- 1 Portions of this essay have been published in Woolf Studies Annual 19 (2013): 195-213.
- 3 For an in-depth discussion on the character of Clarissa Dalloway, see Bloom, Harold (ed.). Clariss (...)
- 4 The original project noted in a manuscript notebook on 6 October 1922 was to write a book to be ca (...)
1In Arlington Park Rachel Cusk dissects the social and the domestic, tracing the web of interactions among five young women of a well-off English suburb over the course of one rainy day, concentrating on the experiences (frustrations, suffocation, hidden pains) of the women, most of them stay-at-home mothers struggling to overcome routine. The feminine characters all have facets and features of Clarissa Dalloway3 and constitute variations of the Woolfian character. As in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in which the points of view of different characters alternate, intersect and take over from one another, in Arlington Park the characters’ lives echo one another as they take turns to narrate the story, giving a 360-degree panorama of domestic life in the suburb. These interconnecting stories mirror Woolf’s initial project of composing Mrs Dalloway, namely to create completely separated chapters which would contain some kind of fusing links and which would converge upon the party at the end.4
2Cusk re-works the day-in-the-life format, a recognisable Dallowaysian structure tracing the passage of time. As Stephen Connor has noted, the use of the single day temporal structure is “less and more at once: less than the world in its concentration and condensation […] and yet containing more than the world of accumulation of allusion and interconnection” (Connor 68). The narration is punctuated by the clock and extended by the psychological time of the characters, who navigate in their past and present. The characters face their resurfacing memories and explore their own consciousness while confronting the present in their kitchens, shops, and changing rooms. The day thus unfolds through the women’s shifting perspectives. The day-in-the-life format compresses the time scale but at the same time opens up to encompass all the other days, which allows Cusk to pierce through several temporary layers and probe into contemporary womanhood. This day enables the author to dive more or less deep into the characters’ pasts.
3The universality of this day in the women’s lives and its repetition reveals their whole existence. The content of the day overflows the strict temporal mould and branches out into events and thoughts that go beyond the strict narrowness of one specific day. What the narrative voice implies about Amanda’s momentous day could be applied to all the characters: “[…] this day of her life in which all the other days seemed to be coming together and showing themselves at last” (77). But instead of conferring a sense of opening, the day becomes the rigid cast of their lives as the women characters feel inexorably trapped by time. Their only freedom in this domestic routine is that of taking refuge in thoughts: they reflect on their lives, interpret events or incidents and try to find meaning in them. The ordinary events in the lives of these ordinary women unfold as the ordinary day progresses toward a party and the arrival of guests. This “ordinariness” is oppressive, as illustrated by Amanda’s vision of her humdrum life:
Her life had been an ordinary life: her parents and grandparents were ordinary, they had said and done ordinary things together. They had all lived together ordinarily, in their ordinary home. They had gone to sleep and got up again and eaten their meals and done their work in an ordinary way. If there was a wrong, then it was an ordinary kind of wrong. (74)
4The women in Arlington Park compose a collective female self: Cusk’s characters constitute various versions of a twenty-first-century woman and their similar lives echo one another. Out of the fragmentation of stories and points of view, the portrait of the modern-day suburban woman is revealed through the exhausted and frustrated housewives, weighed down by husbands and families. They are “[…] portrayed as solitary islands of thought, feeling and self-reflection, who fastidiously brush themselves down after each agoraphobic venture into the community” (Schoene 160). They form together “broken mosaics” of “atomized subjectivities” (Schoene 155) and borrow the Woolfian “rising and falling” mood pattern to express the vision of their own lives.
5Christine Lanham, who somehow holds the framework of the novel together, is preparing for a dinner party on the same day she learns her grandmother has died in a nursing home. A Mrs Dalloway or a Mrs Ramsay for our suburban age, she is a dinner hostess who gathers together some of her Arlington Park neighbours. She drifts through her day, shopping, preparing for her dinner party that night and ruminating on her life. Her dinner reunites other suburban couples and provides its climax in the form of a drunken epiphanic outburst: “‘You’ve got to love life,’ she said blearily. ‘You’ve got to love just – being alive’” (238). Like Clarissa Dalloway, behind her social mask, there are “faults, jealousies, vanities, suspicions” (Mrs Dalloway 32). Christine appears to be optimistic and cheerful, but this is gradually revealed to be little more than a protective facade. The result of living with her husband, Joe, is that she is constantly thinking with “the front of her brain” (214), progressively abandoning her primal, instinctive, deeper, sensual, emotive “body.”
