Monday, December 29, 2008

Sockin' The Suburbs

A few months back, I noted how excited I was to learn that with the release of "Revolutionary Road" Hollywood would finally be breaking a long held taboo and bravely critique the suffocating, stifling lives of suburban conformity. And in the Fifties no less, an era that has been heretofore immune from the cynical, post-modern withering gaze of the movie-making community. Bravo Sam Mendes for your pioneering effort in taking us behind the comfortable facade of suburban bliss and exposing the secret hell of lives of quiet desperation.

In one of the best pieces I've ever read on the subject, Lee Siegel asks Why Does Hollywood Hate the Suburbs? in Saturday's WSJ. He could have expanded the list of those who rage against the suburbs to include artists, writers, musicians, poets, thespians, urban intellectuals, almost everyone on the Left (getting redundant here), and anyone else who considers tragedy hip. The entire piece is excellent and well worth reading (best of all it's available to all on the Journal's site). Here are a couple of paragraphs with particular punch:

Still, the film's hostility toward the suburbs pales when compared with its source. Yates's novel, cherished by literary intellectuals and Paris Review interns to this day, expresses American suburban-phobia with crude explicitness. Describing the Wheelers' new neighborhood, Yates writes: "The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy.... [The neighborhood] was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves.... A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place."

No literary critic that I know of has ever challenged Yates's puerile social perceptions. The reflexive reverence for "Revolutionary Road" is a testament to the degree to which antisuburban sentiment is one of the most unexamined attitudes in American culture. For what might a neighborhood that had been designed to accommodate a tragedy possibly look like? For a man running down the street in desperate grief to fit right into the landscape, he would have to be hurtling through a place where vampiric towers blocked out the sun and corpses hung from the lampposts.

Yates's rage against the suburbs had all the subtlety of adolescent rage against authority (this indiscriminate anger might account for the novel's fatal deficiency: Frank and April's total lack of talent or substance makes their ultimately thwarted attempt to leave the suburbs for Paris less the stuff of tragedy than irritating farce). Yet "Revolutionary Road" -- the name fatuously meant to imply that America's revolutionary promise withers and dies in the suburbs -- caught the reflexive attitudes of many readers. Postwar writers and intellectuals overlooked the book's flagrant shortcomings, lit up from within by their shared opposition to a single place. X might be a Stalinist, and Y a fellow traveler and Z a closet Republican, but they could all agree on one thing -- they'd rather perish in a nuclear holocaust than move to Westchester!

American antisuburban sentiment is often comically absurd. In his 1955 poem "Howl," Allen Ginsberg elevated suburb-phobia to the level of myth. He excoriates the "invisible suburbs" -- i.e. they are so spiritually dead that they are hidden from a living eye -- as one of the pernicious manifestations of Moloch, the destructive god of soulless materialism. Sylvia Plath added some spine-tingling details. In her 1963 autobiographical novel, "The Bell Jar," Plath's heroine steps off a train and has this infernal experience: "The motherly breath of the suburbs enfolded me. It smelt of lawn sprinklers and station wagons and dogs and babies. A summer calm laid its soothing hand over everything, like death." The pleasures of a station wagon's aroma are open to question, but summer calm, the smell of wet grass, the scent of dogs (if they're clean) and babies (clean or dirty) -- are, it could be argued, some of the least horrifying experiences in life.

To normal well-adjusted people they are in fact some of the most pleasurable. Which explains a lot about the real reasons for hating the suburbs.