1Although marketed as a novel upon its first publication in 2003, Rachel Cusk’s The Lucky Ones does not really fit that label. As reviewers of the book did not fail to notice, it is “really a collection of tales tenuously linked by characters that share little beyond geographic proximity and the sometimes perplexing and vexing state of parenthood” (Love 122). Several reviewers also expressed annoyance at having been wrong-footed. As Craig Seligman put it in The New York Times Book Review,
The title page announces, ‘The Lucky Ones: A Novel,’ but this isn’t a novel; it’s five loosely, though deftly, linked stories …. I was mad at the publisher for what I considered an act of bad faith—calling the book a novel makes it easier to sell—and with the author for going along with the scheme
2The publisher or Cusk herself seem to have taken heed of this criticism, as they dropped the generic label from subsequent editions, giving way to the multivalent term “story”: “five men and women’s lives converge in this powerful and moving story of family relationships” (Cusk 2004).
3While generic labels have thus been applied rather casually to The Lucky Ones, the narrative structure itself is highly deliberate. Cusk’s departure from the traditional novelistic structure and protagonist-bound plot of her earlier works – Saving Agnes (1993), The Temporary (1995) and The Country Life (1997) – was certainly no accident. Rather, as I hope to argue, the interlinking of separate stories in The Lucky Ones contributes to the thematic issues the book addresses in important ways: questions of commonality and companionship; of connection and community. In the first part of this essay, therefore, I will consider the formal and structural characteristics of the book from the perspective of recent theoretical approaches to the collection of linked stories. In a second part, I will investigate how the structure of The Lucky Ones supplements the book’s focus on parenthood and family relations with broader questions about human relations. By way of conclusion, I will discuss Cusk’s treatment of these questions in the larger context of current debates about community in sociology and contemporary literature.
- 1 The term was introduced in the standard works of Mann and Ingram and has also been used in recent (...)
4In his introduction to The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle, James Nagel gives a long list of examples testifying to the fact that “the role of the short-story cycle has been largely unrecognized in literary scholarship” (1). Judging from the generic confusion surrounding The Lucky Ones, the situation has not yet improved. Still, the first critical overview of the short story cycle already dates back to 1971, with Forrest Ingram’s landmark discussion of the genre. Since then, several critics have tried to define the genre and to describe its evolution in Western literature since the late nineteenth century. The on-going obscurity of the genre outside academic circles can partly be blamed on scholarly disputes about the exact label to be used for a collection of linked stories. Short story sequence (Luscher; Kennedy), short story composite (Lundén), composite novel (Dunne and Morris) and novel-in-stories (Kelley) are among the plethora of terms that have been proposed and defended over the past few decades, but short story cycle (with or without the hyphen) currently seems the most common one and it is also the one I will use in what follows.1 The term short story cycle also highlights the genre’s connection to older forms of linking shorter texts, such as the sonnet cycle or the epic cycle. Moreover, many collections of linked stories, including The Lucky Ones, display elements of circularity, with the final story referring back to the beginning.
5Although a consensus about definition has similarly been lacking, most critics agree with Susan Mann’s claim that:
There is only one essential characteristic of the short story cycle: the stories are both self-sufficient and interrelated. On the one hand, the stories work independently of one another: the reader is capable of understanding each of them without going beyond the limits of the individual story. On the other hand, however, the stories work together, creating something that could not be achieved in a single story. (15)
- 2 Mann recognises character and theme as two major, and setting and aesthetics as two minor methods (...)