6Juliet Randal, “aged thirty-six, mother of two, a teacher at Arlington High School for Girls” (8), is often assailed by waves of uplifting and disheartening moods: momentarily happy, high-spirited sensations (“[…] Juliet was overpowered by a new realisation, the realisation that life was meant to be wonderful” ) are followed by anti-climatic moods (“Life did not seem to be meant to be as wonderful as it had done earlier. Wherever she looked she saw the sheen coming off it” ). For a moment, she is blinded by the lustre of life conferred by the prosperous suburb and her social position, but the domineering mood of dissatisfaction and emptiness is nevertheless prevalent. She is stifled by “the solid, bourgeois, profitable ordinariness of life,” and laments the fact that she has buried her own ambitions beneath the demands of her husband and children, gradually becoming overwhelmed by bitterness: “she was full of the deposits of wasted days” (36). A mere container of wasted, silted time, Juliet dreams of a less confining place which would allow her to “open out all the petals packed inside her” (32). The part-time English teacher, who once seemed destined for greater things, concludes that all men, including her loving husband Benedict, are murderers. Juliet is angry at all men, like Sally Seton in Mrs Dalloway, who thinks men (“the Hughes and the Dalloways and all the other ‘perfect gentlemen’”) would “stifle [Clarissa’s] soul” (64). Juliet could have been professionally successful but she has wound up in Arlington Park with Benedict, her well-meaning liberal husband, and their two young children. “All men are murderers, Juliet thought. All of them. They murder women. They take a woman, and little by little they murder her” (18). The slow and painless metaphorical death is due to a gradual and almost imperceptible confinement to a narrow, limited and unfulfilling professional and domestic life. This repeated image is a lament on the loss of self at the core of marriage and motherhood. The ordinariness of her life inexorably leads to death. However, she feels endowed with a lofty mission, as the hidden feminist aim of her book club is to open young girls’ eyes and shield them “from the bullet of an ordinary life” (28).
7Maisie Carrington, thirty-eight, is also experiencing an “unstable level of dissatisfaction” which causes several angry outbursts at the expense of her own children and of a woman in a car park. She is clearly frustrated with parenthood and like Juliet, she feels “imprisoned for life” (173), especially in her kitchen: “It was here that Maisie felt most divorced from her own motives, saw her husband and children most as the strangers they occasionally were” (174). After having convinced her solicitor husband, Dom, to move out of the “churn of London,” out of the “thick vortex of multitudinous screaming wants” (192) to a lesser job, she then discovered that, “she could not endure the life they were making for themselves” in an “atmosphere of sordid confinement, like an old shoe” (172). Maisie has the feeling that the “wind” of her dissatisfaction, “this variable force of discontent” inevitably and inescapably blows in only one direction, sending her “to what was fixed and narrow” (183). Inertia and a sort of claustrophobia seem to characterise not only her family life, but the lives of all the Arlington Park women.
- 5 “A woman stood there with a large suitcase. / ‘Solly Curly?’ she said. / ‘Kerr-Leigh,’ Solly automa (...)
8Solly Kerr-Leigh believes marriage should be a state of hyphenation, like her last name, not a matter of absorption or defeat, like the pronunciation of this very name, “Curly.”5 Now pregnant for the fourth time, Solly suddenly feels overblown, whilst her husband seems, on the contrary, to be blooming into a “lean, vertical masculinity” (113). Perhaps the most outwardly frustrated of all the girls, Solly is sure that a part of her is irretrievably lost; this is the reason why she is trying to find her vanished femininity in the other female tenants who occupy her spare room and their feminine possessions that she inspects in their absence. By diving into the consciousness of the diverse female characters and by following their thoughts and moods, Cusk is engaged in “a painstaking, often unrelenting exploration of the contemporary female psyche” (Schoene 161).
- 6 See Schoene, Berthold. “Suburban Worlds: Rachel Cusk and Jon McGregor.” The Cosmopolitan Novel (Ed (...)
9All these Clarissa Dalloway-like characters share the space of the suburb.6 This area gives clues about its inhabitants, just as her portion of London and her house reveals something about Clarissa, not only her social status but mostly her private, intimate life. In Arlington Park, it is mainly the kitchen, a perfect symbol of domesticity, which best reveals the housewives. The house is a confined space, a prison for the wives and the mothers, who most of the time remain tethered to the kitchen: “The kitchen was like a person with whom she had tried to get on and failed: barely tried, so impatient was she to settle into her enmity with it” 175; this is probably why Amanda knocked down walls and designed a kitchen of excessive size to give her the luring sensation of freedom (“you could fit a jumbo jet in here” ), but instead she realises she has created emptiness: “They had knocked through until they had created not space but emptiness” (64). The women are confined in the desirable yet bleak suburb, stuck in a domestic rut, trapped in the ordinariness of their lives, in their marriage and motherhood.
