But each is beset by worries as to the nature and meaning of their domesticated, suburban lives. Juliet is stifled by ‘the solid, bourgeois, profitable ordinariness of life,’ and disturbed by the failure of her brilliant younger self to achieve all that was expected of her. The bitterness she feels lies like ‘lead in her veins.’ Amanda has a ‘prejudice against chaos.’ Obsessed with order and cleanliness, she puts on yellow gloves to clean a single smear of butter on the kitchen counter and dismantles the coffee machine ‘in order to wash all the separate parts.’ At one point she loses control when a child draws on her sofa. Massie, who is struggling to adapt to provincial life after leaving London, is experiencing an ‘unstable level of dissatisfaction’ which causes several angry outbursts at the expense of her own children and a woman in a car park. Christine appears to be optimistic and ebullient, but at her dinner party – at which the various characters come together towards the end of the novel – this is shown to be little more than a protective facade. Solly, her face ‘pixillated with stress,’ is pregnant with her fourth child. Vexed by the ‘trap of sex,’ she has been living her life vicariously through the foreign students to whom she rents out her spare room. She believes marriage should be ‘the state of hyphenation,’ and yet for most of the women in this novel it seems to be at the point of full stop.
The characters in Arlington Park are solitary creatures, haunted by loneliness and their own mortality. They are stifled by having conformed to the dictates of a social system in which roles are still defined along gender lines. It is not that these women have entered into marriage and motherhood unwillingly, more that they are enraged that in so doing, they seem to have signed a contract which entails the obliteration of self. Cusk’s treatment of male complicity in the loss of female independence is compelling, but it is a shame that her male characters are either bland and desperate to be nice, or almost demonical figures of contemptuous arrogance; but then Arlington Park is as much about relationships between women, and of women to themselves, as it is between the sexes, so perhaps it is fitting that the male characters are indistinct and two dimensional.
The weakness of Arlington Park is that Cusk fails to make us care that much about any of these bitter, depressed, confused and frustrated characters. They are too relentlessly self-absorbed and obsessed with their own dramas. Christine is the most sympathetic of them, yet there is more than a hint of condescension in her portrayal. But you don’t read Cusk for her characters. She is never likely to create a Paula Spencer. Her creations are at a distance, not only from themselves, but from us as readers. Cusk may take us into their heads but offers no emotional close ups. However, this is precisely the appeal. What Cusk offers is an exercise in style. Her gift is the telling and often beautiful rendering of mood and moment and detail. She finds life in a passing thought. Woolf would have approved.