Sunday, February 7, 2016

Tiny Ruins, All Our Exes Live In Texas and Palm Springs at the Curtin Band Room, Melbourne, Saturday 6th February 2016

Palm Springs refers to its front woman’s tendency to develop “clammy hands”. Performing without her band in the slightly stuffy upstairs Curtin Band Room, it could have been nerves, or the temperature, or both. Above an overdriven guitar she sang about a daydream had whilst walking her dog, the apocalypse (particularly as imagined after spending too much time on the internet), being a loner and what happened to her grandfather’s farm after he died. These lyrical themes recall Courtney Barnett, but fortunately they were delivered without the tuneless apathy that’s somehow brought the latter to the world stage. She occasionally broke out into brief guitar solos, which, sounding exposed without a band, brought some welcome edginess to her otherwise fairly well-worn chords. It was a tough crowd this early on, with most people having found “the nearest wall to lean on” as they watched Palm Springs “dying” in her “polyester dress”. More and more people also started to sit on the floor, which, for this loud performer, seemed more about reserving a spot for Tiny Ruins than a desire to listen attentively. Perhaps they were just cooling themselves under the air-conditioner.

The crowd warmed more to All Our Exes Live In Texas, whose clever name sums up what they mostly have to offer: humorous country songs about relationships. Less truncated than Palm Springs, three of the usual four band members made an impressive sound with ukulele, mandolin, accordion, a foot tambourine and lots of vocals. Their polished performance stood in contrast to Palm Springs, but it seemed to be more about nailing the conventions of the genre for entertainment’s sake than much else. (Harmonies swelled on the right lines; smiling faces were briefly averted to deliver evocative stabs of tremolo picking on the mandolin.) And they were terribly entertaining: when a song was narrowly rescued from near collapse due to an attack of laughter, it was aptly described mid-resumed-lyric as “fuckin’ seamless!” Apparently the amusement stemmed from a previous performance of the song in which one of the words came out sounding a little bit too much like “cunt”, particularly considering the children in the audience. “They’ve got to learn,” explained the offending vocalist, “… where they came from.” All of this made the room come alive, but it was an odd mood in which to then await Tiny Ruins’ subtle, emotional music.

Hollie Fullbrook took to the stage and unusually set about miking up her Fender amp, through which she played her acoustic guitar. The resulting bright, harsh sound contrasted with her recordings, but after the first few songs she seemed to relax into a subtler mood, drawing on the power of the setup for occasional dynamic attack. Opening with ‘Tread Softly’ from her most recent release, Fullbrook initially displayed a familiar habit that seems to be borne of nerves: she delivers certain lines like she’s been putting them off, nodding her head greatly as though terribly self-conscious about reproducing what her audience knows from her recordings. It seemed to go away in the two new songs she played, ‘Dream Wave’ and ‘One Thousand Flowers’; in the latter and newer of the two she seemed to retreat into herself a little, making less eye contact and smiling to herself as she sung complex lyrics that the audience didn’t know yet.

That’s the appeal of Tiny Ruins: there is something inward about her music which she is nevertheless able to share with others. Her lyrics are often drawn from not entirely remarkable moments in her life. ‘Me at the Museum, You in the Wintergardens’ drew a cheer from the crowd before it began, the song clearly having become part of their own lives, yet as Hollie explained, its lyrics are “very literal”: a fantasy arising out of a job she applied for, unsuccessfully, at the Auckland Museum. In the encore she brought out ‘Adelphi Apartments’ from her 2011 debut, which similarly was inspired by a real apartment complex of that name which she used to walk past every day. Fullbrook’s apparent self-consciousness sees her reach for these stories, which are often tinged with humour, in order to show rather than tell us directly her feelings. ‘Priest with Balloons’, also from her debut, drew a giggle from the audience on the line “Or did he just want to go out with a bang, so to speak?” You can almost imagine Fullbrook quite happily documenting and giving meaning to her own life by writing these songs and not showing them to anyone. But luckily for us, alongside her inwardness seems to be the urge to share, to perform. And that was on display last night in her voice, which seems to have grown more assertive even since her last recording.