10The loneliness, isolation and emptiness of these women’s lives reflect Clarissa’s feeling of being “invisible; unseen; unknown” (Mrs Dalloway 9). The suburban women in their thirties, who are mainly stay-at-home mothers, reflect on their oppressing “domestic slavery” (128) and the servitude of motherhood. The women are all mired in marital dissatisfaction and stranded in their narrow way of life. Maisie, for instance “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” (173). The only escape for them is the bleak shopping mall, trying clothes which reveal their ungraceful and unaesthetic bodies distended by repeated pregnancies and age: the “spare tire,” “the great wobbling band of fat around [their] middle;” “flabby tummies” and “flabby tits” (91) are opposed to the enviable “untouched masculinity” of the male body (121). Like Clarissa who feels “suddenly shriveled, aged, breastless” (Mrs Dalloway 26), Cusk’s women also experience the “crisis of the flesh” (121).
11In the spare room where “the weight of her family seemed to move away from her” (113), Solly experiences soothing moments. It is a room of her own in which to feel free, to expand, to forget the envied “vertical masculinity” (113) of her husband. This private space confers upon her a feeling of “new independence” and provides a link with the world: “The spare room appeared to her as the place where this boundary [with the world] could be established” (114). The spare room recalls Clarissa’s bare room, which encapsulates her sense of “an emptiness about the heart of life.” She is like a “nun withdrawing, or a child exploring a tower” (Mrs Dalloway 26). In Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa extensively thinks of the lack of intimacy and dissatisfaction of marital life – her “virginity” (27) being expressed symbolically through her stretched sheet and narrow bed – but finds meaning in life during crucial epiphanies, like Cusk’s solitary creatures who are haunted by despairing loneliness, intimations of mortality and disheartening lamentations, but who are also occasionally uplifted by small, significant epiphanies.
- 7 Virginia Woolf, Diary 2: 263: “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives (...)
12Cusk borrows Woolf’s technique of digging out invisible caves behind her characters,7 and weaves the interior lives of the characters into their external world: beneath the surface respectability of the external world of the leafy suburb, the richness of the interior lives lies like a volcanic outburst of frustration, fury and despair. While permanently confronted with the reality of domesticity, the Arlington Park characters inhabit their inner world where they express their pain, true feelings and harshly comment on their exterior lives. The reader follows the movement in and out of their minds, and the pulses of their inner worlds while the narrator documents all the insanity, fears, petty jealousies, resentments and love that battle there. Their meandering trains of thoughts are carefully recorded and alternate with conversations that anchor the social being in the present time. The characters are constantly pulled out from their musings by the interaction with their children, husbands, neighbours and friends. An analogy between the suburb and the mind could be drawn, as exterior and interior spaces for narrative exploration. As in Mrs Dalloway there is a distinct correspondence between movements in physical and mental spaces: “Arlington Park in the rain: a maze of grey, orderly streets with cars passing through them like private thoughts. This was what it boiled down to, all of history: a place of purely material being, traversed by private thoughts” (21-22).
- 8 See Max Duperray, Le Banal dans le roman britannique contemporain andMahmoud Sami-Ali, Le Banal.
13Cusk scrutinises consciousness with the same intensity as she probes situations and surrounding objects, penetrating their essence. She has an acute Woolfian eye for minute details. The most mundane objects and moments are investigated scrupulously, and painted with luxurious precision:8
Then she [Solly] noticed, in the far corner of the garden beneath the tree, a little clump of primroses. She walked slowly across the grass and stood over them. They were so delicate, so pretty – she towered over them like some dumb, shaggy creature that had just issued from its cave, examining the beautiful intricacy of life. Their petals were beaded with rain. She looked at them, dimly remembering the line of a song. (122)
- 9 The New York Times Book Review: “There are some great moments,” Lucy Ellmann wrote, “but [Cusk] te (...)
