You Should Never Go Home: Fiction and the Suburbs in Judy Blume and Karolina Waclawiak
Recently I found myself driving around the suburbs I grew up in between reading Judy Blume’s 1978 “stunning debut in the world of adult fiction,” Wifey, and Karolina Waclawiak’s new novel, The Invaders. Cruising past my old high school and other places I have had no reason to revisit in over a decade between reading those two books seemed appropriate since both novels focus on female protagonists who’ve placed their faith in shoddy husbands and the faulty cure-all of suburban living. Passing streets I’d tried to forget reminded me just how bleak the suburbs can be when you feel like you don’t belong in them, something both Waclawiak and Blume explore in their books.
“The less thinking you do the better off you’ll be,” Blume’s Sandy Pressman is told by her husband, Norman. 37 years later, the husband in Waclawiak’s book is sexually alienated from his wife, Cheryl; he doesn’t repeat what Norman says, but he and the rest of the people in the couple’s Connecticut neighborhood adhere to that train of thought. While Cheryl’s sex life is nonexistent, Sandy’s is regimented and boring. It happens on the same night every week (“unless I have my period”), it lacks passion, and Norman finds the idea of performing oral sex on his wife absolutely revolting.
Blume’s Emma Bovary-ish protagonist Sandy is a woman bored with her lackluster marriage — in need of an escape if only in the arms of other men; everything is falling apart around Waclawiak’s Cheryl, but she is paralyzed by it, and her lack of action could spell her downfall. Like the neighbors in Blume’s book, Cheryl’s neighbors in Little Neck Cove live with blinders on, in a way that sits perfectly between Shirley Jackson ominous and David Lynch askew — like you’re waiting for something bad to happen but don’t know exactly what.
Even though Blume’s book came out before Waclawiak was born, it feels just as contemporary. Reading both at the same time has me thinking it’s time for authors to get out of the city and start exploring the suburbs again. There’s real darkness out there just waiting to be mined for fictional gold.
The American suburbs as we know them, once considered the “borderlands” outside major cities, started to develop towards the middle of the 19th century before the beginning of the Civil War. They were suited to people who could find jobs outside of the metropolitan area, or who had money to make the commute back into places like Manhattan, Chicago, or Philadelphia. The places where Blume and Waclawiak’s characters live in the 20th and 21st century aren’t all that much different. They are filled with mostly white people who can afford to live somewhere picturesque and quiet. They don’t like outsiders: people of color aren’t welcome, are instead eyed suspiciously and called coded names when they come to clean the houses in Blume’s New Jersey neighborhood. They’re all trying to achieve that the American Dream, and a big part of attaining that it is by being as ignorant as possible. This is slyly skewered perfectly in The Invaders: When an old Mexican fisherman is caught urinating in the streets of Waclawiak’s town, it’s a sign of how supposedly unsafe things have become, and the neighbors decide to erect a physical wall to block out what they’ve already restricted in their minds.
I passed through one of the gated neighborhoods that I lived in as a child. The neighborhood association said gates kept non-members from using the pool, but everybody knew better. I had dinner with an old friend from high school and she told me that the place was like a ghost town following the 2008 financial crisis. People moved out, families broke apart, jobs were lost, and the housing market crumbled. Things have since picked up, but I wondered what happened to all the families I knew, the ones you smiled at and who smiled back at you, but who you always heard secrets whispered about when they weren’t around. Things are supposedly better now, a little more stable. But as I drove north to another neighborhood I also once lived in just outside of Chicago, one that was supposed to be the “next up-and-coming city” but had seen its best chances dry up when the businesses didn’t follow the housing developments, things felt darker. If I was a fiction writer, I thought to myself, this would make the perfect setting for a story or book with the closed chain stores, at-risk mom and pop businesses barely hanging on, and abandoned half-built townhouses that look like they’d been given up on a few years earlier. I passed my childhood movie theatre that was now shuttered, and empty storefronts where I had bought gym clothes. This emptiness is what will always be underneath the shiny façade of the suburbs.
This emptiness is what will always be underneath the shiny façade of the suburbs.
The suburbs were built to crumble. They’re places built on lies and kept up by blind eyes. Some fiction writers have explored this; maybe the most notable being John Cheever, who sometimes gets the tag “Chekhov of the suburbs.” But books like Wifey and The Invaders, although written and published with a few decades between them, don’t shy away from looking at what goes on behind closed doors. The suburbs are very dark, very real, and very indicative of contemporary American ennui. And although the big cities hold a million stories, authors who go to little towns where everything is supposed to be perfect but ultimately fall short return with unforgettable stories. Wifey is one of the truly underrated novels of the 1970s (although it sold well upon release, it has taken a backseat to Blume’s classics), and The Invaders is easily one of the best novels of 2015. Those two books alone prove that writers should make it out to the ‘burbs more often.
photo of Chicago suburbs via Flickr