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.

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