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Pickle Me This

February 18, 2008

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

I feel fortunate that I read Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park through the prism I did. I’m not sure I would have loved it quite so much had I not first read the article describing the book as, “If Virginia Woolf were alive in 2007… what she would be writing.” So I was prepared for something Woolfian then, which in my experience has always required a different kind of reading. One in which you let the prose lead you where it may, but paying utmost attention. It’s a significant cerebral investment, and necessitates a period of adjustment upon returning to the real world once again.

From Woolf’s “Modern Fiction”: “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there…”.

Which is evident from the start, the main character of Arlington Park‘s first chapter being rainfall. As readers we must trust and follow it, from cloud to downpour, this “incessant shower of innumerable atoms”. As the rain falls over the sleepy suburb of Arlington Park. “The sound of uproarious applause.”

And then it is morning, “the life of Monday or Tuesday”, except being Friday. Here is an entire book of one single day, which is something easily misunderstood. For though Arlington Park is bleak and rainy, the fact that it is of one day only means that it’s difficult to generalize. “This is what women’s lives are”– decidedly Woolf— perhaps, but for these frustrated, angry, middle-class women of privilege, it could be hard to muster sympathy. But then is this lives in general really? Is it not just a Friday? For it is indeed possible to have it rain all day, particularly in England, and perhaps Saturday will be sunny, but this is not our consideration now.

Just one single day (“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”). Though of course one day will always have implications of its own.

Juliet Randall, who wakes up from a bad dream that was also the night before, her husband having been inordinately insulting. Her husband, Benedict: “Murderer, she thought.” And though he isn’t, of course. He is not Mr. Ramsay, or even Charles Tansley, and he’d probably allow for a trip to the lighthouse tomorrow. But still, Benedict has been an asshole, and Juliet feels like her entire life has been severed from its legs.

Which is the general feeling of the characters we encounter in Arlington Park, on this particular Friday. Whether they intended to end up here or not, or if they did and it wasn’t what they’d expected, regardless, on this rainy Friday life feels most uninhabitable. And simultaneously inescapable– motherhood and wifehood each a prison. And though privileged middle-class all of these women might be, are they not still entitled to rainy days? For such days are certainly issued, even if they’re not the rule. And of course there are moments, even in the drizzle, where the pure light of life shines through. The innumerable atoms of a Friday are, naturally, quite various.

I could tell you more about these women, about this day, these myriad impressions and innumerable atoms, but they’re trivialized out of their context. Out of context the poignancy of Amanda Clapp’s disappointingly-remodeled kitchen is ridiculous, I know, but it isn’t. About how Cusk constructs a whole world in which these women are but cogwheels: “In the children’s playground the women were buttoning coats, brushing down trousers, wiping noses. They strapped their children into their pushchairs, and one after another they let themselves out of the gate: out into the park, out into streets where everything moved, where time set everything whirring and churning and grinding again and you felt the agony of the turning wheels.”

And certainly there are days like this, there are.

2 thoughts on “Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I wondered if Rachel Cusk grew up with a narcissistic mother ? There's a lot of info and support about it online now and it often affects how women feel about motherhood. Maybe Rachel was hard done by herself ?

  2. Kerry says:

    I think Cusk just knows that being a mother is very very hard.

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