14Cusk celebrates the cult of the small but envelops it in a thick yet fluid prose. Examples of such small, vivid points capture the women’s gazes and illuminate their lives; these miniatures feature a luxuriance of delicate, minute pictorial details. This kind of Woolfian-like poetic and visual prose requires the reader to linger over them with a magnifying glass in order to fully appreciate its precise, meticulous and carefully wrought consistency. The descriptions function like small embroideries which, put together, form the special fabric and texture of the Cuskian text. What some critics9 and many readers negatively pointed out to be a very over-weaved narrative burdened with microscopic, apparently insignificant details of the external world, the minutiae of humdrum everyday life and the intricate working of the mind, constitutes in fact the very essence of Rachel Cusk’s prose, in the same vein as her modernist predecessor.
15Cusk’s compulsive observation derives from the Woolfian minuteness of recording trivial events: like her predecessor, she records “the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall” and traces “the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness” (Woolf, “Modern Fiction,” Essays 4: 161). Cusk dissects the women’s everyday lives, following her characters’ movements in time and space closely, and the flow of their thoughts. Ordinary lives on an ordinary day are examined; the “trivial,” the “evanescent,” the minute fascinations of the mundane are recorded “with the sharpness of steel” (Woolf, “Modern Fiction,” Essays 4: 160).
16The unfolding of the characters’ ordinary day is interrupted by splinters of the past that erupt in the present: Cusk borrows Woolf’s method of fragmenting the past and “telling [it] in installments, as [she] need[s] it” (Diary 2: 272), distilling it throughout the unfolding of the day. The elasticity of the present moment enables the author to incorporate past memories and highlight significant episodes. The flexible time stretches, compresses and expands “[…] as though the whole compressed day had suddenly been uncorked and allowed to come loudly exploding out” (Arlington Park 169). Depending on the unfolding of specific days at home, the characters, involved in their routine, perceive the passage of time differently. Maisie, for example, reflects on the subjectivity and irregularity of psychological time, in relation to her husband’s regular rhythm of coming home after work, which unfailingly punctuates her own day: “Sometimes, when he appeared, Maisie believed that not one minute had been added to the personal aggregate of her life. At others she seemed to have lived a century since she saw him last […]” (170).
17The voyage in time throughout the day is a Woolfian feature at the core of Arlington Park. Cusk alternates past and present, diving more or less deep into the characters’ pasts and memories. Like Woolf, Cusk creates an extensive network of past experiences, which form the history of a character. This network of caves and tunnels enables the author to let the past and the present of a character merge, at the exact moment when an event from the past is most relevant to the present situation. The past superimposes itself on the present and the distinction between the character in the past and the character in the present is briefly blurred: like her modernist predecessor, Cusk manages to blend the past into the present day and make them come together. The content of the day overflows the strict temporal mould, branches out into events and thoughts that go beyond the strict narrowness of one specific day. The accumulation of “infinitesimal movements” (147) forms a mechanism propelled by time, “a blank river” (147).
18Present time, which seems endless to the mothers of small children, is compartmentalised, evolving around children and their needs and school timetables. School time gives a dull rhythm to the mothers’ domestic lives. Time is heavy, like the “leaden circles” which “dissolved in the air” in Mrs Dalloway (4, 41, 80, 158); “people burdened by time” (41) is a recurrent motif in Arlington Park. Not only does time have a destructive impact on the physical beings (all women reflecting on the decay of their bodies), but it also leaves indelible marks on their selves. Just like their families, time is a leaden burden: “Instead [Juliet] was heavy, full of lead. She sank like a stone through the onrush of time;” “She was full of the deposits of wasted days” (36); “Then she got them [children], and the feeling of lead started to build up in her veins, a little more each day” (37). Amanda has a short moment of freedom while her children are at school: “[...] she had a feeling of rapid ascent, as though the members of her household were sandbags she was heaving one by one out of the basket of a hot-air balloon” (40), but overall, time is like a “boulder she had to single-handedly lift and move laboriously out of her path” (41).
19Time is always associated with domestic chores, each hour being assigned a specific task, finally having a numbing, destructive effect on the women.
In the deadening grey light the yellow plastic of Joseph’s tricycle possessed an almost intolerable reality. It seemed vaguely to Solly to be the colour of her life, of midweek mornings spent at home with children. Time extended around her like a grey ocean, moving imperceptibly in its depths. She could not distinguish her own body: it was part of the grey ocean, on which only the shred of her soul floated, swaying this way and that. (122)
20The continuously expanding and engulfing time drowns Solly’s expanding, flabby body. No frontier seems to exist between her distended body and time, as if they formed one confounding, submerging, destructive entity and the liquidity and fluidity of time cannot be escaped or controlled. Each minute of the day must be “confronted” (183); Solly is terrified by “this journey of life, this turbulent passage through days and nights, never stopping, never knowing what it meant, only that you must cling, cling and never let go!” (135).