6The relation between the individual stories and the book as a whole has often been described in terms of a “tension between simultaneous separateness and cohesion” (Lundén 33), “between unity and multiplicity” (Kennedy xi), or between the independence of the individual stories and their dependent role as parts in a larger whole. This tension between "the one and the many,” as Forest Ingram has famously put it (19), can be realised in different ways with varying degrees of unity and fragmentation. Critics have therefore rightly pointed out that the short story cycle exists on a continuum, “ranging from the miscellaneous collection, on one end, to the traditional novel on the other” (Luscher 163). Although several classifications of short story cycles have been suggested, recurring elements in most of them are the linking devices of character(s), setting, theme and aesthetic structure.2
7Without the misleading subtitle ‘A Novel’ and with a clear table of contents and a motto from one of the greatest short story writers, Katherine Mansfield, the new edition of The Lucky Ones invites a reading of the book as a collection of short stories. This impression is confirmed by the radically distinct cast and setting of the first two stories: “Confinement” tells of a lower-class woman, wrongly accused of murder, who is about to give birth in prison and “The Way You Do It” depicts a skiing holiday in the Alps of a group of upper-middle-class thirtysomethings. All five stories can in fact be read and understood on their own and it is only gradually that the connections between the short stories unfold, uncovering larger patterns of meaning and significance. The Lucky Ones can thus be read as a short story cycle, sporting the genre’s characteristic tension between independence and interdependence of the individual stories. The most obvious linking device of Cusk’s cycle is that of character, as minor characters in one story turn up as major characters in the next. Thus, one of the skiing group is Jane, a lawyer who failed to secure a place in a mother-child unit in prison for Kirsty, the protagonist of “Confinement.” The first-person narrator in the middle story “The Sacrifices” turns out to be the twin sister of Lucy, another of the skiing friends; and the self-contained, sarcastic Josephine from that same group returns as a new mother suffering from post-natal depression in “Mrs Daley’s Daughter.” “Matters of Life and Death,” finally, tells the story of a crumbling marriage from the perspective of Vanessa, Mrs Daley’s neighbour in a small English village. Apart from this network of links between the characters, recurring figures in all stories are Victor Porter, a campaigning lawyer, and his wife Serena, who writes a weekly newspaper column about family life. Initially only talked about or referred to by other characters, they remain elusive, almost mythical figures until the last story where they appear ‘in the flesh’ as neighbours and friends of Vanessa. Victor’s spectral presence especially haunts the book; even his final appearance is “bloodless” and “ghastly” as he is dying from cancer (168, 222).
8Next to the linkage offered by the recurring characters, a second unifying device in The Lucky Ones is the theme of motherhood—or, by extension, parenthood—which dominates the book. Written around the same time as Cusk’s own account of motherhood, A Life’s Work. On Becoming a Mother (2001), it dwells on the life-changing experience of becoming a mother and on the very complex array of feelings that come with it. The five separate stories give voice to very different mothers and stage a variety of mother-child interactions so that what emerges from the short story cycle as a whole is a multi-perspectival and nuanced take on motherhood in contemporary society. Kirsty’s ferocious and protective reaction at having to give up her baby is opposed to Dominique’s feeling “displaced” by her baby, “victimised by the things she had created” (44, 57). Her defiant refusal to feed her baby is echoed in a milder form by Josephine’s despair in “Mrs Daley’s Daughter” and her sense of being “back at the beginning,” only wanting to “cry and sleep” (148). These feelings of frustration are then put into larger temporal perspective by Mrs Daley’s own fraught relation with her grown-up daughter and her deep-seated guilt at “having missed the opportunity to love her” (136). Her complex love-hate relation with her daughter is explained as a form of “self-loathing,” the result of her own frustration at her limited power and agency as a housewife: “how else could she express herself, when she hardly spoke to another adult, when she did nothing but clean and cook and look after the children all day?” (136). Vanessa, on the other hand, takes up her mothering role more happily and considers herself “the lucky one” for not having to go out to work and being able to be with her children all day (178). Yet this label, which she borrows from her husband, becomes ironic when her breadwinner husband can no longer support his family and threatens to leave her for another woman. Like Josephine, finally, the first-person narrator of “The Sacrifices” returns to her childhood home and her memories of her mother in order to come to terms with the fact that she won’t become a mother herself. As a young woman, she muses, “I pitied [my mother’s] limited existence; but in the years that followed that pity turned slowly, grindingly on its axis, until finally it returned to her her lost authority; until it was she who pitied me” (71). Unsurprisingly, it is in her story of yearning for a child that we find the most idealised account of motherhood: “I felt a terrible despair at having failed to find another human being to corroborate my existence. I wanted a relationship in which love given was equal to love received. I wanted something of my own.” (89).
