I've always thought that the most enjoyable literary readings are those rare events at which writers are invited to read aloud from the work of their fellows. How sweet it seems, how purely well intentioned it feels, to stand at a podium and stump for literature without hearing the distracting hoofbeats of the four horsemen of the self: self-display, self-regard, self-admiration, and (last but certainly not least) self-commodification.
In the fall of 2005, at the Harbourfront Centre's International Festival of Authors in Toronto, I participated in an event at which writers were asked to read from their own work and also from that of another. It took me less than a minute to decide on a passage by the British novelist Rachel Cusk, partly because I'd been enjoying The Lucky Ones (2004) on the plane ride to Canada and partly because I knew I wouldn't have to work too hard—I wouldn't have to search for too long—to find a suitable selection. For Cusk is the sort of writer whose books you can open more or less at random to find a paragraph that is characteristically witty, smart, and beautifully written, filled with felicitous word choices and apt, surprising turns of phrase. Indeed, I decided to perform a sort of experiment. I would open the novel at random and let chance decide what I read. Here, then, is the first paragraph of the selection that presented itself:
I lived in the square house up the potholed lane with my parents and my twin sister, Lucy, and they loomed large in the flat landscape, which was so empty of obvious entertainment and where time passed slowly, laboriously, as though each hour were being manufactured by hand. Lucy is eight minutes older than me, a distinction she cultivated in those days by spending most of her time either sequestered in her room or with our mother in the kitchen, making things. They made biscuits and patchwork quilts, collages, peppermint creams, corn dollies and lavender bags. They painted fir-cones and arranged flowers and they talked, conversations that passed over me in wordless cadences, like music. I didn't listen to what they said, just to the sound they made saying it. I watched the house fill piece by piece with shadow, until its rooms and corridors seemed to stand at the inky bottom of a well and my mother switched on the lights.
Clearly, Cusk is a writer you might read for the sheer pleasure of the sentences even if her books weren't about anything of consequence. But in fact, they possess remarkable depth to match their remarkable charm and, with unfailing wit and lightness of touch, address such weighty topics as social class, identity, love, money, and family—in short, all the subjects (excepting, I suppose, global warfare) that make fiction interesting to adult readers. Her first novel, Saving Agnes (1994), is a sort of coming-of-age tale whose eponymous heroine is burdened with a dangerous and all-too-common (at least in the female population) combination of fragility, insecurity, and acute intelligence. The Country Life (1999) offers a sly, contemporary take on those fictions (Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and so forth) that dispatch their plucky young heroines to work as governesses or au pairs in households whose dysfunction ranges from the riotous to the lethal. The Lucky Ones is a round-robin of a novel in which a character from each chapter appears as a major or minor player in a subsequent one, as the thematic and narrative connections between a series of seemingly disparate stories emerge. And In the Fold (2005) is a mordant social comedy about what can occur when one inevitably discovers, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, that the rich are really different from you and me.
Arlington Park—Cusk's most disquieting, darkest, and bravest book so far—is a dispatch from suburbia, where her female protagonists feel themselves to be incarcerated for life in a comfortable, even luxurious, minimum-security prison. At moments, the novel seems like Desperate Housewives as scripted by Katherine Mansfield in collaboration with Muriel Spark.
The novel's beginning echoes the famous opening of Dickens's Bleak House, but here, instead of fog, it's a sheeting rain that soaks the vibrant streets of London and, a distance away from the "glittering, steaming heap of the city," the rather less animated byways and homes of Arlington Park:
The rain fell on Arlington Park, fell on its empty avenues and its well-pruned hedges, on its schools and its churches, on its trees and its gardens. It fell on its Victorian terraces with their darkened windows, on its rows of bay-fronted houses, on its Georgian properties behind their gates, on its maze of tidy streets where the little two-storey houses were painted pretty colours. . . . In their sleep they heard it, people lying in their beds: the thunderous noise of the water. It penetrated their dreams, a sound like the sound of uproarious applause. It was as if a great audience were applauding. Louder and louder it grew, this strange, unsettling sound. It filled the night: it rattled the windows and made people turn beneath their covers and children cry in their sleep. It made them feel somehow observed, as if a dark audience had assembled outside and were looking in through the windows, clapping their hands.
