There seems to be something about the shortlists for juried awards that invites explanation. When it comes to the Clarke Award, for instance, spectators will quite often — and often quite confidently — pick out “the core sf book”, “the mainstream book”, and so on, as though the shortlist was an act of design. The truth, of course, is that shortlists aren’t chosen with such considerations in mind; but there is still something about the act of shortlisting that divides, rather than unites. As soon as you’ve said that these six books are the six best sf novels (or whatever) of the year, what separates them becomes more interesting than what they share. When it comes to the Orange Prize, we might tongue-in-cheek say that the slots to be filled include “the historical novel”, “the romance”, and “the domestic novel” — and then put Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park neatly in the latter. But straight away, comparison to, say, The Accidental (which was on last year’s shortlist, and could quite easily be described as domestic, and is enormously different in style and tone) makes it obvious that this apparently-narrow category is, like all literary categories, infinitely divisible.
Conveniently for me, Arlington Park is itself an attempt to make a similar point. It switches between a handful of women, but is set in one place, over the course of one day, a formal choice that says: look at these women, see how they’re all nominally the same but in fact living such different lives. Look how divisible, how capacious, are the categories “wife” and “mother”. The prologue frames the novel with an explicitly panoramic portrait of a generic English city, “its streets always crawling with indiscriminate life … too mercilessly dramatic … to look at that view you’d think that a human life was meaningless. You’d think that a day meant nothing at all” (4-5). But, it is implied, you’d be wrong, and so we begin our tour, visiting Juliet (and husband Benedict), Amanda (and husband James), Christine (and husband Joe), Solly (and husband Martin) and Maisie (and husband Dom) in turn, as they walk their different paths through their Friday, variously taking in a school run, a coffee morning, a trip to a mall (has the Americanism really become so widespread?), a literary club, putting the children to bed, and a dinner party. It’s an uneven novel, sometimes interesting, sometimes less so, but crucially we aren’t allowed to forget that frame. At the half-way mark comes another impersonal panorama, this time of a park at lunchtime, where mothers observe “The whole mechanism of the world, running on, running like a machine … for them, it was a form of agony to watch it … the women were as though snared in the mechanism … every movement caused them pain” (147-8). (Sure, Tiptree said it better and more succinctly, but it’s still a powerful image.) And it’s true: the women of Arlington Park are weighed down by the burdens of marriage and (perhaps particularly) motherhood; but they are stoics, or so it seems at first. The pain never makes them scream.
Closing the frame, towards the end of the book one character experiences “a sense of perspective, of the reach of the universe, of its strange but necessary dimensions. It was this sense of order,” she concludes, “that allowed life in Arlington Park to be what it was” (222). As it is with Arlington Park, so it is with Arlington Park, because the boldest thing about the novel is that most of its characters are boring or unpleasant or both; they represent the smuggest of the smug middle-classes, variously petty, hypocritical, bigoted, bitter, heroically self-absorbed, or some combination of the above (there is the occasional punk hairdresser or peroxide-haired au pair, but such women are distinctly marginal in this town). They refuse sympathy to such an extent that I think Cusk only pulls off the trick — and then only barely — because of the presence of that external perspective, which allows us to acknowledge her women without, necessarily, judging them.
Take Maisie, who as the book’s outsider — she has recently moved to Arlington Park with her husband, in an attempt to escape the London rat-race — might be expected to be someone the reader can take as a guide. No such luck. After another samey day of housewifely ennui, she is so thoroughly ennervated that Dom’s arrival home from work causes her to experience “a vertiginous sense of event” (169); she is so thoroughly dissociated from her life that it feels like a play, as though she and Dom are acting out roles of “husband” and “wife”. But her neurosis has become unreasonable. When Dom offers to get the children ready for bed (because they’re going, like most of the rest of the characters, to a dinner party at Christine and Joe’s place), she says no, she’ll do it; but when he comments on the time (“Did you realise it’s seven-fifteen?”)
She rose, wondering why he didn’t put the children to bed himself if he cared so much what the time was. She guessed the answer was that he had taken her at her word: she had said she would do it. He probably thought there was some important, sentimental reason why, a reason that might even have been himself, tired at the end of his week’s work: if this were so, it struck her as sad that he had to fabricate her generosity towards him out of so little material, or make a point of honour out of something that didn’t really exist. (182)
Bear in mind that Maisie and Dom have just had a reasonably lengthy conversation; that Dom has done the washing-up Maisie created during the day; that Dom has explicitly asked Maisie what’s wrong, and refused to take “everything’s fine” for an answer (but gave up when he didn’t get any further). It is, for sure, impressive that we don’t immediately condemn Maisie for her own stupidity in refusing to talk to her husband — the husband she loves, and who shows every sign of loving her — because Cusk has so effectively conveyed the weight of situation (and perhaps guilt, given that it was Maisie’s choice to leave London) that has put Maisie in this bind. If she’s done so in a rather long-winded and ennervating fashion, well, it could be argued that’s only an accurate reflection of Maisie’s experience. But it’s also an incredibly alienating choice of characterisation, particularly in light of the later strong hints that Dom is not oblivious, that he knows how Maisie feels and is trying his best to be there for her. Maisie’s inability to look up — to see the bigger picture that Cusk reminds us is there, to see the way out of the situation she has created for herself — is, deliberately, infuriating; deliberately pushes us away from sympathy.