The stuffy band room air that set Palm Springs’ palms a’ springing early on brought further problems during Tiny Ruins’ set, with her second or third song being punctuated by the sound of an audience member apparently collapsing. Fullbrook wisely kept playing to avoid unnecessary fuss, signalling for help and offering a bottle of water from the stage. This incident, apparently marking Hollie’s third fainting victim (“You‘re like a Beatle!” someone quipped), saw the venue staff bringing what eventually became an almost amusingly large quantity of water bottles to the front of the crowd, which people began to take as though having suddenly realised how hot they were. I found myself standing directly in the flow of the air conditioner and spent most of Tiny Ruins’ set hugging myself. All of these goings on are apparent at a Tiny Ruins gig, where quiet moments in the music reveal sounds that remind you where you are: last night it was the strange hiss of the smoke machine, at a previous gig it was the thump of a neighbouring nightclub every time the soundproof door was opened. You get lost in the music and then you’re briefly brought back to the mundane, only to have it remind you that that’s where the magic comes from: moments from real life set to music and transformed into something else. This was only my second Tiny Ruins gig, but there is already a defining moment in her performances for me. The chorus of ‘Reasonable Man’ was one of the first moments in her music that struck me, partly because the lyrics make a rare break from storytelling to deliver a line as direct as “Now my world is crumbling down”. On the recording, the chorus swells as the other instruments join the guitar and vocals, but performed solo, Fullbrook moves up the fretboard and the bass notes drop out: the music seems to float, ungrounded. Last night I felt like I’d floated up too for those twenty or so seconds, hanging by the air conditioner: steeped in reality and loving it.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Review: The Children Act - Ian McEwan (2014) McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act (2014), seems to be carried more than anything by familiar details, or McEwanisms, despite the story unfolding amongst several ethical minefields. The overarching science versus religion debate that has appeared in many of his recent novels is again front and centre: Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, must decide whether to allow doctors to provide life-saving treatment to a Jehovah’s Witness teenager, against his wishes. She must focus solely on the welfare of the child - “This court takes no view on the afterlife,” her judgement notes - and McEwan uses this limitation to personalise the conflict. The story is more an exploration of Fiona’s relationship with the boy, than a meditation on science and religion. Here McEwan departs from the approach taken in Saturday (2005), in which a neurosurgeon mostly thinks to himself about the perils of religion on a global scale, after witnessing the apparent downing of a plane by terrorists, which turns out to be merely an accident. The deepest he allows Fiona to wade into the debate here, apart from the side she inevitably takes in her judgement, is a paragraph in which she spirals into a kind of postmodern paralysis, where “religions, moral systems, her own included,” are like “peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a great distance, none obviously higher, more important, truer than another”.

Whether this partial retreat from writing a ‘novel of ideas’ has anything to do with McEwan’s choice of a female protagonist is an interesting question, but he does generally handle the gender challenge well. The other major theme which, like the science and religion question, does little to carry the novel, is the tension between professional and personal lives. Apart from Fiona’s relationship with the teenager, Adam, the narrative is driven by the breakdown of her thirty year marriage to a history professor, Jack. One of the fault lines in their relationship is its failure to produce any children - mostly a result of the two workaholics putting it off, not finding the time. Fiona’s professional success as the ultimate guardian of countless children in the family court is set against her failure to rear any of her own, let alone, now, maintain a stable domestic life of any kind. This idea of contrasting the two domains sometimes appears in the novel too overtly, as though McEwan never got around to turning it into writing: “She thought her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? … She had the power to remove a child from an unkind parent and she sometimes did. But remove herself from an unkind husband? … Where was her protective judge?” That last question reads like a note scribbled as McEwan conceived the idea for the novel, but it may just be Fiona’s self-deprecating expression of the literary potential of her situation.

The personal threatens to derail the professional more severely in what is possibly the most interesting turn in the narrative, when Fiona’s growing attachment to Adam is revealed momentarily to be perhaps something more than motherly. Her fleeting and barely sexual faux pas with the teenager (who has conveniently just turned eighteen) pales in comparison with her husband’s behaviour at the beginning of the novel, when he openly declares that he, who like Fiona is in his sixties, is having a sexual affair with a twenty-eight-year old. While Jack more or less expects his wife to accept his desire for “one last go” at recapturing the “ecstasy” of youth, Fiona is utterly surprised by the ambiguous feelings she barely has time to discover with the young Adam.

