Friday, November 11, 2011

Domestic Novel? Reflections on Arlington Park

This past week, I read Arlington Park, a novel by Rachel Cusk.  Cusk is obviously a talented writer, and her resume shows it: a Whitbread award and a shortlisting for Whitbread, the shortlist for the Orange Prize, and a citation from Granta as one of Britain's 20 best young writers.  While blurbs on book covers rarely reflect what's on the pages therein, in Arlington Park's case, the promised "incisive" quality that book reviewers heralded turned out to be true.  Unfortunately, despite all this, I just couldn't agree with the ends to which Cusk put her talent.

Arlington Park follows six women trapped in privileged suburban life.  The question of how to find fulfillment in suburban life crops up frequently in fiction, not the least in my own first novel.  But the difference between the perspectives of Cusk's women and of women in, say, Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls, is vast.
Cusk's women strike the chord of domestic despair over and over again, where Goodman's women find life to be more textured--a blend of disappointment, happiness, struggle, hope, and love.  Both of these are different visions of domesticity than the one Evan Connell offers in Mrs. Bridge.  While the emptiness that undergirds Mrs. Bridge's life places her closer to Cusk's vision of suburban women, there is yet a complicated innocence in Mrs. Bridge--complicated because such innocence is at once appalling and endearing.  Mrs. Bridge is trying her best, doing what she has been groomed to do, and trying to get along in it.  In a way, Cusk's women are doing their best, too, but they're also having huge lapses of being physically rough with a child who has stained a sofa or throwing a book against a wall in front of her wide-eyed daughters.  Even those incidents I might be able to read and understand within the book's context, but passages like the following make me feel like it's 1970 and I'm being urged to join the feminist movement: "And what was it all for?  What was the point of it?  In what sense did the girls [students], even the scientists, profit from their hard work and grades?  Sooner or later they would meet a man and it would all be stolen from them.  That girl with her chemistry textbooks would meet a man, and little by little he would murder her."

Aside from how I felt about the book itself, Arlington Park did raise the question of how we apply the label of "novel."  Often labels and definitions seem like an exercise in splitting hairs best left to academics.  But because our age is one of increasing fragmentation--read here, for example, about how the Internet fragments our attention--it seems relevant to observe the trend in novels towards similar fragmentation.  The form of "novel in stories" took off with Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, not least because it garnered much attention as the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner.  At AWP, the nation's largest writing conference, I tried to attend a panel on the novel-in-stories form, only to find a room so packed that the mostly-standing audience flooded the door and out into the hall where it became pointless to try to listen in.  Of course, you might say that the idea of a larger work told in stories goes back at least to The Canterbury Tales.   But since the novel as a form didn't exist in the fourteenth century, it bears considering why this form, which is ultimately about weaving people, places, plots, and subplots into some sort of related whole, is slowly unweaving itself.

This is a huge topic.  We could go on and on with all the resonances and correlations with contemporary life that this phenomenon suggests.  But to bring it back to Arlington Park, let's consider that the book labels itself as "A Novel."  Now, I have had enough of a glimpse of the publishing world to know that decisions are often driven by the market.  I have also heard time and again that it is far easier to sell a novel than to sell a collection of short stories.  So, I make no claim to knowing how Cusk herself intended the book, but assuming that she did mean it as a novel, it raised an interesting division in my mind.  Arlington Park is written in sections, each section following a different woman who may or may not appear ever again in any of the other women's sections.  In other words, there is less connection here than in Olive Kitteridge, whose stories really do work together to create a portrait of Olive's life.

So the division seems to be this: a novel, however fragmented, can come to the claim of "novel" through an overarching theme (in this case, domestic despair), or a novel can come to the claim through a sense of gathering or heightening of its people, places, and incidences.  This latter version could be called "plot," but it seems to me that "plot" has gotten too bad a rap since E.M. Forster distinguished between the base question "and then?" versus the higher-brow question of "why?".  Secretly, I think Forster himself would be a little dismayed at how far certain circles disdain plot and dispense with it.  After all, Howard's End has a gathering of people and circumstances (i.e., plot), as does Room With a View.  Of course there is a world of difference between a book like Howard's End and a book in which the plot provides the chief pleasure of the book and is intended for entertainment.  But it is precisely a sense of heightening or gathering that we see in a book like Howard's End which, to me, makes a novel deserving of the identification of "novel."

So, how do I see Arlington Park?  In my opinion, it does reach for a sense of gathering in the final section, most concretely in that it ends with a dinner party.  But, at the risk of splitting hairs, I'm not sure it's enough to feel novelistic.  If I had to categorize the book, I'd put it with James Joyce's Dubliners where a sense of place is evoked through many portraits of its people.  Does it hang together?  Yes.  But a novel?...well, if you do read Arlington Park, temper your expectations.

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