The Suburbia Genre, Ctd


Ian Stansel examines it:

[H]ow can we not feel the pangs of existential anxiety when the national—and indeed human—drive to distinguish oneself from one’s neighbor comes into conflict with the simultaneous values of suburban uniformity? Their economic comfort does not prevent us from feeling for these suburban characters; we relate all too well to the dual struggles for belonging and individual identity.

“Economic circumstances might force you to live in this environment,” [Richard] Yates writes in his 1961 masterpiece [Revolutionary Road], “but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were.” A strange quote. The “economic circumstances” spoken of here, when taking a larger view of the world, involve being relatively well off. And “contamination” may seem a bit melodramatic in the light of significant poverty and struggle found across the globe.

But this is what so much literature is about: yearning for something beyond the material. Love. Honor. Empathy. Knowledge. And in the case of the suburban novel, identity. Even in books where there is a mortal danger to the protagonists, they have something more at stake. Living is not enough. The characters ache for a connection to their own humanity. Also from Yates:

Look what happens when a man really does blow his top. Call the Troopers, get him out of sight quick, hustle him off and lock him up before he wakes the neighbors…The hell with reality! Let’s have a whole bunch of cute little winding roads and cute little houses painted white and pink and baby blue; let’s all be good consumers and have a lot of Togetherness and bring our children up in a bath of sentimentality—and if old reality ever does pop out and say Boo we’ll all get busy and pretend it never happened.

It is the desire of these characters to be human, completely and unapologetically, with all the confusion and contradictions and insecurity that that entails, all the depressions and elations and deaths and births and malodorous bodily functions—and yet still belong to the order of the community. We all struggle to exist as multiple selves that are often at odds with each other: parent and child; teacher and student; healer and disciplinarian; warrior and peacemaker; insider and outsider. The suburbs represent this precarious and ultimately unsustainable equilibrium.

Previous Dish on suburban fiction here.

(Photo: Robert Harding Pittman, Lake Las Vegas Resort | Las Vegas, USA, from book and exhibition project “Anonymization“)