21The metaphor of time as a mechanism implies it is an inescapable trap: “women were as though snared in the mechanism,” “caught between the blank river and the churning wheels. Trapped as they were, every movement caused them pain” (148); “time set everything whirring and churning and grinding again and you felt the agony of the turning wheels” (150).
22Time is an all-pervasive means of control over the women; clock time is associated with restrictions and regulations. It is related to physical coercion, just as in Mrs Dalloway: “Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion […]” (Mrs Dalloway 87); Clarissa “fear[s] time itself, and read[s] on Lady Burton’s face, as if it had been a dial cut in impassive stone, the dwindling of life” (Mrs Dalloway 26); the “great booming voice” (Mrs Dalloway 42) of Big Ben is the “voice of authority” (Mrs Dalloway 12). In Mrs Dalloway domestic time has an additional historical dimension, being a constant reminder of the “irrevocable” past which still haunts the characters; the repeated refrain of the clock time announces the dwindling of time and ultimately of life, as the vibrations of the clock die away rapidly in the air.
- 10 Moments of Being is a collection of posthumously published autobiographical essays by Virginia Wool (...)
- 11 See also Georges Perec’s definition of “infra-ordinary” as the most insignificant and imperceptib (...)
23According to Virginia Woolf, “moments of non-being”10 are moments that the individuals are not consciously aware of even as they experience them. When the women in Arlington Park perform routine tasks such as walking, taking the children to and from school, shopping, preparing meals, without thinking about these actions, this part of their lives is “not lived consciously,” but instead is embedded in “a kind of nondescript cotton wool” (Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past” 70). Their cotton wool lives are made of a long and painful chain of numerous unextraordinary “leaden” moments of non-being.11
24However, the oppressive, engulfing, long and slow time offers the female characters numerous evocative brief moments, Woolfian-like “moments of being.” They are flashes of awareness that reveal the hidden pattern behind the cotton wool of daily life. These moments are paradoxically both fleeting and enduring. For Woolf a moment of being is a moment when an individual is fully conscious of his experience, a moment when he is not only aware of himself but catches a glimpse of his connection to a larger pattern hidden behind the opaque surface of daily life. Unlike moments of non-being, when the individual lives and acts without awareness, performing acts as if asleep, the moment of being opens up a hidden reality. As in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in which Clarissa and Septimus experience exquisite moments of awareness and intense moments of vision, Cuskian characters also experience moments of being in the middle of their trivial daily acts.
- 12 Michael Cunningham, Introduction to The Voyage Out, xx.
- 13 “Any numbers of writers manage the big moments beautifully; few do as much with what it feels to l (...)
25The elasticity of Cuskian time allows sudden concentrations of evocative time, charged with meaning, which resemble Woolf’s little “matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (To the Lighthouse 218). The significance of the modernist author’s moments of being is explained by Cunningham, and could be applied to Cusk’s characters: “[…] what’s important in a life, what remains at its end, is less likely to be its supposed climaxes than its unexpected moments of awareness, often arising out of unremarkable experience, so deeply personal they can rarely be explained.”12 Like Woolf, Cusk manages her small moments “beautifully”13 and endows them with resonant significance.
26Indeed, in the bleak atmosphere of the suburb and in the women’s routine there are ordinary miracles, moments of self-awareness that lighten the day of the characters. It is their inner selves that experience epiphanies, not the women as social beings. Some thoughts, objects and dreams have the power to “alter the colour” of their minds (159) and the perception of ordinary life:
These moments came and they were beautiful, fragile pauses, like bubbles, in which Amanda experienced a feeling of summation, almost of symbolism. They were representations: they were advertisements, for something that lay half-way between the life that was lived here and her own feelings about it. It irked her that more people were not there to witness them. (56)
27The characters, who are like “a bee with honey, laden with the moment” (Mrs Dalloway 42) live these intense, fragile, fleeting, solitary, private moments and at the same time analyse them, dissecting their beauty and significance. Cusk multiplies epiphanies and instances of experiencing these moments as she portrays Clarissa Dalloway-like characters: each of them has access to her own such intense moments.