9Fathers also figure in The Lucky Ones, but their role is a more distant one. The traditional ‘absent’ father who leaves all the parenting to his wife is represented by Mr Daley and Vanessa’s husband Colin, but the latter comes to resent his wife’s dependency when his filmmaking no longer earns him enough money to keep up the division of roles. Yet even Victor, who is called “a soft man” by the other characters, claims, “I don’t worry about my children half as much as I worry about my clients” (219). In the plots of the stories, too, the fathers and husbands are only secondary characters, except for Martin, who is the focaliser of “The Way You Do It.” Having left his three-week old baby to go on a skiing holiday, he muses on his conflicted feelings for his daughter: “The thought of his daughter filled him with spurts of nervous warmth and with the alarm of someone who has dropped a plate and is watching it in the last seconds of its wholeness before it hits the floor” (39). But also Martin stands baffled before the strength of feelings his wife Dominique experiences after becoming a mother: she “seemed to exist more and more in a state of unconstrained emotion” (44). This intensity of emotion is shared by all the mothers in the book, even though the nature of these emotions differs. And from the intensity of their anger, ecstasy, despair, love or hatred, the fathers always stand slightly apart.
10The difference between mothers and fathers, or between men and women more generally, is also hinted at in the book’s motto from Mansfield’s “At the Bay”: “The firm compact little girls were not half so brave as the tender, delicate-little boys.” If this quote both upholds and inverses gender stereotypes, so does The Lucky Ones. The mothers in the stories are both strong and weak: fierce and intense in their emotions and often cruel and selfish in their desires, they are also likely to be bowled over by these feelings and to succumb in depression or submission. The husbands, it seems, stand by and watch, occasionally attempting rather futilely, like Martin, to “unpick [a woman] from the snag of what seemed dimly to him to be her femininity. He wanted to comb it out, the whole tangle, until it was straight and clear” (41). Yet Martin is also the first to understand the tangle of feelings of parenthood as a perpetual conflict between the selfishness that is a force of life and the selflessness and self-denial which parenting requires: “Martin saw life flowing through her [Josephine], and it struck him how selfishly it sought its course, this river of sensation, how vain and yet how irresistible was the desire to restrain it. … The pain of cutting back, in order to begin again” (57).
11This sense of the boundless egotism of life and the moral struggle of trying to contain it is voiced even more explicitly in Cusk’s later short story cycle (as I see it), Arlington Park, where the conflicting takes on this problem are voiced by the protagonists of the different chapters. While Juliet ponders, “it was all so vigorous and uncrushable, the getting and having, the putting forth, the relentless, warlike assertion of one thing over another. It was civilization and yet to Juliet it seemed uncivilized to the core. What was there here that brought about such a rude growth of life? It lacked art: worse, it lacked any conception of justice” (33), Christine believes, “You had to look at what you had while at the same time getting everything you could out of life. That was why it never did any good worrying about things that had nothing to do with you …“You’ve got to love life … you’ve got to love just—being alive” (238). The need to live for oneself is invariably opposed to the need to care for others and an awareness of what Cusk herself called “the long process of moral failure” preoccupies the characters in The Lucky Ones to different degrees (Cusk 2005, 50).
12A third element of unity which holds together the separate stories is what René Audet has called, “l’univers partagé” (85): the stories share the same temporal frame and are also geographically close to one another. The characters all hail from London or from villages in the South of England. This gives the book a shared spatial frame, in spite of the Alpine location of the second story. Not coincidentally it is the middle story of the book which provides the largest temporal overview, through the narrator’s taking stock of her life and that of her acquaintances. It is through her story, therefore, that the reader learns about the lives of some characters beyond the boundaries of the other stories. We learn of Victor’s death and Serena’s subsequent struggle and of her sister Lucy resuming her career while her husband stays at home. The book’s shared space, on the other hand, is that of Southern England, with characters living in London or in the smaller towns and villages of the South. Unlike in other short story cycles unified by place—think of Dubliners, Winesburg, Ohio or The Country of the Pointed Firs—most characters in The Lucky Ones are not rooted in a specific place, but always on the move: moving houses, travelling for work, going on holidays. Notable exceptions are, of course, Kirsty but also Mrs. Daley, who is defined by the rural village she lives in and also seeks to define it in turn through her avid gossiping and her annual Christmas party. The final two stories are set in the same village of Ravenley and ironically invoke the flavour of more traditional short story cycles, such as Cranford or Our Village, which paint a rather idealising picture of village life. Such an ideal lures Victor and Serena to Ravenley, where, Serena assumes, “people don’t think so much … don’t believe in things that will set them apart” (211). But such hopes for companionship and harmony prove unfounded and Serena has to admit that: “it isn’t all right, even here. There’s no more love here than anywhere else” (211).