In fact, there's not much for the audience to see, let alone to clap for. The inclement weather continues over the course of the single day in which the novel takes place and in which we follow the rain from house to house, from life to life, peeking in on a series of women, all of them straining with quiet (or somewhat noisy) desperation against the fetters that pass for the joys of a sheltered middle-class existence. Much of the action is interior, none of it is extreme or particularly dramatic, and all of it is riveting. Phone calls are made, rooms straightened, children delivered to and picked up from school; a book discussion is conducted; marital squabbles are played out or avoided, dinner parties endured. The centerpiece of the novel is a trip to the local mall that several of the women make for lunch, and during which most of the tension that lends the book its thrumming, subversive energy moves closer to the surface.
What soon becomes apparent is that for all these women, to a greater or lesser degree, the mix of husband, children, and suburban anomie is a recipe for pure poison—a toxin seeping into their spirits and effecting a gradual but relentless soul murder they can barely stave off. The most ordinary and deceptively harmless activities are imbued with this venomous cocktail. Here, for example, a woman named Amanda reflects on a visit to the butcher shop:
Amanda felt that if she were not married, it would not have been required of her to go to the butcher. These visits seemed to emanate from a core of physical embroilment, from a fleshly basis that sought out other flesh by which to feed itself. It all seemed somehow grotesquely related, the conjoining and making of bodies and the dismemberment and ingestion of them.
Each of the women loves her family, or tries to understand what love could possibly mean. And most of them have moments (or days or years) in which their feelings for their husbands approach revulsion and hatred:
Behind her, Benedict touched her hair. She shrank from the feeling of his hand. . . . In his smock, with his red cheeks and his eyes that were like the twinkling eyes of an old man, he looked like an illustration from a fairy tale. He looked like a woodcutter, or a shoemaker. She did not want to be touched by a shoemaker from a fairy tale. She was prepared to acknowledge his magical qualities, but she didn't want him touching her.
Though her characters love their children, Cusk has penetrated their psyches to a level that is deeper than love, a wholly unguarded stratum on which these women are utterly honest with themselves—and with the reader—about the toll that motherhood exacts:
Eddie was the stultifying noon of her life's day, the grind: he was all unvarnished, unmitigated work. He did not, could not reflect her: he merely went through the hours ahead of her, displacing things in order that she should put them back. He had a pure relationship with her worst self.
At the risk of causing Cusk to lose half of her potential readers, I'd suggest that no one has written better about what, I suppose, is generally known as female experience—from the physical to the metaphysical, from the daily "grind" to the altered states of consciousness occasioned by hormonal shifts. I cannot think of another description, in fiction, that so precisely captures how pregnancy and birth affect a woman:
Solly had felt before the way everything altered just before a child was born. It was how she sometimes thought it might be to approach death. Everything grew very slightly remote: the fit of life loosened, as though it were a skin preparing itself to be shed. And although when the baby came it would restart it all with its unstoppable vegetable growth, there was a layer of Solly that was always irretrievably lost. She was depleted, of some aspect of experience, of history: it was torn from her, like the wrapping paper from a present.
Nothing here is stale or trite; all of it is familiar from life but not (thus far) from
literature. Everything about Arlington Park is original and fearless, culminating in its final chapter, a depiction of a dinner party during which we (unlike the somewhat befuddled guests) begin to sort out the contradictions of one of the novel's most intriguing and complex characters, Christine. Gradually, we come to realize that Christine's fears of abandonment, solitude, and poverty, of exile from the "patch of sunlight" that she imagines to be emanating from her husband, keep her married to a small-minded, essentially mean-spirited man—a jingoist, a racist, and (as if that weren't enough) a narcissist. We understand what has been underlying this bleak but nonetheless exhilarating novel: a vision of the cost—to women, to men, indeed to us all—of our precious comfort and security. It's not cheering news, and like so much of the news these days, we might prefer not to hear it. All of which makes us doubly grateful that Cusk has found such a witty, beguiling way to deliver the bad news—and to make us believe it.
Francine Prose's most recent book is Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (HarperCollins, 2006).