McEwan rightly identifies the dogged persistence of sexual double standards, even into the relationships of highly educated liberals, and reminds us how an enlightened intellect is not always enough: “Jack Maye had come of age in the 1970s among all its currents of thought. He had taught in a university his entire adult life. He knew all about the illogic of double standards, but knowing could not protect him. She saw the anger in his face, tightening the muscles along his jaw, hardening his eyes.” What he doesn’t explore is the possibility that Fiona’s failure to be a mother may have something to do with the impulse Adam arouses in her. While McEwans paints both Fiona and Jack as preoccupied with work, a description of “how good Jack was with children” (he reads visiting nieces and nephews bedtime stories with “booming comic energy and a talent for the voices”) does enable a contrasting image of Fiona as somebody who pours her energy into her career, rather than being a parent, and who perhaps is not averse to milking all the sexual pleasure that life has to offer either. This is an identity we attach easily enough to men, as we do with Jack. It feels like McEwan missed an opportunity to explore the difficulty we have attaching it to women, though Fiona’s inability to even articulate a connection between her childlessness and her feelings for Adam may be the kind of silence that speaks louder than words.

In any case, it’s the McEwanisms, the familiar details that could have been worked into any novel, that provide the most enjoyable reading. Many of these extend from his continued focus on the professional classes (in Saturday we spend time with a neurosurgeon, in Sweet Tooth a mathematics graduate who ends up working as an intelligence agent). Sometimes it is simply a way of writing, the use of language humorously too learned for its subjects: “She watched a neighbour’s cat down below pick a fastidious route around a puddle and dissolve into the darkness beneath a shrub”. The earnest nature even of small talk amongst McEwan’s characters is parodied in the way he describes it: “There followed some obligatory conversation about the violent weather. Then, a digression on how people over fifty and all Americans still inhabited a Fahrenheit world. Next, on how British newspapers, for maximum impact, reported cold weather in Celsius, hot in Fahrenheit.” There is the occasional intrusion of the wider contemporary world into their often cloistered professional lives. In one of the most enjoyable scenes, an exhausted Fiona visits a convenience store as she walks home from work at eleven o’clock at night. Ignoring the “garish packaged goods”, she stands weighing up “various fruits in her hand”, before buying them from a “nimble Asian lad working at the till”. Then there are the recollections of youthful sex in not entirely comfortable or private student accommodation, and the description of sex as being like “tumbling backwards” - an image that dates as far back as The Child in Time, published in 1987. There is no female violinist this time, but Fiona plays piano in a classical duo whose performance forms a pivotal scene. And as with the recitation of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ in Saturday, which temporarily suspends the progress of a home invasion, the transformational power of verse is revisited here when Fiona sings a Britten setting of a Yeats poem. The fact that these familiar yet often incidental touches are the highlights in a novel that has ample thematic material to draw on is not a criticism of McEwan, but rather a testament to the renewable pleasure of reading his unique voice.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Scene from the childhood of a stranger

It’s remarkable how comforting it can be to witness a little scene of momentary peace in a family with young children. We seem to be far more likely to take notice of misbehaving children and parents at their wits’ end, perhaps because of our natural inclination to be always on the lookout for potential conflict. Yesterday as I exited a supermarket and began to walk along the perimeter of a suburban shopping centre, I overheard a brief exchange, beginning with a little girl calling out to her sister as she rounded a corner, “Daddy said stop running!”. Her sister did stop, but she also displayed that wonderful talent children have for obeying an instruction to stop doing something and simultaneously beginning to do something even more annoying instead. Rather than walking at a sensible pace like her polite sister, the little girl began to pause on the path to make dramatic gestures out towards the car park and howl like a wolf. At this point the other girl appealed to her mother: “Daddy said to stop running,” to which her mother replied “I know, and you reminded her and she did,” ruffling the little girl’s hair on the top of her head, which was collected at the back of her neck in a sensible-looking ponytail. It was at this point that I overtook the family, edging awkwardly past the little wolf, whom I suspect secretly appreciated my presence because it enabled her to be more disruptive. Walking ahead, I couldn’t tell exactly who was involved in the next development, but it began with the father, at the head of the pack, beginning to join in the baying and howling. His more convincing deeper register seemed to excite further the little girl, and in the ensuing commotion I began to sense that the whole family had become wolves, making quite a noise in the darkening evening as they walked along.