- 3 Examples of late twentieth-century short story cycles which stage community life are Amy Tan’s The (...)
13 Yet even if The Lucky Ones deconstructs the idealised image of village life which could be found in nineteenth-century regional cycles, the book by its very structure foregrounds questions of connection and companionship. As the separate stories are combined through cross-references and common themes into a larger whole, so the different lives they represent are brought together in a network of relations and connections. Several critics have noted the short story cycle’s “recurrent interest in the problem of community” (Kennedy xiv). In her historical study of the American short story cycle, for instance, Michelle Pacht notes that “the short story cycle expresses both the plight of an individual and the fate of a community through its very structure” (1). Ranging from the nineteenth-century regional cycles or “narratives of community” (Zagarell) to the late twentieth-century short story cycles by ethnic American women writers,3 the communities Pacht analyses are mostly positive ones, offering shelter, empowerment and a sense of identity to their members. In comparison to these communities, the network of connections depicted by Cusk is of course a much more fleeting, loose and transient one. Here we find no common purpose or shared sense of identity, but rather a loose web of acquaintances, neighbours, colleagues and friends. Cusk no longer depicts one spatially defined community in which all members have their place, but rather a multiplicity of what sociologists have called “personal communities,” “collection[s] of personal ties in which people are embedded” (Pahl and Spencer). Yet in The Lucky Ones these personal communities also connect into a larger network, as different people figure with different degrees of importance in the personal communities depicted in the individual stories.
14In this way, Cusk’s evocation of multiple but loose connections that exist between different characters in The Lucky Ones ties in very well with recent sociological accounts of contemporary society in terms of a “network society” (Castells), a “liquid modernity” (Bauman) or a “community without propinquity” (Calhoun). Although their perspectives and terminologies differ, each of these sociologists describes a contemporary Western society in which traditional bonds, affiliations and role patterns have weakened, leaving the individual freer from traditional factions, family ties or role patterns; yet also more burdened by personal responsibility and the need to make the right ‘choices’ for one’s life. This progressive “individualisation” of contemporary societies (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim), sociologists argue, leads people to develop a personal network of “liquid” and shifting relations which are no longer defined by traditional markers such as place, affiliation, religion, ethnicity, or class. Community life in contemporary society should therefore be understood as “the life people live in dense, multiplex, relatively autonomous networks of social relationships. Community life, thus, is not a place or simply a small-scale population aggregate, but a mode of relating, variable in extent. Though communities may be larger than the immediate personal networks of individuals, they can in principle be understood by an extension of the same lifeworld terms” (Calhoun 391).
15This is also the picture of middle-class life we find in The Lucky Ones, with women agonizing over career moves or the right moment for having children and with rather tenuous lines of connection between different individuals and lives. Yet by having several characters return to their own childhood home, whether literally or in their memories, Cusk also questions the individualised freedom of her middle-class characters and points to the formative influence of one’s childhood, and in particular, the mother-daughter bond. Both Josephine and Lucy’s twin sister, for instance, feel burdened by “the atmosphere of disapproval that attended [their] every action as a child” (64). And Kirsty’s story in particular offers an important correction to the notion of an individualized society, for hers is a life very much shaped by and bound to a local, underprivileged and criminal community, that of the ‘Barrows’. Still, through her stay in prison, Kirsty is also shown to form other bonds and connections that draw her out of the orbit of her local community.
