The Book Club

Suburbs: Not Sterile, But “The Halfway Houses for Our Actual Lives”

Dear Chris,

OK, I’ll give in. It is a one-of-a-kind book. It’s a funny book, a memorable book, a super smart book, and it’s much, much better than the vast majority of the alternatives. I’m just being stingy with the word “great” here because, well, I don’t know. I want to have it around to use when I read a novel that takes me further, achieves more pathos than this one did.

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Our editor excused us from duty after your excellent last post, but I just have one more point I want to make. You say that Franzen’s subject is “sterile suburbia”–“the most important subject in America”–and I want to register an objection. Not on Franzen’s behalf, exactly, though I do think you do him some disservice with that characterization. Even if St. Jude is the city of lost causes, Franzen moves beyond the very worst of the stereotyping of suburbia on display in at least half of contemporary American fiction, to say nothing of movies. (You want unreconstructed suburban cliché? Check out Alan Ball’s American Beauty and Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.) My point is, I don’t think the problem is with sterile suburbia; I think it’s with sterile conventions of representing suburbia.

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Now that I live in a bedroom community (Pelham, N.Y.), I feel like I have some insight into why the American suburbs are so hard to characterize in fiction and film. To begin with, what gets dismissed as nowhereness is really in-betweenness. Suburbs neither teem with millions of exciting public transactions, like the streets Dickens and Dreiser liked to write about, nor are they splendid with grime and democratic possibility, like the places Hart Crane and Walt Whitman celebrated. Suburbs aren’t the countryside, with all that implies of Edenic escape and pastoral possibility or perhaps American primitivism. Suburbs are just the halfway houses for our actual lives. They’re undramatic. More Americans live in suburbs than anywhere else. They represent the compromises we make to lead our daily lives, to do things like raise families. (Here in the greater New York metropolitan area, only the rich can afford to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn and send their children to private schools. And don’t talk to me about magnet schools or vouchers. They don’t begin to address the problem.)

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The suburban conventionality writers like to skewer with such witty, bitter hilarity exists only on the surface. The bonds that hold people together in American suburbs do tend to be weak, though less weak than in cities, and people cling to the banalities for lack of any safer way to communicate. After all, you don’t have the option of forever avoiding some person you have inadvertently offended. But underneath all that, life in a suburb is lived with a lot more inwardness than it seemed to possess when I lived in New York City, and it is more conservative only in the sense that the perspective tends to be parental and perhaps overly concerned about safety. (Soccer moms do vote Democratic, after all.) Life here is no more consumerist than anywhere else in America, and less than in many places, like Soho, the Upper East Side, Adam’s Morgan. People here are obsessively familial, often profoundly religious, and, you learn, perhaps because your neighbors stick around longer than they do in the city and you get to know them and their kids, more likely than not they turn out to be exceedingly interesting in some way. They’ll be bizarrely gentle or secretly heroic or unusually original, or they’ll be sadistic and weird. In short, they’re people, some rich, some middle-class, some quite poor. (The suburb next to mine is very poor and ethnically diverse, with housing projects and large Mexican neighborhoods.) There are authors who get this. Don DeLillo displays a thorough understanding of it in White Noise, a novel that–I was surprised to discover when I reread it recently–does not mock suburban life cruelly, but with great tenderness and love. Richard Ford communicates the ineffable richness of suburbs in Independence Day. And so on and so forth. Ijust don’t see where the sterility is supposed to be.

OK, that’s my rant. I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you, I’ll spare the reader, I’ll spare myself. It has been a great pleasure reading with you, Chris, and enlightening as always.

Fondly,
Judith

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