Rachel Cusk is one of those writers who seem to have been born with seven or eight laser-like senses rather than the usual poorly functioning five. She can write about almost anything — a shopping mall, a teenage schoolgirl, even a kitchen — and render each so vividly it’s as if you’d never come across anything like them before.
As with Saul Bellow or Martin Amis, it all comes down to voice, tone and vision, though presented here with a feminist twist and an environmental awareness that seeps through the prose. If you like the book, it will be because you like the way Cusk writes — she’s as quotable as a poet. There certainly isn’t much story to carry the reader forward. About a group of white, upper-middle-class mothers in their late 30s seemingly condemned to lives of meaningless repetition in a prosperous English suburb, Arlington Park is like a season of Desperate Housewives in which sex is replaced by envy or physical revulsion and with its big scenes amounting to little more than a haircut, a visit to a shopping mall, a dinner party and a hell of a lot of rain.
“All night the rain fell on Arlington Park,” the novel begins. “The clouds came from the west: clouds like dark cathedrals, clouds like machines, clouds like black blossoms flowering in the arid starlit sky . . . At midnight they reached the city, valiantly glittering in its shallow provincial basin. Unseen, they grew like a second city overhead, thickening, expanding, throwing up their savage monuments, their towers, their monstrous, unpeopled palaces of cloud.”
It was “clouds like machines” that hooked me. That slight sense of derangement, of imagination overtaking reality, the extraterrestrial note in a novel otherwise deeply wedged in that most fundamental of subjects, motherhood, is characteristic of the book as a whole. Arlington Park, which on the surface does nothing more than describe a verdant middle-class English suburb while peering into the psyches of its inhabitants as if they were shop windows, can make most novels look numbly one-dimensional by comparison.
Cusk, who is 39, was born in Canada, spent part of her childhood in Los Angeles and now lives in Bristol, England — popularly known by Londoners who move there as the place “where ambition goes to die.” Hers doesn’t seem to have. She has written five previous novels, including Saving Agnes and In the Fold, as well as one work of nonfiction, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother.
The disillusioned sound of that last title fits in well with her new novel, though it would be misleading to overemphasize the element of drudgery: This isn’t a novel about changing diapers. The larger topic is a deep sense of bewildered alienation tinged variously by bitterness, repression and anger. “They weren’t interested any more in things you could lose . . . ,” Cusk writes sardonically of her disillusioned mothers. “They were interested in things that stayed with you forever: houses, possibly husbands. And themselves, of course. What they wanted to avoid was destruction. Like politicians, they were interested in survival.”
Yet the sheer zest with which Cusk sets down her characters’ thoughts, dreams, frustrations and tirades, as well as their almost comical estrangement from the husbands who come and go from their homes like fleshly automata, makes for exhilarating, sometimes hilarious reading. There is also the lingering mystery as to the source of their malaise. Is it because of the selfishness of men? Juliet, a schoolteacher who once dreamed of achieving greater things, blames her husband, Benedict, for having “murdered” her life, and she walks around in a mist of barely suppressed rage. But Benedict (also a teacher, locally famous for having persuaded working-class gangsta kids to appreciate Shakespeare) hardly seems villainous.
Is it the deadening effects of suburbia? In many ways, Arlington Park would seem to be ideal. Maisie, a 30-something film editor, thinks how impossible it would have been to remain with her husband and children “in the churn of London, the great rotating machine, flogging themselves across the city and back in order to work, always living their lives neck-deep in people and cars and chaos, in the thick vortex of multitudinous screaming wants . . .” Yet now, away from the maelstrom, she feels like a deportee, “unhistoried, displaced.”
Perhaps it is simply the endless slavery of motherhood itself? Amanda, a cleaning-obsessive who thinks of her car as her “true companion” and her house as a “vault,” watches her fellow mothers standing in the rain outside the local school, and views them as “lost, unfocused, like a demoralised troop of soldiers in a long, obscure campaign.” Yet her despondency turns to revulsion during a trip to the butcher’s: “Carcasses hung lividly from hooks in the window . . . Chickens sat in anonymous lines like parked cars, their pimpled, denuded flesh tightly wrapped in plastic.”
Perhaps it’s simply age, wear and tear? Another mother, Solly, thinks of her once slender body as a “village that over time had sprawled and grown until it became a bustling centre, cut through with new roads and modern developments, some of them unsightly.” She gets in an argument with her husband, Martin, about “stylishness,” or rather its lack. “I’m not saying it’s all your fault,” Martin tells her. “It goes with the territory, that’s all. Children and style don’t mix. There’s all their stuff, for a start. How can you be stylish when you’re always sitting down on pieces of Lego, or stepping in some half-eaten thing they’ve left on the floor, or having to watch videos about weird creatures with television sets in their stomachs?”
As Arlington Park proceeds, the environmental theme becomes more pronounced. One of the few instances of pure beauty (and of unsullied companionship also) comes when Juliet glimpses two swans “flying side by side, throats outstretched, beneath the descending night. Their bodies were a pale, unearthly white; together they flew in a kind of ecstasy, lifting themselves from the shadows with their slow, labouring wings . . . Side by side they flew, beautiful and alive, exulting.”
Contrast that with the visit the mothers make to the restaurant on the top floor of the Merrywood shopping mall, with its view of the car park, motorway, and a dead seagull on its roof, and where “uniformed workers move around the tables with big sacks, sweeping the discarded casings of dead lunches.”
At the dinner party with which the novel concludes, deeper possibilities are suggested. One of the husbands, Joe, announces flatly that “The English race is dying out.” Juliet’s husband, Benedict, finds the declaration slightly absurd. “We all look pretty English here to me,” he says, looking at the white faces gathered around the table. Nonetheless, he asks Joe if he thinks the end of the Anglo-Saxons would be a tragedy.
“I think it’s sad,” said Joe.
“In what way sad?”
“Sad that we won’t exist.”
“What’s your evidence that we won’t?”
“I don’t need evidence,” said Joe. “I see it with my own eyes.”
Later, Benedict quotes from Philip Larkin’s famous poem, “Going, Going,” about the destruction of England’s rural and cultural patrimony:
And that will be England gone
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
Like the use of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, this rings slightly false, a literary deus ex machina that’s a little heavy-handed and overly theatrical. But its signal that something is felt to be near its end — culturally, racially, environmentally — is as good an explanation as any for the extravagant dissatisfaction and wild sense of futility suffered by the characters in Arlington Park. Dutifully, they have gone forth and multiplied. But in service of what world, and for what purpose, they seem anxiously, miserably unsure.
ARLINGTON PARK | By RACHEL CUSK | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 248 pages | $23 hardcover
Brendan Bernhard is the television critic for The New York Sun.