16In all of the stories, in fact, it is the moments of connection or companionship with relative strangers which succeed in puncturing the characters’ sense of self-obsession, isolation or unhappiness. In prison, Kirsty’s friendship with Michelle is focused on as an unlikely alliance—“you kept wondering what friendship could be like in a place like this – they they were all people other people wouldn’t want to be around” (8) – yet an empowering and real one:
So she let Michelle keep her arms around her, even though it made everything hurt, and the moment became one of those moments she sometimes had, when something real that had become something false became something real again, when she felt herself changing but she didn’t know into who. (11)
17In “The Way You Do It,” it is through talking to Thomas that Martin comes to terms with his new role as a father: “They rose together weightlessly towards the crest of the mountain. The touch of life had never been so light. He barely felt it—it was as though gravity had freed the things he knew” (58). And also the I-narrator in “The Sacrifices,” who enjoys solitude and used to abhor “the pressure of constant association” in boarding school (20), experiences a strong sense of connection with her stepson so that, when she and her husband separate, it is “Joseph that [she] missed.” (93) For Vanessa of “Matters of Life and Death,” the most significant moments seem to be her odd encounters with Victor, who seemed to her to have “played a tune that she couldn’t quite remember and wanted to hear again. She had not had this experience often in life although she had it with her children” (172). These and similar fleeting and momentary encounters are considered important in the book as they relieve the characters – however temporarily – of the burden of life’s inevitable self-centeredness. This is confirmed by the newly-established connection between Kirsty and Vanessa which both closes the book and brings it full circle to the opening story again:
She’d got a letter from Kirsty that morning, the morning she read about Victor [‘s death]. Now that her eye was better she was having driving lessons, and when she could get in a car again she would go to Kirsty’s prison and visit her. … Vanessa felt she might have more to say to someone she didn’t know than someone she did, and she supposed people like Kirsty felt the same way. Kirsty spoke about her daughter in the letter. She was nearly two. She lived with foster parents who brought her to the prison every week. Vanessa was impressed by that. She wondered who these people were, who lived in the same world as her and yet were not the same. She wondered how they had come to be that way. (227)
18That this sense of companionship between the two women as well as Vanessa’s more abstract wonder at their common humanity should close The Lucky Ones seems highly symbolic. It highlights the characters’ yearning for connection in spite of their preoccupation with self, partner and children within the confines of their lives. Commenting on Cusk’s addressing A Life’s Work to women “in the hope that they find some companionship in my experiences,” a review in The Guardian notes that “Cusk emerges as someone for whom resistance is a second nature. She dislikes groups and yet pines for a community of feeling” (Kellaway).
- 4 In fact, the satirical undercurrent of some of Cusk’s stories brings her closer to Katherine Mansf (...)
19This ambiguity about companionship and community is also hinted at in Cusk’s ironic description of Mrs Daley’s Christmas party. It is an annual event to which the whole village is invited and for which Mrs Daley prepares in a frenzy of baking, cleaning and decorating. Although the party itself is not really dwelt on in the story, it is an event which literally brings together some of the protagonists of the other stories. In this way, Mrs Daley’s party can be seen as anticipating the dinner party which closes Arlington Park and also joins some of the earlier protagonists of that cycle. Because of Arlington Park’s marked intertextual references to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, it would perhaps not be too far-fetched to also see an allusion to Woolf’s novel in Mrs Daley’s Christmas party. Apart from the similarities in name and upper-middle-class status, there is the car-accident of Vanessa and Colin, which punctures Mrs Daley’s party just as the news of Smith’s suicide interrupts Clarissa Dalloway’s party. Of course there are many differences as well and Cusk’s near-satiric treatment of Mrs Daley is quite unlike Woolf’s more sympathetic treatment of her protagonist.4 Still, the moments of connection and the yearning for a sense of communion or community with other people in The Lucky Ones could be seen as echoing Mrs Dalloway’s somewhat unformulated thoughts about a larger sense of human connection:
[W]hat did it mean to her, this thing she called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt what a waste; and she felt what a pity; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom? (Woolf 123)
20In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa’s desire for connection and community is set against her awareness of a fundamental, “indomitable egotism which for ever rides down the hosts opposed to it, the river which says on, on, on; even though, it admits, there may be no goal for us whatever, still on, on” (Woolf 44). And as Molly Hite has shown, these opposed tendencies together with the often indeterminate narrative voice of Mrs Dalloway account for “the strikingly divergent interpretations” of the title character: celebrated for her love of life, her appreciation of the ordinary, her valuing of personal relations and her experience of universal connection, she has also been dismissed as selfish, snobbish, callous and cold (Hite 250). In The Lucky Ones, similarly, the characters’ experiences of connection or commonality with near-strangers punctures and alleviates their otherwise selfish obsession with their own happiness or, occasionally, that of their children. Although these experiences are often only momentary, their significance is heightened through the formal organisation of the book. As a short story cycle, the very form of The Lucky Ones depends on and contributes to the links that exist between separate individuals, links of connection and/or commonality. As we have seen, the links of connection established between the characters and their stories create a view of contemporary society as a complex network of relations, some accidental and fleeting, some more structural and profound. The sense of commonality between the protagonists, on the other hand, mostly depends on the shared experience of parenthood and the conflicted emotions this generates.