There was so much to treasure in this little scene. The first girl’s total faith in her father as an authority figure was confirmed only by deference to another, her mother: “Daddy said to stop running,” she had said, a little sulkily, her exasperation already beginning to give way to the realisation that perhaps it did not really matter so much. The mother’s choice of words in her reply - “I know, and you reminded her and she did,” - seemed remarkably deft: the little girl’s relaying of her father’s instruction had come only seconds after he gave it himself, so it hardly made sense that her sister could need to be “reminded”. But the mother twisted reality a little bit to make her daughter feel better about her overreaction, patting her head in a gesture that simultaneously said “I’m on your side,” and “You’re a little bit of a goody two shoes and it’s cute.” Then the whole family joining in the howling: how truly did they seem a family in that moment - a tight little pack, unconcerned about the opinions of passers-by, who had not shared their preceding day, in the context of which it probably seemed perfectly reasonable to begin howling like wolves. I felt great admiration for the parents: they seemed to live life at some great distance from me, in some second stage, where self-consciousness has been well and truly beaten out of you. The little girl having her hair ruffled struck me: here was a moment in her childhood, which seemed to hold the possibility of keeping her from falling off the tracks in the future. She wouldn’t remember it, yet her mother’s tenderness would be stored somewhere: it would count for something. But in the commotion a little lesson for the girl, too: don’t be too sure you always know what the right thing to do is - sometimes it is better to howl like a wolf.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why Preference Deals Don’t Always Call the Shots in Elections

Data released by the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) on the results of the recent election of Geelong’s first popularly elected mayor show that voters don’t always follow the “how to vote” advice given by candidates. The VEC have released a spreadsheet showing how preferences were distributed in the counting of votes (they also provide an explanation of how preferential voting works). Frank Rozpara received the lowest number of first preferences, so his ballot papers were distributed to the other candidates, but not in the way he would have liked. In his candidate statement, Rozpara listed his preferences as follows:

1. Rozpara
2. Mitchell
3. Robin
4. Uzelac
5. Smith
6. Bull
7. Asher
8. Watt
9. Fagg

But the spreadsheet reveals that, on average, Rozpara’s supporters actually voted like this:

1. Rozpara
2. Mitchell
3. Watt
4. Bull
5. Asher
6. Smith
7. Fagg
8. Uzelac
9. Robin

Instead of preferencing Robin and Uzelac third and fourth, Rozpara’s voters put them last on the ballot paper. They also put Rozpara’s second last choice, Watt, in the third top spot.

We are only talking about 1540 voters, which amounts to 1.22% of the total vote. It isn’t possible to work out how the supporters of a more popular candidate like John Mitchell voted, because by the time Mitchell’s ballot papers were distributed, the two candidates he recommended for second and third place in his candidate statement had already been eliminated. So we can’t know whether Mitchell’s voters followed his advice or not. But the example of Rozpara’s supporters shows that voters are willing to take decisions about preferences into their own hands.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Arlington Park: the contemporary twenty-four-hour novel

Here's an extended book review, which also has something to say about my favourite kind of novel - the twenty-four-hour novel.

Arlington Park: the contemporary twenty-four-hour novel

I came upon England-based author Rachel Cusk and her 2006 novel Arlington Park by a strange means. Her first novel, Saving Agnes, had become the victim of a little book dismemberment of mine. Such is my talent for lyric writing that I had resorted to collecting phrases from books and assembling them into something that sounded half decent (and only half plagiarised). Saving Agnes had done nothing to deserve such a fate; it merely seemed to contain an adequate supply of transferable language when I picked it up off the shelf in an op shop. In fact, as I leafed through it later, scissors in hand, I found myself reading well beyond my selections. The novel seemed to perpetuate itself despite my attempts to reduce it to a catalogue of language. And so I produced the dilemma: it was only now, after removing several phrases from random pages throughout it, that I decided I might like to read Saving Agnes. But this was the only copy I could get my hands on (given my record, perhaps this was for the best). The closest my local library could offer was another of Cusk’s novels, published thirteen years after her first. And so I picked up Arlington Park, its pages owing their security solely to my responsibilities as a member of a public library.

