Trapped in English suburbia

Jane Smiley's new novel, "Ten Days in the Hills," will be published in February.

ENGLISH writer Rachel Cusk's new novel, "Arlington Park," is based on a simple, and even well-used, premise (used, in fact, by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce): A single, apparently average day begins in a specific location -- in this case, it is neither London nor Dublin but a self-contained London suburb named Arlington Park. The narrative follows a selection of characters throughout the day. The day is not, on the surface, a turning point for any of the characters -- nothing dramatic happens -- but a series of moments are revealed and, precisely because of the lack of drama, the reader is asked to consider these lives as typifying something. Given the precedents, I think it is inevitable that we take these lives to typify a certain sort of English life in the early 21st century, and, if we are to believe Cusk, the news is not good.

Cusk's characters are white middle-class women who can afford to live in the spacious and leafy, if characterless, suburbs. Arlington Park is a new place, anonymous, with no reassuring historical associations (do not think Hampstead or Chiswick, for example), and its only cultural amenity is a large shopping mall called Merrywood. Julia teaches in the local private girls' school, Amanda is nervously trying to make friends, Maisie has recently moved in from London, Solly is about to bear her fourth child, Christine is the sociable one -- the one who knows everyone, at least a little. All of these women have children. Arlington Park is dedicated to children and, above all, a desirable place to rear them.

One of its never-mentioned virtues is that no nonwhites and no poor people live there. This is possibly a cause of, or possibly only a corollary to, its deadness, but it is a fact that the women rarely dare to reflect upon and only the men discuss.

What the women discuss is clothes, food, children, schools, home decor. In this sense, Cusk breaks no new ground; suburbia is, apparently, suburbia. What was killing for Jean Kerr ("Please Don't Eat the Daisies") and Richard Yates ("Revolutionary Road") is killing for Cusk. Lamenting suburbia is a minor American literary industry, after all, and the name of Cusk's town, Arlington Park, and its fictional existence seem like self-conscious American imports. What is English -- and new and compelling -- is Cusk's cool and precise depiction of her characters' inner lives. Let's take Amanda, the most clearly diagnosable character. When her neighbor Jocasta remarks that she's digging a grave, Amanda reacts: "A feeling of precariousness had been steadily besieging her on the wire, ever since the butcher's shop: it crystallised now into the belief that it was a human grave Jocasta was digging, for a member of her family she had either already killed or meant to."

Jocasta is, of course, burying a deceased pet rabbit; it is Amanda -- who lives in a state of suppressed terror and whose feelings for her 5-year-old son alternate between indifference and fearful hostility -- who is preoccupied with human graves.

Solly, on the verge of giving birth, becomes fascinated by her elegant Italian lodger and ever more repelled by her own condition: "This baby had occurred almost by itself: it seemed to her to have arisen out of an abject mulch of flesh, out of bodies so long confined together that they spawned other bodies."

But Solly and Amanda are only the most extreme -- no character, not even Julia, former girl-genius and currently employed teacher, can imagine a way out of the hell of her subjective experience of Arlington Park. Maisie, who had compelled her husband to move there from London, now discovers she can't stand it: "She saw herself as imprisoned for life -- violent feelings poured from her in a righteous torrent, feelings that came as though from some geological past, like lava."

Classic English literature (I am thinking of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and even Zadie Smith) gains its good nature from the fact that the protagonists arrive at the altar just as the novel ends. Unhappy marriages are for subplots. Normally, there is a dose of prosperity too, as a comic send-off for the happy couple. But Cusk's married women have had their weddings, and their prosperity is well in hand. What they are left with is the absolute inability to imagine better circumstances than they have already achieved and the absolute failure to make any sort of meaningful connections with one another or with their uniformly misogynistic husbands or their uniformly unappealing and demanding children. Only Jocasta, who is briefly glimpsed digging the rabbit's grave, seems lively and unself-conscious -- almost archaically so: "They [Jocasta and her husband] spoke in loud, aristocratic voices and treated everything as a joke, except for their social lives, in which they were as commanding and conniving as a pair of politicians maintaining office."

Which is not to say that "Arlington Park" isn't a fine and entertaining novel. Cusk's glory is her style, cold and hard and devastatingly specific, empathetic but not sympathetic. Her most daring move, toward the end, is to give Christine's husband, Joe, a boorish, racist rant that the other men can't, or don't, energetically disagree with (possibly they consider him a lost cause). Joe is a pig, and he doesn't treat Christine with any consideration. Nor is Christine herself especially attractive -- she's a little brassy and opinionated -- until, in the last section of the novel, we see her patience with her mother, who calls while Christine is fixing dinner for eight. Christine's mother, raised in an orphanage, tells her, " 'I drove past it the other day. And I thought, what if I went in and booked a room? I sat in the car, all the time thinking I was about to get out and go in. I wanted to find my own room just as it was and get into my bed.... I thought that if only I could get into my bed everything would be all right again. It was the strangest feeling, Christine.' "

It is Christine and Joe, though, who promise to make the sole voluntary, and even satisfying, connection in the book, after they close the door on the departing guests just before midnight. The last words of the novel are: " 'Come here,' he said."

American novels of suburbia have often included diagnostics -- the characters drink too much or are corporate slaves or are terrified of the larger, messier world. Diagnostics, of course, imply a possible cure. Rachel Cusk is not as weak-minded as that. Her characters are stuck. The old alternatives of English life -- London and the countryside -- are either chaotic or depopulated. She seems to be saying that Arlington Park may be comfortable, maddening, deracinating, alienating nothingness, but it is the only choice.

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