28Juliet’s moments of being allow her to glimpse beauty beyond the veil of anger which wraps her suburban existence: “All she needed was the chance of her Friday afternoons, to step aside for a moment, to take a single step away and look out, look up. Then she saw beauty: she saw the world not filtered through her veil of anger, but as it was” (167). One of her epiphanies, like Septimus Smith’s in Mrs Dalloway, is situated in between reality and vision and reveals essential things about the truth and beauty of life:
Then Juliet saw, rising from the dark folds, rising from the trees, a pair of swans. They were flying side by side, throats outstretched, beneath the descending night. Their bodies were a pale, unearthly white; together they flew in a kind of ecstasy, lifting themselves from the shadows with their slow, labouring wings. Juliet watched them. She watched their glimmering forms fly through the dark. Side by side they flew, beautiful and alive, exulting. (168)
29Both characters experience similar intense moments of vision. As Septimus sits on a park bench, he is transfixed by the rising and falling movement of the trees and the display of the colourful vision before his eyes:
Happily Rezia put her hand with a tremendous weight upon his knee so that he was weighted down, transfixed, or the excitement of the elm trees rising and falling, rising and falling with all their leaves alight and the colour thinning and thickening from blue to the green of a hollow wave, like plumes on horses’ heads, feathers on ladies’, so proudly they rose and fell, so superbly would have sent him mad. (Mrs Dalloway 22)
- 14 The lack of proportion is a recurrent idea expressed by doctors to explain Septimus’ condition. Se (...)
30Septimus feels a strong connection between himself and the natural world. The fact that he suffers from shell shock makes him more receptive to the facts of the natural world that most people fail to see. Such visions of pure beauty and revelation spark momentary fireworks that illuminate these characters’ day and awaken them from their torpor. They give them a temporary impression of freedom and evasion from the normality, “proportion”14 and routine in which they are trapped. A different sense of perspective and of proportion is found by characters during their illuminating moments. Towards the end of the Arlington Park, Christine experiences “a sense of perspective, of the reach of the universe, of its strange but necessary dimensions. It was this sense of order,” she concludes, “that allowed life in Arlington Park to be what it was” (222).
Maisie’s ontologic moments of being also give relief to her flat day:
These feelings – hot, illuminated, solidifying greyly in seconds where they happened to come to rest – spoke to her momentarily and thrillingly of her own essence. They were great, bright discharges of power, which unfortunately could not make their way through the world in some theoretical, unbodied state. (173-174)
31The moments are like secondary states that suspend her from running time and disconnect her from domestic chores. These interruptions can expand and overflow over several days and allow her to reflect on her “existence” or “essence” while outside, “the cotton wool” of life goes on uninterrupted.
- 15 Woolf uses different metaphors in her novels to describe these moments: “little daily miracles, il (...)
32The introspective characters ponder the reality/unreality and solidity/ephemerality of the moment; the smallest and most insignificant, imperceptible life moments are invested with a heightened and acutely perceived awareness. Like Clarissa who “plunge[s] into the very heart of the moment, tranfixe[s] it” (Mrs Dalloway 31), all the feminine characters in Arlington Park experience such moments. The small, typically Woolfian epiphanies15 are nevertheless profound and saturated moments since the characters probe, examine and ponder the smallest particles of their being. As a result, the moment of being gives renewed impulse to the subject. Woolf’s aim and design in Mrs Dalloway – which also seems to be Cusk’s intention in her novels – was to saturate the moment with thoughts and sensations, and eliminate from the unfolding of time (“from lunch to dinner”) the superfluous fillers (what is “false, unreal, merely conventional” [Diary 3: 209]). The poetic conciseness of the moment, its condensation and intensity and the capturing of its minimalist essence are common points between Woolf and Cusk.
33Epiphanies allow characters to build threads of connections between themselves and the surrounding world. The pattern behind “the cotton wool of life” or the opaque woolly curtain of everyday existence unexpectedly becomes clearly visible and comprehensible and the characters can finally experience the intensity of life. Cusk, just like Woolf, uses an evocative, rich poetic language to express the deep meaning of their characters’ moments of being. Thus, these inner, private moments can be read as brief poems which resurface behind the trivia of everyday life.
- 16 Woolf asserts that: “All great writers are great colourists, just as they are musicians into the b (...)