Most authors respect their readers. I would place Rachel Cusk in this category, but, alas, not myself, for I have just engaged a paragraph break as though having reached the end of my anecdote, and yet am about to disappoint you greatly. There is just a little bit more of the story I must tell, because I think it has had a significant impact on my reception of the novel. I borrowed a large-print edition of Arlington Park, the pages of which bore to my able eyes an unfortunate resemblance to a manuscript submitted for editing, its abundant white space implying faults waiting to be notated. A provocative writer, Cusk may well set out to invite criticism, but surely not quite so literally. These opening remarks are given in defence of Cusk, in case what follows should become unfairly critical.

Arlington Park is written in the tradition of the twenty-four-hour novel, a genre whose most famous works include Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). More recently, Ian McEwan made a notable contribution to the genre with Saturday (2005), tracing the privileged but complex life of a London neurosurgeon during the lead-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. These authors are not part of some extreme literary subculture, wracking their brains and fingers to produce an entire novel as the twenty-four hours tick down. Rather they set the present action of their novels within the confines of a single day. This formal restriction immediately produces two significant peculiarities in the resulting novel. Firstly, because the authors generally still write the length of a conventional novel, but have significantly less plot to get through, they are forced to employ much greater (sometimes incredible) detail in their depiction of events, in order to reach the desired word count. This can be very satisfying for the reader, whose own life can only ever proceed at a similarly detailed, moment-by-moment pace. Indeed, one can become very jealous of the characters in conventional novels, who seem able to make sense of their lives by virtue of moving through them at such a rate that whole months, even years, can be easily recalled and assembled into coherent narratives as needed.

But the second peculiarity of the twenty-four-hour novel offers us something of a reprieve in this regard. While most novels of any depth consider their characters’ pasts in order to make sense of the present action, often moving freely between points in time in order to tell the story, the twenty-four-hour novel is particularly concerned with this process. It has to be; it is really the only other way, besides the detail, to reach the word count. And so while much of Mrs Dalloway is concerned with the events occurring on a single day in early 1920s London, a large part of the novel describes events that happened some decades earlier in another part of the country. These earlier events are recalled because they have major influence on how the characters conduct themselves in the present situations. Thus the twenty-four-hour novel consoles us in our contingent, uncharted lives, by reminding us how rich a wealth of experience we have, and the degree to which it informs our actions, however inexplicable and arbitrary they may seem at the time.

So we have set out the possibilities, and perhaps the potential pitfalls, of the genre. How does Arlington Park fare then? Like McEwan in Saturday, Cusk sets her novel in present-day England, and takes the opportunity to comment on several contemporary trends, including consumerism, globalisation and the state of race relations in the country. However, by virtue of her choice of characters through which to tell the story, Cusk comes out with an entirely different novel to McEwan. Where McEwan creates an uncommonly esteemed and privileged character in order to produce a largely optimistic picture of contemporary London (though told with a healthy sense of irony), Cusk takes the perspective of several mostly house-bound mothers, who are generally unsatisfied with the social position they have come to occupy. Consequently, it is an overwhelmingly pessimistic novel. It is arguable which author has taken on the greater challenge: while McEwan does well to avoid cynicism, Cusk must somehow maintain her readers’ interest whilst offering hardly any rewards along the way.

