Backyard Fiction a.k.a. the Great American Myth of Suburbia

by Dean Blumberg

15 April 2010

Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road 

Trouble in Paradise

As much of Couples shows, the male-dominated suburban household is being challenged by ‘liberated’ housewives.

Updike’s Couples, as well as many of his short stories in the early part of his career, take place in the fictional town of Tarbox, Massachusetts. Couples deals with the social responsibilities and economic pressures of a suburban social class, as well as the juxtaposition between an old, small-town New England character and charm, and a new suburban everyplace, characterized by the growth of the Indian Hill housing development and the influx of new residents.

Like the unnamed town that the Wheelers move to, Tarbox is a changing community, a place where individuality and artistry are being replaced by uniformity, monotony and predictability. Describing Tarbox, Updike writes,

The homes were mixed: the surviving seventeenth-century salt-boxes the original Kimballs and Sewalls and Tarboxes and Cogswells had set along the wobbly pasture lanes, quaintly named for the virtues, that radiated from the green; the peeling Federalist cubes with widow’s-walks ; the gingerbread mansions attesting to the decades of textile prosperity; the tight brick alleys plotted to house the millworkers imported from Poland; the middle-class pre-Depression domiciles with stubby porches and narrow chimneys and composition sidings the colors of mustard and parsley and graphite and wine; the new developments like even pastel teeth eating the woods of faraway Indian Hill (17).

From Mad Men

January Jones in Mad Men

 

cover art

Couples

John Updike

(Knopf Doubleday)

Again, the new development, similarly described as aesthetically unpleasant, is presented as a threat to an older, more unique and more desirable way of living. The interesting thing about passages like this one, and they are present in nearly all of the suburban novels that I’ve encountered, is that suburbia is presented as a force that is ‘eating’ away at one’s individuality.

Post-WWII suburban developments were the product of an economic boom in America where housing costs were cheap and the possibility of owning a home and a car were more attainable for the working classes. The ‘50s are typically associated with moral conservatism, and it’s still true that the era conjures up images of Cleaver-like households.

On the other hand, the ‘60s ushered in a challenging counter-culture, a student and youth movement that positioned itself against the conservative views of their parents’ generation. Whereas the ‘50s stood for traditional values, American consumerism, and ownership, the ‘60s questioned the very nature of consumer culture, and suburbia itself became an icon and a symbol to reject.

Updike’s Couples is a suburban novel trapped in this cultural conflict. What makes the novel so engaging is that its characters both equally loathe and desire suburbia bourgeois trappings. In one of the most memorable passages in Couples, Piet Hanema confronts an angered Ken after Piet’s affair with Angela is publicized:

He stood to tell Ken, “She’s your wife, keep her in your bed. You had lost her before you began. A man with any self-respect wouldn’t have married her on the rebound like you did. Don’t blame me if flowers didn’t grow in this”—at the mouth of the hall, following Angela out, he turned and with whirling arms indicated to Ken his house, the Cambridge furniture, the empty bassinet, mirroring windows, the sum of married years—“test tube.” (402)

This passage is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it places Ken at the center of responsibility. As much of the novel shows, the male-dominated suburban household is being challenged by ‘liberated’ housewives. When things begin to crumble—both relationships and the landscape are rapidly destroyed by the end of the novel—Piet reverts back to the ‘older’, more patriarchal way of seeing the household. Thus, Ken is responsible for “keep[ing] her in [his] bed”, even though the ‘open relationship’ lifestyle was initially embraced as a way of challenging the more conservative ideologies of generations past.

Secondly, the passage is significant because it shows how commodities and places have become linked to social relationships. Piet’s criticism of Ken and Angela’s home as a test tube puts forth an image of suburbia as just that—an engineered fiction. As Piet takes an increasing presence in the construction of Indian Hill, the new housing development on the block, he becomes more aware of the ways in which corporations and individuals attempt to replace identity with commodity. The act of possessing all of the things that represent a happy suburban life does not necessarily provide one with that life.

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