Monday, April 14, 2008

The Suburban Condition

I've been tearing through the subgenre of suburban lit in all of its various manifestations: Cheever, in particular, like I'm on a train fast approaching the hamlet where everyone drinks too much on a Saturday and can't stop talking about it Sunday afternoon, but also some nonfiction anthropological stuff and pop sociology (Perfect Madness, The Mommy Myth, etc.), too. It strikes me that we call Roth a self-hating Jew for Portnoy's Complaint, we don't call Cheever a self-hating suburbanite for "The Swimmer" or "The Five-Forty-Eight." Surely "suburban" is as much a cultural category as Jewishness, for the latter is often denoted as cultural instead of religious. Granted that the former is of a somewhat more recent vintage, but still, it's hard to find a writer raised in its midst who doesn't either reflect its angst or react against it.

I've become something of a self-hating suburbanite lately, cheering on Cheever and shouting at the stroller brigades (inside my head, anyway) to pack it up and get back to work. This trend coincides with something similar in my mother, who--retired now--finds herself appalled by the bunko ladies and soccer traveling league mothers in Michigan and is veritably tetchy with the urge to do something, anything, again. (Spot the heredity.) We have long and involved conversations about the current political situation, which, sooner or later, boil down to a plaintive condemnation of the inwardness of the suburbs and its subsequent bright intense focus on the nuclear family circle to the exclusion of the darkness beyond. "If only they were just aware of something besides midget football league scores," we moan to each other. "Like, you know, the fact that Homeland Security can deport anyone, for any reason." I've started to mix my stereotypes, and categorize suburban mothers with other hated groups, like women who use and/or care about cosmetics too much. In fact, as anyone who's seen a mommy lately could probably tell you, she might be wearing mascara but you'd never know it under the flakes of pureed carrot and oatmeal dregs that have, somehow and improbably, ended up on her eyelashes.

If I were Greek and a peripatetic philosopher, I'd respond to myself as such: It is impossible to know another person's mind completely. Perhaps these so-called soccer moms (itself a troubled and ambiguous category) can spare a few moments from shepherding their wee ones from ballet to Kumon to Tumbling Tots to think about what lies beyond the gates of their stucco subdivisions, and do. Maybe, like the housewives of the Vietnam era, they are the organizers of boycotts and consciousness-raising groups, the creators of entire worlds unknown to those of us who drive out of those gates at 7am every day. Denying other people inner worlds as complex as mine is perhaps my worst and most alarming character flaw, and the first step to all sorts of appalling conclusions with disturbing historical precedents. And it occurs to me that my favorite Dostoevsky novel, The Devils--also set in the suburbs, or a sort of Russian equivalent--is about essentially the same thing: denying human complexity to entire swaths of people. I've always believed that we're drawn to what repels us about ourselves. I suppose I'm drawn to Cheever and the entire class of suburban lit. because that part of my personal history offends me; but then the offended part hits upon The Devils as an antidote to that smug superiority. Literary taste as a regulating system. I like that idea.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 12:23 PM