As if she has not already made the task hard enough, Cusk also chooses to write from the perspective of several unsympathetic characters. There is at least one chapter in which she employs this tactic to great effect. Three women visit a suburban shopping mall, attempting in the process to forget momentarily their age and their lives as mothers. Cusk’s brushstrokes in this chapter are fine but they all add up to a single, fierce condemnation of consumer culture. Christine and Stephanie, each accompanied by a small child, display a largely uncritical attitude towards their exploits in the mall. Christine’s overall tendency to remain at the surface level is encapsulated in the chapter’s dismissive closing sentence: “It was just one of those things about life,” (p. 176). Maisie, in contrast, appears dulled into a grave silence by the experience. In what is surely a nod to Virginia Woolf’s fleeting sketch in Mrs Dalloway of one Maisie Johnson, who has just arrived in London from Edinburgh (Woolf 2007a, pp. 143-4), Cusk’s Maisie has recently moved from London to Arlington Park (the fictional suburban setting of the novel). As such she is attributed what Christine considers a certain “sensibility” derived from city life (p. 138). It is Maisie who notices a group of “Gypsies” living in caravans next to the mall’s car park, and takes pity on them: “What a place to have to live. Right where people come to pick up their sofas,” (pp. 139-40). And yet Cusk only allows access to Maisie’s sensibility through her speech, which is occasional and subdued, and through a critical reading of Christine’s impressions, which form much of the narration in this chapter. Christine is so incapable of empathising with the “Gypsies” that she misinterprets Maisie’s comments as a complaint, and counters: “I don’t think they’re really doing any harm…I mean, when you think about it, it’s not such a bad place to put them. At least they’re out of the way here,” (p. 140). What is the reader supposed to do here? Laugh at the character’s incapacity? Cusk’s sense of irony is keen but it is strangely unsympathetic. We are far from the dramatic irony infusing Peter Walsh’s thoughts in Mrs Dalloway about “the triumphs of civilization” (Woolf 2007a, p. 223), one of which is an ambulance he hears as he walks the streets of London, which, unbeknownst to him, is in fact attending the suicide of a man driven to the edge by that very civilization’s treatment of his mental illness. It is hardly a triumph, then, but we are given sufficient background to understand Walsh’s perspective: he is recently returned from India, and is thus viewing the privileges of English society in a comparative light. Even the ridicule to which Gustave Flaubert exposes almost all of his characters in Madame Bovary (1857) seems tempered by its universality: we are all as bad as each other, the novel seems to say. Cusk rarely offers any such defence for her characters’ apparent shortcomings. If her aim is to condemn, rather than sympathise, she succeeds.

As is the tradition in the twenty-four-hour novel, Cusk makes use of “free indirect discourse” - incorporating her characters’ thoughts into the narration without quoting them directly (Baldick 2008).  This technique has much in common with what has been described as writing in the “limited third person” (Meffan and Worthington 2001, p. 139) - an external narrator tells the story but from the point of view of only one or a few characters. What is interesting about Cusk is her inconsistent use of these techniques. Her narration, which is often dense and literary, does not always ring true as an expression of her characters’ perspectives. There is a remarkable passage in which the tenor of the narration gradually changes, so that when the character with whom the narration is initially aligned next speaks, her words are undercut to great effect. It is as though the narrator ambushes her character. As the three women enter the mall, Cusk launches into one of her characteristic outpourings of description. Initially the tone appears to reflect Christine’s stated optimism towards the mall; there is an almost awed description of “the spontaneous mechanical birdsong of mobile phones” (p. 141). As the passage progresses, however, we begin to hear of “large white women with the wobbling, creamy bodies of blancmanges”, and finally of “toddlers on leading reins” who “bellowed and staggered about insanely in small, echoing chambers of noise” (pp. 142-3). An unforgiving critique has crept into the narration, so that when the description ends and Christine remarks “Where do we start?” (p. 143), her optimism for the “possibilities” of life, which the mall apparently arouses in her (p. 135), appears entirely baseless.

