Even though the story is about five women living in a suburb outside London, Rachel Cusk’s novel, Arlington Park, is also the story of my own life, the life of one man who had lived most of his life more than 5,000 miles away in the urban center of Portland, Oregon.
First there was the weather, the weather that matched in every way the mood of the town I had lived in for so long. All you had to do was look outside to glimpse the scene Cusk was describing in Arlington Park, the suburb depicted in her novel.
The clouds came from the west: clouds like dark cathedrals, clouds like machines, clouds like black blossoms flowering in the arid starlit sky.
It was so grey, so grey and unavailing! It was like sorrow: it seemed to preclude every possibility, every other shade of feeling.
In the hall she took their wet coats and bags and umbrellas. They prised their water stained shoes, muddy, perilously garnished with soaked leaves, from their feet. It was messy work, the unending struggle to maintain separation between outside and in.
Eventually, to be more exact, forty years after I arrived, I left that town that I never felt comfortable calling my home. None of the women in Cusk’s novel leave their home nor, given their age and the age of the children, are they likely to do so in the foreseeable future.
Then there is the tedious, deadly feeling that sweeps over one living day after day in the suburbs. Cusk beautifully describes this mood, a mood that is not uncommon to me or most anyone, I think, regardless of where they live.
How are you, Christine said, and Juliet nearly replied, Actually, I’m dead. I was murdered a few years ago, nearly four years ago to be exact.
…air of empty seclusion was complete.
It was a mysterious place, Arlington Park: it was a suburb, a sort of enormous village really, yet even here the force of life came up strong, dealing out its hard facts, its irrepressible, universal dimension.…It was civilization, and yet to Juliet it seemed uncivilized to the core. It lacked art: worse, it lacked any conception of justice. It was just getting and having—look at them all, backed up in their cars all the way to the park, jostling, fighting get and to have.
Each of the women express their malaise somewhat differently. It was Juliet’s that interested me most, perhaps because of the solace she sometimes found in literature.
Never, never did she feel in life the sense of recognition, the companionship, the great warm fact of solidarity that she found between the covers of a book.
She wondered whether the books she loved consoled her precisely because they were the manifestations of her own isolation.
But even that was not enough:
You realize you’re waiting for something, Juliet said, that’s never going to happen. Half the time you don’t even know what it is. You’re waiting for the next stage. Then in the end you realize that there isn’t a next stage. That is all there is.
Most of the women tried to confront the emptiness of their days with the customary experiences of modern life—home, marriage, children, shopping. Cusk makes it clear that none of these can do the job either.
Her car was her true companion: it was clean and spacious and mechanically discreet, and it did her bidding powerfully, efficiently, and with silent approval of her style of command. When she was in her car she had a feeling of infinite passage.
What an enormous kitchen! cried Sally Gibson, following Christine and Dinky in. In that moment Amanda knew that her kitchen was too large. She would not have thought such a thing was possible, but entering it now she knew that it was true. They had knocked through until they had created not space but emptiness. They had gone too far: nobody had told them to stop.
The room, the house, even Arlington Park itself increasingly wore for her the lineaments of a lived past into which future possibilities were unable to intrude; of a fundamental sadness that was the unalterable relic of experience.
How did Cusk manage to describe so accurately the situation that many people find themselves in today? Did it spring from the conditions of her own life? Who can ever know such things? What does it matter? She has got it just right. I know the weather, the boredom that can just as readily occur in the heart of the city as the suburbs, and the despair that sometimes descends upon one. Each experience comes and goes. There are some days where the weather is bearable, where something brings you alive, and where that elemental melancholy momentarily disappears. And then the winter begins again.