34Pictorial language is amply used to colour the rich introspective lives of the characters but is also more conventionally put to use to paint outside landscapes and create natural, impressionistic tableaux which function like Woolfian interludes in Arlington Park. These interludes trace the progress of the sun throughout the day, verbally rendering the changes wrought by light. Cusk, as a skilful poet and painter of the passage of time, borrows Woolf’s varied palette of colours,16 lights and shadows, and like her predecessor, she imparts an impressionistic quality to her prose when, for example, she creates vignettes of different “times of the day,” reminiscent of the interludes in The Waves and specific scenes in Mrs Dalloway (118; 158) where the wind plays with the clouds, veiling and unveiling the sun, which in turn sends shafts of light and darkness to the earth in order to provide the visual background to Septimus’s hallucinations. In Cusk’s novel the passage of time is also rendered in terms of movement of clouds, wind, and change in ambient colours which envelop and paint the suburb. The profusion of similes and syntactic repetitions give the impression the cloud-like waves advance, invade the cityscape, change the sky landscape and adjust the intensity of light:
The clouds came from the west: clouds like dark cathedrals, clouds like machines, clouds like black blossoms flowering in the arid starlit sky. They came over the English countryside, sunk in its muddled sleep. They came over the low, populous hills where scatterings of light throbbed in the darkness. At midnight they reached the sky, valiantly glittering in its shallow provincial basin. Unseen, they grew like a second city overhead, thickening, expanding, throwing up their savage monuments, their towers, their monstrous, unpeopled palaces of cloud. (1)
35This type of pictorial prose has a dynamic visual quality: one can see shapes and feel textures as well as picture the movement and metamorphosis of the dark clouds. The lush and abundant prose grows out of repeated comparisons that depict the variety of shapes and metamorphosis of these shapes. The Cuskian scene is highly reminiscent of the devouring darkness invading and spreading all over the Ramsays’ house, dissolving all colours and shapes in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (“Time Passes” 171).
36Stylistically, Cusk’s technique consists of proceeding by short linguistic units, strokes and touches: haunting anaphoric descriptions composed of binary and tertiary segments extend a first paratactic statement, like an avalanche of descriptive clauses stemming from a short, declarative observation. New prolongations and articulations of these descriptive clauses, in the form of similes, are further appended on the secondary clauses. The result is intense and exhausting descriptions that go from the core to the periphery of events, incidents or still lives painted in circular strokes. The narrator’s close and intent scrutiny of every detail, some essential and symbolic, others merely adorning and cumulative, participating in the thickness of the prose, offers the reader a typical Woolfian experience of reading.
37Cusk’s chapters are interspersed with short observations on the quality and texture of light, her equivalent of Big Ben chiming and announcing the time: “The sky was grey. The light was ebbing from it, ebbing, standing back to let the darkness come” (160); “The library was filling with purple light” (165); “It was just past five o’clock: the sky was violet and black, bruised, swimming with clouds. A last faint gauze of light hung over everywhere” (167); “At six o’clock, when the last bruised light of afternoon had ebbed away and blackness stood at the window, Dom Carrington opened his front door” (169). Her pictorial skill is given full rein in the descriptions of nature in which she lingers on details and penetrates their essence. In Arlington Park, Cusk proves to be an expert painter of light expressed in a lyric prose.
- 17 When compared to Woolf in the way she uses language as a craft in itself, Cusk gladly acknowledges (...)
38This specific prose corresponds to a Woolfian sensory approach to create an outside mood that reverberates the characters’ inner turmoil. With an eye for detail and an ear attuned to noises and voices, to their imperceptible movements, nuances and tones, Cusk composes the atmosphere of a place. The rhythm and fluidity of her style come from detectable combinations of Dalloway-esque elements, repetitions, refrains, up and down, raising and falling wave-like movements. For both Woolf and Cusk, plot is secondary to rhythm and language, which is richly metaphorical, dense and complex.17 Both authors perpetuate the cult of the small, and envelope it in a thick yet fluid prose. The penetrating observations on both outside natural sceneries and private domestic lives are expressed with the same intensity in lyrical passages which describe both the continuous movement of the exterior world and the characters’ fluid streams of interior life.
39Rachel Cusk’s prose is thus a perfect example of current neo-modernist literary fiction in the wake of Virginia Woolf. Cusk’s style, which bears the imprint of a recognisable literary legacy, makes her Woolf’s modern-day heir. In Arlington Park, Cusk uses familiar Dalloway-isms. The narratives switch between the various mothers in Arlington Park and thicken page after page from the accumulation of little points of life. Like Woolf, Cusk describes fleeting moods, focuses extensively on what remains unsaid and astutely recreates women’s inner lives as they collide with society’s expectations. The author is a microscopic observer of human thought and of the way individuals perceive themselves and their position in the world around them.
- 18 Here is Woolf’s metaphoric definition: “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; (...)
- 19 Cusk discusses the readers’ taste of “important subjects” and provides an explanation for it: “tha (...)