At other times Cusk offers whole chapters narrated anonymously. Characters are briefly created, but if they are given names it happens indirectly and only for the sake of clarity. It is in these sections of the novel that Cusk is at her finest. Particularly compelling is the opening chapter, the first sentence of which - “All night the rain fell on Arlington Park,” (p. 7) - is an effective summary.  While Cusk adopts a floating, aerial viewpoint to introduce the suburban landscape and its inhabitants, pausing briefly to observe some architectural detail or human interaction, the falling rain remains the connecting image. In almost biblical fashion a succession of sentences each begin with the clause “It fell”.  Stormy weather is perhaps one of the tiredest metaphors for impending drama, but here Cusk uses the rain to say something quite different. As the objects on which the rain falls accumulate and diversify - “the old theatre…fast-food restaurants…the plastic verandas where supermarket trolleys clung together in long, chattering rows…churches…” (pp. 10-13) - there is a gathering sense of the rain’s indifference to humanity, in any of its infinite guises. What is equally fascinating, though, is Cusk’s sense of the inescapability of the human world for those who do inhabit it. After a deluge of indifference, the chapter ends with the residents of Arlington Park, in their sleep, nevertheless unable to avoid comparing the rain to “the sound of uproarious applause” (p. 13). The impression is not congratulatory, however; it is instead a chillingly ironic applause, given in response to the human landscape Cusk has been charting: “It made them feel somehow observed, as if a dark audience had assembled outside and were looking in through the windows, clapping their hands.” (p. 14).

In a book that will have much to say about gender, class and race, this introduction perhaps also serves as a point of contrast for the divisions that will plague the rest of the novel: the rain becomes a uniting image, sparing no one. It is a shame then that this idea appears to be abandoned as soon as a character is introduced to focalise the narrative. Reading Arlington Park, I could not help noticing a sustained and unqualified distaste amongst its women characters for boys and men. It begins in the second chapter, perhaps reasonably, and then continues to grow beyond the boundaries of acceptability. Juliet, a 36-year-old woman, recalls spending the previous night in the company of an overtly sexist man, and how she’d thought to herself “All men are murderers…All of them. They murder women. They take a woman, and little by little they murder her,” (p. 34). We are all guilty of such irrational thoughts when inflamed by circumstance. What is disconcerting, though, is that Cusk does not proceed to let her characters reach a more enlightened conclusion in the course of the novel. To be fair, neither can we say that she necessarily endorses such attitudes. What she does is allow a steady stream of problematic, unlikeable male characters to accumulate, never to be balanced out by more sympathetic portrayals. First there are Juliet’s children. Katherine enters the novel obedient: “Only five years old and she got herself dressed when she was told to. What a good girl she was, sensible and good,” (p. 46). We meet Barnaby thus: “Upstairs, Barnaby was standing on his mountain, naked, with his dressing-gown cord tied around his head,” (p. 49). Faced with the boy’s disobedience, the narrator remarks “Oh, how differently she felt when it came to Barnaby!” (p. 50). Unlike “the vigorous, joyful, wild body of Katherine” (p. 48), Barnaby’s playing makes Juliet feel “as if he were stealing something from her,” (p. 50). By virtue of the novel’s partitioned structure, we only meet Juliet on two more occasions, much later on, and the children are present during neither of these. So we never learn why it is that Barnaby is such a problem, and Katherine such a delight. The only difference we might observe is that Barnaby is a boy.

The trend continues. We meet Amanda and her son Eddie: “Of all the members of her household Eddie was the one who most often led her into the senseless, run-down parts of life,” (p. 75). Then there is Solly, upon the birth of whose fourth child we are told: “The baby was a girl. It was lucky, Solly thought - another boy might have sunk her,” (p. 219). The problem in each of these instances is a lack of qualification. Boys, the women seem to say, are inexplicably difficult. Yet one does get a sense that the women’s feelings towards their sons involve a degree of displacement: what they despise is the possibility, perhaps the likelihood, that their boys will gradually become like the men in their lives. And we might even excuse this underlying bitterness, too, by recalling Virginia Woolf’s remarks in A Room of One’s Own (1928) about the effect of financial dependence, even partial, on a woman’s attitude towards men. “Always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave,” (Woolf 2007b, p. 586) seems a fairly apt description of the impression Cusk’s women have of their lives as mothers. And that “all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart” (Woolf 2007b, p. 587) bears a certain resemblance to the novel’s depiction of the women’s downtroddenness. Woolf tells us that upon receiving an inheritance and thus gaining more control over her life, her attitude towards men relaxed: “whenever I change a ten-shilling note a little of that rust and corrosion is rubbed off, fear and bitterness go,” (Woolf 2007b, p. 587). Once equipped with “food, house and clothing” of her own, she is at liberty to say “I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me,” (Woolf 2007b, p. 587). The roughly 80 years separating Cusk’s women from those of Woolf’s time complicate this parallel a little, but there is a timeless truth to Woolf’s remarks.

