[19 February 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
British author Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Arlington Park is decidedly internal. At first glance, it bears a slight resemblance to Mrs. Dalloway in the way it delves deep into its characters’ psyches over the course of a day full of, well, everyday activities.
Of course, the comparison to the classic Virginia Woolf novel doesn’t hold up, because Cusk’s intentions are quite different. Cusk uses the group of housewives not only as main characters, but as vehicles with which to exact a more satirical agenda. Through these unhappy housewives, Cusk is taking aim at the privileged class in many ways, often trivializing the characters’ discontents.
Each of the five housewives in Arlington Park wish for their independence in one way or another. You can feel them, as their thoughts tumble and multiply in their heads, feeling bogged down in their comfortable lives, and the ways they push back are small. One, Solly, claims a personal victory for being the first in Arlington Park to rent out a room to a foreign exchange student. Marnie complains openly about her poor decision to leave London. Christine, while fighting with husband Joe, ogles her friend’s husband, Dave.
It’s in these details, the absurd and fruitless ways the women try to break out of their mold, that give the novel its most successful elements. A scene in which the group of women travel to a mall and try on revealing clothing, which they claim to be too old or out-of-shape for, is as hilarious as it is sad. And when the women lash out in frustration—handling a child too hard after it draws on a couch cushion, for example—the confused and self-loathing reactions are subtle and honest.
But the language of the book can be problematic overall. Where Woolf’s sentences coil themselves into knots only to untangle and then repeat the cycle, the formality of Cusk’s language here is mostly surface. In one way her heightened language and overuse of adverbs, and description overall, serves to create a cadence for the women’s confinement. It is a language that is mannered and often takes up too much space saying too little. And while that does sometimes match up with the quiet, quotidian action of the book, all too often the line between meaningful syntax and authorial excess is blurred.
It also manages to mash all the women together as the book moves along. We get inside a number of different heads, though our narrator remains outside of the story. Still, to move from mind to mind, one would expect even minor shifts in language, in sentence structure, in tone. But that doesn’t really happen in Arlington Park, and the sameness of the language renders the women’s troubles, and their stories, similarly vague. In one way, this could be the point to the novel. That we see the same fights happening over and over again, see the women wishing for a freedom they never really define, maybe Cusk is using them to get at a larger point. That these women put themselves in their situation, that they’ve made their cushy bed and must lie in it.
But this reading is as problematic as a reading free of satire. In either case, these women show an alarming lack of agency. Their stasis is very real, and well-rooted in everyday tasks, but their inability to push back in any way makes for characters the reader could pull for—if only they would meet you halfway. The small, silly rebellions the women attempt that are both charming and compelling early on don’t lead to anything substantive Their moments of defiance remain small, often internal, and eventually repetitive.
Arlington Park is good at setting up a distinct place, one we might not know, and establishing that world’s mood and manner. But, rather than use it as a foundation on which to layer complex and empathetic characters, Cusk has chosen to let the world act on the characters, and not the other way around.
Whether she’s on their side or not, Cusk stacks even their own natures against them and in the end, you’re tired of their complaints, and tired of the world they live in. But you can’t really blame them for being angry about their roles in Arlington Park. They don’t really have a fighting chance.