21Unlike many earlier short story cycles, The Lucky Ones is certainly not starry-eyed about the impact of these fluid ties or moments of connection. The network of non-localised relations between the characters does certainly not amount to the closely-knit communities in both late nineteenth-century and late twentieth-century narratives of community, which are strongly unified by a particular locale. Neither is the sense of commonality between the parents in The Lucky Ones necessarily to be equated with feelings of solidarity or common identity. In “Matters of Life and Death,” for instance, Vanessa does establish a bond of friendship based on commonality with Serena Porter, but when she is rebuffed by Mrs Daley, she is “not surprised to encounter coldness, steel in other women” (190) even though she recognises Mrs Daley’s solidified existence as a housewife as quite similar to her own.
22This fairly realistic and pragmatic approach to aspects of community can also be observed in other contemporary short story cycles. For it is not just in recent sociological studies that renewed attention has been given to questions of connection and community; twenty-first-century fiction too seems to have turned away from a postmodernist preoccupation with identity to an investigation of the network of relations that exist between individuals in a globalised world. The short stories in Polly Samson’s Perfect Lives (2011), for instance, establish similarly fluid and fleeting connections between people living in or around a Southern English coastal town and Jennifer Egan’s prize-winning short story cycle A Visit from the Good Squad (2010) depicts the lives of a number of characters associated with the New York music scene. Egan herself talked of the book as a “constellation of intersecting lives” and “a polyphonic fictional world” (Reilly 440-41), descriptions which would also apply to The Lucky Ones, to Arlington Park or to Ali Smith’s fragmented novels, Hotel World (2001) and There but for the (2012), in which disparate characters are brought together by an accidental or strange occurrence, which has a powerful impact on their lives. Again, these so-called novels are actually short story cycles, part of Smith’s attempt to create “a democracy of voice” through combining the stories of different characters into a larger “narrative community” (Smith 84, 97). In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009), to give a final example, different people, from different social classes, are also brought together as witnesses to Philippe Petit’s historical tightrope walk between the twin towers and a network of connections unfolds between them.
23Like The Lucky Ones, all of these books occupy a position mid-way between the short story collection and the integrated novel: some are clearly short story cycles while others are perhaps more properly labelled fragmented—or composite—novels. What all of these contemporary works share, moreover, is a close interaction between form and content whereby the narrative structure serves to highlight central questions of the theme. The juxtaposition of individual stories, first, allows the writers to stage a multiplicity of lives and characters, offering a “polyphony of voices,” frequently addressing a unified topic: parenthood in The Lucky Ones, the relation between art and life in A Visit from the Good Squad, class hierarchies in Hotel World. The links established between these individual stories, second, dramatizes the question of connections between characters, beyond those of family or love relationships. The tension between unity and independence characteristic of the short story cycle thus serves to bring out the thematic tension between selfishness or self-obsession and a yearning for connection and commonality, which we also saw at work in The Lucky Ones. In many different ways, in fact, these contemporary works address the possibility of connection, commonality and community in a globalised and individualised society and wonder about the forms these might take. A term which seems to encompass both of these thematic concerns is Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of “le partage des voix” which he first introduced in his La Communauté désœuvrée (1986). Countering notions of community based on a totalising form of sameness or identity, he suggests instead an “inoperative community” based on a dialectic of being-in-common and interruption, or sharing and division. Even though Nancy’s vision of community might still be too much of a utopian ideal for Cusk in particular, it does allow for the ambivalence of connection and dissociation, commonality and difference between people which The Lucky Ones depicts and which Vanessa sums up at the end of the novel with her feeling of connection with people who inhabited “the same world as her and yet were not the same.”