The problem with Arlington Park is whether it provides for such an interpretation of its characters’ problematic attitudes towards men, or simply reinforces them. We are here in the territory famously provoked by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary: the reader (and perhaps more so the critic) becomes uneasy in the absence of what LaCapra (1982, p. 7) has called an identifiable centre of “narration and judgement” in a novel. There are concerns, too, about whether all readers will detect irony, if it is there to be found (and perhaps in reading Arlington Park I have failed on this count more than I realise). But recalling the unsympathetic nature of the irony with which some of Cusk’s women are drawn, I fear that readers shall either embrace the characters’ bitterness (ignoring any irony in its portrayal), or feel alienated by it (as I often did) - and neither of these outcomes are desirable.


Baldick, C 2008, ‘free indirect style’, in The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford University Press, retrieved 9 May 2010, <>.

Cusk, R 2006, Arlington Park, Thorndike Press, Waterville, ME, USA.

LaCapra, D 1982, “Madame Bovary” on Trial, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Meffan, J and Worthington, KL 2001, ‘Ethics Before Politics’, in TF Davis & K Womack (eds), Mapping the Ethical Turn: a Reader in Ethics, Culture, and Literary Theory, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA, pp. 131-50.

Woolf, V 2007a, ‘Mrs Dalloway’, in The Selected Works of Virginia Woolf: The Wordsworth Library Collection, Wordsworth Editions, Ware, Hertfordshire, UK, pp. 125-251.

Woolf, V 2007b, ‘A Room of One’s Own’, in The Selected Works of Virginia Woolf: The Wordsworth Library Collection, Wordsworth Editions, Ware, Hertfordshire, UK, pp. 561-633.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Metaphor Under the Bed

This is a little fictional piece I wrote for the theme "What's Under the Bed?".

My father once told me I was a child of the “Boolean generation”. This curious statement puzzled me, but my father spoke rarely and it soon became obvious that this was all I would get out of him. Expecting as much, I had asked careful questions. It would not do to ask my father “Who was Boole?”; I had learnt to ask “Who was Boole AND NOT anybody else?”. To the first question, my father would have simply replied with a series of extremely vague descriptors: “matter”, “organism”, and, if I was lucky, “human”. It was true that they narrowed as he went on, but it was no use: he was scrupulous. I used to have occasional victories where I learnt the sex, year of birth, and, once, the hemispherical origin of the figure, but by this point I had usually lost interest.

As I say, on this occasion, my father gave me nothing but his original statement. To my careful question about Boole, he only gave essentially circular answers: “Boole was the origin of the term ‘Boolean’”. I say only essentially circular because his answer did seem to confirm my assumption that Boole was a person. As it turned out, however, Boole himself had little to do with my father’s statement: he died long before the “generation” my father charged him with was born. But I didn’t know this, and my father wasn’t about to tell me.

Why am I telling you this? It’s the necessary prologue to how I learnt about metaphor - specifically the metaphor “under the bed”. I quote again my father. As I have hopefully made clear, it is not particularly unusual for my father to explain something in this way. By giving the location of the object of inquiry, he is able to make a true statement about it without revealing anything particularly useful for my understanding. He did tell me that other metaphors were “in the closet”, “swept under the rug” and, strangely, “under my skin”. Since we didn’t have a closet, and the only rug was under the armchair in which my father sat, his legs crossed and his watch ticking slowly in the silent evening, I decided to look under my bed. The last location he gave was so utterly disturbing that I ignored it entirely, except to note that it did seem to fit with a theory I was developing about small spaces. It was with this notion of the apparent paucity of metaphor (I was already beginning to adopt the confusing but widespread use of the singular word form) that I knelt on the carpet, and, breathing in the dust, looked without fear under the bed.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A poem to kick things off

A Woolfian Escape

a catchcall of butterflies
casting their errands
circling the petty coat
flourishing minds
and celluloid burning
indeterminately far away
the gaze swinging down again in awe
a mooring coat
wading the water ice thin
a smile