The same tension is there with almost every other character. All of them have been trapped, largely by their own choices, into a comfortable life they now chafe against. Some of them despair, some of them have perfected almost Stockholm Syndrome levels of doublethink. But none of them are glossed. All of them come with warts. Amanda’s morbid thoughts are numbing; the rather touching relationship that Solly starts to develop with her lodger, Paola, is soured by the casually racist assumptions she makes when advertising the vacancy. (She advertises for “a foreigner”, because disruptive children underfoot “won’t seem so bad” to them, 114.) The most thoroughly ambiguous character is perhaps Juliet Randall. She nurtures a deep feminist anger about her life, and about what she sees as the casual way in which her husband “[runs] off their joint life as if it were a generator fuelled by [her]” (11), yet never actually does anything about it — never screams out at the pain caused by the world-machine; never, for instance, even talks to her husband about it — and draws only the most extreme conclusions. “All men are murderers … They take a woman, and little by little they murder her.” (It crossed my mind that the confluence of the initials “JR” and this level of anger may not be a coincidence, may be a nod to Joanna Russ and The Female Man, in which all the characters, including a domestically-trapped one are JRs; but if it is a nod, I can’t help feeling it’s a somewhat ambivalent one.) Juliet’s “secret life” is the literary club she runs, one Friday afternoon a month, at the school where she works part-time. Her passion for this part of her life is admirable; her didacticism perhaps a little less so. “They were meant to select the book for the next month’s discussion by committee,” we are told, “but unrepentantly Juliet steered them towards works that represented the truth, as she saw it, of female experience” (154). It’s hard not to feel that Juliet is treating literature, and the reading group, as an echo chamber, seeking validation for her anger, rather than taking the opportunity to look out at the wide world, to see what others have seen. There is a suggestion, late on, that she realises this, that she is going to at last do something to improve her life; but here, unlike with Maisie, Cusk’s characterisation failed me: it’s hard to believe that Juliet really has woken from the nightmare of her life.
This may all sound a little second-hand: it may be meant to. Everything in Arlington Park echoes; everything carries the sense that it has happened before, and will happen again. There’s even a moment of admiration for a plastic bag tormented by gusts of wind, American Beauty-style, although no reference to Desperate Housewives. When Christine, at a coffee morning hosted by Amanda (and deftly choreographed by Cusk, given the number of characters present), exclaims “It’s not what you’d think, it it? I say to Joe, look, it can get really heavy on a coffee morning, you don’t believe me but it can” (70), the reader’s immediate response (or at least, my immediate response) is: oh, it’s exactly what I’d think. Ersatz conversations about ersatz lives. Sure enough, Christine’s relentless positivity (tainted, once again, by various stripes of bigotry) is revealed as something, well, a little more desperate: she feels “the vulnerability of her grasp on the real, the authentic life” (81), except that — oh, black black humour — her version of “the authentic life” is Arlington Park. Christine lives with “dread, the terror of falling into shadow, of going back to where she’d been before” (214-5), and her apparent optimism, which is at first nakedly ridiculous — she claims “the people I see [in Arlington Park] every day are the most diverse, interesting, courageous group of people you’ll find anywhere!”, when everything in the book indicates the opposite — gradually becomes something more tragic. She may not believe in herself, but she believes in her friends, in their lives, in their happiness, or forces herself to believe, and she’s damned if she’s going to disappoint them.
Christine perhaps has more in common with Juliet and Maisie than any of them would suspect (if only they would talk!), or perhaps has just fallen further. They are a category after all, even if divided: all of them are worn down by a daily grind and the resentment it inspires, all of them come to know, to a greater or less extent, that there is more out there, even if it doesn’t know or care about them. Christine’s epiphany, which crowns the novel, actually has some force, despite its drunken belatedness. “You’ve got to love life,” she confides to Benedict, at the party, “You’ve got to love just — being alive.” “But how will anyone know you loved it?” he asks, and Christine replies, with pathetic truth, “Why would anyone need to know that?” (237) If Arlington Park is less than the sum of its parts — and it is; you may have noticed I’ve said almost nothing about Amanda and Solly, and there’s a reason for that — then some of the parts do justify the whole, just about. But it’s a curious experience. We look up from the last page frustrated and fascinated, wanting to scream, both at these women and on their behalf; but, like them, we are too tired.