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Stripping the paint off suburbia!!!! - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Stripping the paint off suburbia!!!!
Okay, I read a blurb on a book promising the revolutionary concept that it would strip the paint off suburbia and show the sordid...

Oh, Lord, I can't even finish.

Is this vein not entirely tapped out? At this point, the only thing that would shock me in a story about suburbia would be one showing a loving, caring community that wants the best for its children.

Honestly, I don't care for prefab suburbs. That's a personal thing. I like being in the city. I like not having to own a car. I like the mix of people.

But breathlessly talking about stripping the paint off suburbia, as if there's some glamorous idea about it that's still even remotely current, has gotten to the point where it's self-parody. What paint, for crying out loud? American Beauty chipped off the last few flakes several years ago, and honestly, there wasn't that much left to pick. Suburbia has been portrayed as the deceptively quiet home of human monsters for most of my life, and I'm not a young whippersnapper anymore. (I imagine this is mostly done by ex-suburban writers whose parents had an idea of suburbia as utopia, and I don't deny that it would be a little frustrating to live in consciously constructed "peaceful" towns where you're frustrated, bored, and stressed out at the same time... but it's not exactly a revolutionary approach to anything, you know?)

The whole "stripping away the glittery surface to reveal the seedy underbelly" attitude is getting to the point where it's just trite, because everyone has now adopted this attitude of faux sophistication, in which they aren't going to buy any of that goody-goody, shiny-happy stuff. That's the trendy position, after all. Cynicism and nihilism are the default attitudes, and the reason there are so many books about it is that they support the status quo attitude of the power brokers. Repeating the same trope over and over again ends up with it losing all of its ability to shock. Parrots may learn to mimic vulgarity and be "shocking" that way, but they're not going to end up leading a revolution. (Though that makes a kind of funny image, actually.)

I think that there's a massive amount of rebellion against this attitude, though. Nothing voiced, of course; who wants to be laughed at for being a naive rube? But two authors who've been prominent since this trend really took hold buck the trend entirely. Both Stephen King and J.K. Rowling tend to start out in the world most of us live in, where we're looking square at the seedy underbelly. Harry Potter lives in an utterly typical suburban dystopia, where all of these people trying to be normal are really, really--surrealistically, even--weird. Everyone is a caricature. In other words, it starts at more or less the place where all the "strip the paint off suburbia" pieces end, and that state of affairs is taken for granted. King does something quite similar with small towns, which begin as gritty, dumb, greedy little places, just as people like to portray them.

Then, both authors start to open up the seedy underbelly and look under that.

They find monsters, of course. Real ones. King finds vampires and demons and shapeshifting fear-vampire clowns and the Crimson King. Rowling finds Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters and Dementors and so on. But even in the monsters, we've gone a level deeper than the monsters of "I hate suburbia" fiction. We're finding archeypes and root causes--for instance, in Dementors, we find a personification of depression and nihilism, a real rendering of something that is terribly wrong, as opposed to simply showing one symptom or another of it. In Needful Things, King brings us a villain who symbolizes (or whose products and activities symbolize) the impulse to insular greed, as each character spirals in on himself or herself for the sake of a "needful thing" that causes him or her to start dehumanizing everyone else. Yeah, you could do this in straight fiction, but it would take on a necessarily diluted and specific form.

But there's something else: beyond the monsters, beyond the scary and dark things, both authors find people who can slay the monsters, and a kind of deep, wild magic in the world... a good magic. King names it specifically as "the coming of the white." The TV ads for the miniseries of The Stand really gave a good visual of the concept--it showed a map going completely dark (the plague), then cracking open, with light bursting up from beneath. Rowling doesn't give it a specific name, but the Patronus spell gives a very similar visual referent as it's employed against Dementors. In both cases, the authors embrace the concept of heroism and love as practical, powerful forces in the world. (Dumbledore names this to Harry, and King, in Danse Macabre, refers to believing that civilization can't exist without feeling and acknowledging love for mankind as a force in human affairs.) Both use heroes and sidekicks from different levels of society--Harry is touted as "everyman" and a commoner, but in fact he has connections to both worlds. The Dark Tower books feature Roland, a prince of sorts, and Susannah, a princess (also of sorts), but also feature Eddie, a strung-out heroin addict from Brooklyn who has to find his strength (again, starting with the end point of the nihilistic world and moving forward). Notably, King also goes outside the rural form of his story in The Waste Lands, when he tackles urban nihilism (broken up lots, fear of muggings, dog-eat-dog greed in the business world, and so on) but finds... exactly what he finds in the rural landscape. In the middle of a horrible, unfinished lot, Jake finds a beautiful rose that contains the power and magic of all the joined worlds of the series.

