Rachel Cusk, Arlington Park (2006)

Did you ever fear that a book would rub off on you? It took me a while to finish Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park, but I couldn’t decide which way was best (or least disturbing): to read it a few pages at a time and remain in the deleterious atmosphere for longer, or read it intensively and be done with it sooner, but at the risk of getting seriously depressed?

It’s not that Arlington Park is a bad book at all, it’s just difficult to bear. In the course of a day spent at Arlington Park, an upper-middle class suburb of London, you get to meet several suburban housewives, each more depressed and frustrated than the next: “Desperate Housewives” without the humor, the glamour and the double-entendre. Juliet Randall, the first one, believes that husbands are murderers, that they kill their wives by belittling them, denying their ambitions and aspirations, making them ordinary although they seemed destined to be exceptional when they were young, “stars shooting out into space”. Amanda is obsessive compulsive. Christine tries to cheer up the girlfriends group, but she hardly hides her own depression and resentment against her husband. (There were other characters, but I felt they were all more or less alike in their boredom and isolation). At the end of the day, they all gather at Christine’s for dinner, and it slowly unravels into a slow-motion explosion, that reminds me of Antonioni’s movie Zabriskie Point.

This book tells of the banality of life, but it oozes bitterness. Yes, most people’s life is boring and unexceptional, but why make a novel out of it? I’m not sure at all what Cusk wants to tell us. I’m not sure she feels for her characters either. I can see the parallel with Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for her existential anguish over her empty life, but to me Woolf’s heroin wasn’t bitter (or am I wrong? I’ve read Mrs. Dalloway ages ago, and now my memory is tainted with the Hollywood movie “The Hours”, which was good, but maybe untrue to Woolf and her book). There’s something disturbing and unpleasant in these vague accusations hurled against men and children, held responsible for these women’s unhappiness.

“Earlier in the afternoon, Maisie had thrown Elsie’s lunchbox at the kitchen wall, where it burst like a firework and sent up a great fountain of wrappers and crumbs and sandwich crusts that pattered slowly down on the worktops. Elsie and Clara watched her do this with a certain confused admiration, until she shouted at them “You’re ruining my life! You’re ruining my life!”- which dispelled their confusion but illuminated their small white faces dramatically with fear, so that they had clung together like children in a fairy tale before a fulminating ogre.”

You just need to take a look at the Amazon readers’ angry response to the book. Rarely did I see so many bad reviews on a book that was otherwise well received by journalists. I guess it’s because of the undercurrent of dark anger that runs in the book, but that is directed nowhere. Some readers (probably stay-at-home mothers) must have felt a target. I kept waiting for something to happen, at least more than those random, useless bouts of verbal violence (Juliet cuts her hair, Christine has a pointless fight with her husband, Maisie shouts at her daughters)… but nothing came.

Beyond the literary exercise (it took me a while to get used to Cusk’s style of numerous adjectives and adverbs and super-heavy metaphors), I see nothing but a great void. Perhaps it’s my fault, perhaps I missed something. Is Cusk attempting to give her (female) readers a jolt so that they rebel and finally do something with their lives? Is it a feminist pamphlet or a denunciation of suburbia? At any case, women don’t come out much better than their fellow weak, conformist, superficial husbands. I felt sorry for both parties.

It’s difficult to remain indifferent to this book and it will probably stick for a while in my memory, but not as a pleasant experience. I’ll certainly want to explore more by Cusk (Litlove recommended A Life’s Work, about motherhood and Cusk’s experience of giving birth), but perhaps not right now. Just give me some time to digest Arlington Park first.

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8 thoughts on “Rachel Cusk, Arlington Park (2006)

  1. The only Rachel Cusk novel I ever read (and I can’t recall now what it was called), I hated. I said I’d never read her again. So A Life’s Work turned out to be a huge surprise, because it felt very different to her fiction. I’ve heard mixed things about Arlington Park and haven’t picked it up myself. But I do know that fear of contamination – I had it for most of the time I was reading Joyce Carol Oates.

  2. My first experience with Cusk was her novel The Lucky Ones which tackles almost the same subject but with much less anger and bitterness. That novel explored the idea of how parenthood changes your life and I felt it was nuanced and interesting, presenting both positives and negatives of such a life-changing event. Then I read Arlington Park and it was like she’d decided there were no positives anymore. I found it a very frustrating read. And I didn’t buy the paradox of all these brilliant, well-off, articulate women completely unable to find solutions or paths toward solutions for their dilemmas.

  3. I read Cusk’s first novel, and hated it so much that I have blocked the title out of my memory. It was well-written, but I remember thinking (and saying to the book group at whose behest I had read it): “Well, this certainly went a long way toward reinforcing every cliched, negative stereotype of single women in Western society.”

  4. I loved Arlington Park – it was rife with feminine discontent and I found it hilarious – her descriptions of the monotony of childrearing and managing a house were spot on and the characters’ confusion about what they had been promised as students and their reality rang true to me. I am perplexed by readers wanting to assume a glamour to the ‘stay at home’. This glamour doesn’t exist and Cusk creates a terrific story that examines this ruse – the ‘All men are murderers’ had me in stitches – I will be quoting it for months (Doesn’t your partner murder you slowly when he asks for the 80th time “Where is the ….?”).

  5. Verbivore – I might try The Lucky One to give Cusk another chance!

    David – certainly Cusk plays with clichés, but at her own risk. Too bad that your experience was so negative!

    Nicky – thanks for dropping by. In retrospect I certainly underestimated the humor part (I remember the scene at the butcher’s though) but to me the voice was more desperate than ironic. IMO that is why so many stay-at-home mothers reacted defensively and angrily at the book (by referring to a glamour that doesn’t exist, I agree with you).

  6. Pingback: Justine Picardie, Wish I May (2004) « Smithereens

  7. Pingback: Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: on becoming a mother (2001) | Smithereens

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