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

by Dean Blumberg

15 April 2010

Leonardo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road 

‘Place’ is a State of Mind

I find myself nostalgic for the idyllic suburban communities that I’ve never lived in.

Although Richard Ford’s Independence Day takes place during the housing bubble of the late ‘80s, the novel is reminiscent of the suburban angst and disillusionment found in literature of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In the novel, main character Frank Bascombe says,

What I feel rising in me now is… that I really ought to be somewhere else. Though where? Where I’m wanted more than just expected? Where I fit in better? Where I’m more purely ecstatic and not just glad? At least someplace where meeting the terms, conditions and limitations set on life are not so front and center. Where the rules are not the game. (155)

Bascombe’s insight, emblematic of the suburban male experience, is characteristic of a pursuit toward self-discovery which begins with the recognition of suburbia as limiting and oppressive.

From Revolutionary Road (film)

From Revolutionary Road (film)

 

cover art

Independence Day

Richard Ford

(Knopf Doubleday)

Independence Day complicates the idea of suburbia and the quest for identity. Whereas Yates’ and Updike’s characters are all longing for something beyond the possibilities presented by suburbia, Ford’s character Frank Bascombe, a suburban realtor, has already come to accept suburbia’s inability to adequately define the human psyche. The novel takes place over a long weekend in 1988, the Dukakis-Bush presidential election campaign and Fourth of July celebrations providing the backdrop. Frank exhibits similar qualities to Piet Hanema and Frank Wheeler with his penchant for assessing and predicting the experiences that suburbia offers.

As a realtor, Frank Bascombe is already acutely aware of the way in which he sells imagined lives in addition to houses. During his experience showing homes to the Markham’s, Bascombe laments,

I have now fashioned the Easter Egg, filled it with the right sweet stuff, made the hole and put their eye right to it; and yet I’m afraid they’ll never see inside, after which their lives will be worse—my belief being that once you’re offered something good, you ought to be smart enough to take it.” (225)

At this point, suburbia is completely enveloped in utopian and dystopian language. For Frank and the reader, it is all a mirage, a grand fiction that many are willing to believe. For Frank’s clients, he sells them the dreams that the ‘50s bedroom communities promised, but even they know that what they are buying is the idea, that they are in love with the idea more than anything else. Unlike Wheeler and Hanema, who truly find an antagonist in what they see as a homogenizing suburban identity, Bascombe is a postmodern anti-hero, able to see suburbia as a concept, a powerful one, but one that can be analyzed and employed without consuming him completely.

The suburban myth is so embedded in our collective consciousness that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. I find myself nostalgic for the idyllic suburban communities that I’ve never lived in. Recollections of childhood seem strangely tainted by sitcom families and summer camp movies. Authors like Yates, Updike and Ford are able to tap in to that nostalgia while also revealing its less desirable underbelly. Although their stories are typically focused on the middle and upper-middle class, male experience, they more broadly reflect how we use place to represent not only who we are, but what we value.

Dean Blumberg is a die-hard Red Sox fan, a pop-culture junkie, and a graduate teaching assistant at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He frequently writes music reviews for 10Listens.com. Contact: www.deanblumberg.com

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