Whatever the social status of the characters, though, all of them share basic human concerns. Harry's life is driven by need of family, his parents sacrificed themselves for him, and his victory hinges on the power of love--universal human notions. King has Mother Abagail say, "Mother, father, wife, husband... Set against them, the Prince of High Places, the lord of dark mornings..." (This is nicely demonstrated in HBP by Voldemort's chosen revenge against Lucius... putting not him, but his wife and son in a totally impossible position.) In other words, the heroes are the characters who are living the very normal lives that the trendy approach likes to "strip the paint from"--only they show the shallowness of that approach, because they start out in the "exposed" world of crummy people, but demonstrate that there is decency beyond that.

Anyway, that's my thought for the day.
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Comments
keestone From: keestone Date: December 15th, 2006 07:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
I like the thought for the day.

I also think we definitely need a brightly colored, foul-mouthed parrot revolution.

Do you hear the parrots squawk?
Singing the song of angry birds?
It is the music of a species
Who will not be lost for words!
When the beating of their wings
Echoes the beating of the drums
You'll hear the profanation start
When the sailor comes!
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 15th, 2006 07:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
BWAH.

There is Les Miz for everything. :)
keestone From: keestone Date: December 15th, 2006 07:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and curse with me?
Somewhere beyond the parrot cage
Is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight
That will give you the right to fly free!

Do you hear the parrots squawk?
Singing the song of angry birds?
It is the music of a species
Who will not be lost for words!
When the beating of their wings
Echoes the beating of the drums
You'll hear the profanation start
When the sailor comes!


(Okay, I know profanation doesn't quite work, but it scans and I've obviously gone temporarily insane. Please stop me now!)
(Deleted comment)
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 15th, 2006 08:06 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: "The Suburbs Have No Charms to Soothe..."

Having lived in pre-fab suburb communities, I can atest to the dark, seedy underbelly. Nothing says "Good Morning Vista, CA" quite like the explosion of a meth lab in a supposedly quiet, gentle community. Of course, then there are the neighbors who purposefully cut holes in the chain link fences so their pets can tear up your garden... I love it!
alexandramuses From: alexandramuses Date: December 15th, 2006 09:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
I grew up in quiet suburbia, and it actually *was* quiet. There was wank when the school across the street went private and my mother started working there, but that kind of was the worst of our neighborhood. Then again, it's actually quite old for suburbs -- many of the houses were built in the 1960's.
sonetka From: sonetka Date: December 16th, 2006 03:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I cannot fathom why "exposing suburbia" is considered even remotely groundbreaking by anyone anymore. (Of course, I also hated American Beauty with a passion - it's not a genre for which I have much sympathy). Quite honestly, I'd love to see a story about a quiet, peaceful suburban community which ... really is quiet and peaceful! Of course, it would be a bit hard to get an interesting plot in there, but a really skilled writer could manage it somehow :). As it is, whenever I'm reading a book or watching a movie and the line "This is a peaceful neighbourhood" or "Things like that don't happen in this neighbourhood" comes up, I groan, because I KNOW that before the night is out we'll have found out that the neighbourhood is actually full of child abusers and alcoholics hiding under the veneer of respectability, and that will be the Big Shocker. I'm not saying that doesn't HAPPEN, BTW, just that as a Shocking Ending it's pretty much had its day.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 16th, 2006 03:45 am (UTC) (Link)
Wasn't it Tolstoy who said that all happy families are the same and only unhappy families are different? I never completely agreed with that, but there is some truth in it. Seen from a distance, we don't see the wrinkles and we generally don't see the private griefs and sorrows of a particular family. We see those things up close, when they become individual rather than all the same. However, when you see only wrinkles, it's a good sign that you've lost track of the face.

Ellen
lady_moriel From: lady_moriel Date: December 16th, 2006 09:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I blame Desperate Housewives for this, personally. I know there's been this sort of thing for...oh, ages probably, but I'd say the sudden resurgence in popularity is due mostly to Desperate Housewives.

For myself, I hate the concept anyway. I'd rather either start like you're saying--by showing where it's wrong, and then showing the good that can still be found in it--or by showing it as the peaceful, happy place people imagine it to be and then lobbing a disaster at it, rather than revealing a disaster that's already there.
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: December 17th, 2006 04:36 am (UTC) (Link)
Never lived much in suburbs, but it's always been my impressing that they weren't so much seedy as boring. The people there have the same problems and the same tragedies as everywhere else, they just do it in nicer places.

It's what I love about Harry Potter and Doctor Who: you start out with the boring small normal, and then something comes breaking through that shows you what the real dangers and real joys are, and how marvellous the universe really is. It's shaking your perspective loose of that artificial microcosm called Western Culture.
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