- 20 Cusk, “The Outsider.”
40Moreover, besides the technical aspect of the prose, aesthetic questions are raised by Cusk who contemplates typical Woolfian interrogations on the essential definition of “life,” “truth” or “reality” and offers her own answer to the Woolfian question “what is life?”18 Like her predecessor (who expressed her aesthetic belief in many essays, especially in “Modern Fiction” and provided her own definition of “life,” “truth” or “reality”), by writing stories of everyday life, Cusk asserts her artistic credo. Her aim is to “make things life-like” and for this, she advocates a place for stories set in the present (not fantasy dealing with big historical events or serious subjects), which stage little dramas of private lives.19 Her novels celebrate ordinary, domestic experiences: “ordinary experience of sorrow, of doubt, of morality, of time.”20 Cusk argues that other contemporary writers, for whom the domestic backdrop is toned down, and who aspire to a greater aim, are afraid of being relegated to the “ribald category” of “lad and chick-lit” if they deal with “the unadorned matter of life in a modern household, on a modern street,” that is to say to the quotidian with its small-scale events which are mere accessories to something bigger and more important: for them, the quotidian is “subjugated, or furbished up like a painted backdrop for the reader to glimpse on occasion.” Thus, Cusk writes against the grain of current fiction, just as Woolf did in her own time when she tried to capture “the trivial, the evanescent, the insignificant” (“Modern Fiction,” Essays 4: 160).
- 21 See Woolf’s essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” (Essays 3: 384-389) written as a response to Bennett’ (...)
41Cusk has been criticised by readers looking for literary grandeur and a bigger scope in her novels; however, this is exactly what makes the force and specificity of her prose: there certainly is grandeur in the minute, piercing observations on domestic life expressed in lyrical passages and the painterly attention given to inner lives and outside atmospheric interludes. The lack of narrative thrust and character development constitutes the very same objections Arnold Bennett formulated about Woolf’s innovative fiction at the beginning of the twentieth century.21 However, these are precisely the stylistic ingredients Cusk deliberately and successfully chooses to “make things life-like.”
- 22 “Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of cloth (...)
42As Woolf’s literary heir, Cusk attaches grand themes to the most trivial incidents. She offers her readers deep meditations on microscopic facts, objects and events that trigger significant moments; her novels celebrate feminine domestic “trivia” and follow her predecessor’s example, who, in A Room of One’s Own, contended that women had written a kind of fiction which had its own nature, based on the very experience of being a woman. Functioning at the heart of the family, Woolf observed, women’s training inevitably included the observation of character and the analysis of emotion. These are faculties women acquired unconsciously in the course of daily activities and they are more easily put to use in a novel than elsewhere in fiction. However, she wryly argued that this subject was thought less important as material for fiction than male subjects such as waging war or playing football.22
- 23 Joyce G. Saricks lists the characteristics of literary fiction from a librarian’s point of view. L (...)
- 24 See David Lodge’s distinction between metaphoric and metonymic modes of discourse in Modes of Mode (...)
- 25 In S/Z Barthes distinguishes between two types of texts: “readerly” (lisible) and “writerly” (scri (...)
43Cusk’s neo-modernist fiction originates in modernist fiction and continues the tradition of lyrical fiction started by Woolf and her “spiritual” contemporaries. Cusk is a current practitioner of literary fiction23 for which modernist authors have definitely paved the way with innovative techniques such as the representation of the consciousness, fragmentation, open-endedness, impressionism, subjectivity, the minuteness of the characters’ private lives, the little miracles of the ordinary life and the attention given to style and the texture of writing. Modernism, as Malcolm Bradbury defines it, relies upon the metaphoric: “the distortion of the familiar surface of observed reality,” and the “disposition of artistic contents according to the logic of metaphor, form, or symbol […]” (84). This definition could very well be applied to Cusk’s neo-modernist literary fiction, which does not follow a strict linear story or psychological progress and is dominantly metaphoric.24 Like Woolf’s works, Cusk’s Arlington Park is a “writerly” text25 in which the author borrows the Woolfian approach of sensory impressionism that depicts the characters’ innermost unrest and psychological depth. The novel is character centred, not plot oriented, and style, language and imagery largely prevail over content. Indeed, what happens is not as important as how it is written; the form and medium of the words are prevalent. Like Woolf, Cusk stakes everything on her ability to make art out of the details of ordinary life, applying to the most mundane objects and moments an attentiveness that brings ordinariness to a state of magnetism.