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RUNNING ON EMPTY:
SUICIDE, RAPE, AND MURDER IN THE MODERN SUBURBAN NOVEL

In his analytical study of the American novel of violence, Violence in the Contemporary American Novel (2000), James Richard Giles postulates that the novel of violence is usually set in urban areas. To support his thesis, Giles uses the headlines and newspaper accounts of violent acts in Chicago as proof that the eight authors he is studying are recording the plague of violence in our cities. Although it is true that many novels recreate urban mayhem, it is also important to note that the violence that once seemed to plague only the city has found a new locale. In the past ten years, the level of bloodshed in America’s suburbs has been rising rapidly. Serial killers live next door to us, masquerading as local scoutmasters. Rapists are just up the block from our country homes. In the family rooms and well-outfitted basements, complete with video games and billard tables, suburban teenagers plan a killing spree in neigborhood schools. These events, culled from TV and news reports, have formed the skeletal framework for the new novel, the suburban novel of violence. Works such as The Virgin Suicides (1993), Flesh and Blood (1995), Music for Torching (1999), Mall (2000), and The Lovely Bones (2002) have thus made Giles’ vision limited, if not obsolete.

Indeed, although this vision of violence is new, critical views of suburbia have long existed in America’s popular culture. In the dark view of John Cheever, whose “Country Husband” may have influenced some of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, the 1950s suburbs emerges as a space brimming with the anxieties and tensions of modern American life. Early criticisms of the suburb include a parodic representation of its sterility, a diatribe over its blunting of communication, and its dystopian, rather than utopian, effects. In the novels of Cheever, John Updike, Richard Yates, and Anne Beattie, this world is running on emotional empty.

We might see the suburban dystopic novel as putting a new twist upon the old novel of manners. As Wharton’s drawing rooms are transformed into living rooms in well-tended, middle class homes, the monotonous landscape becomes responsible for a homogenization of character that contrasts with the earlier novels of manners and morals. Wherein the earlier novels used the form to explore the social conventions of a specific aspect of society, the new novels examine how the suburban ambiance has imbued its inhabitants with a nihilistic emptiness. The rose gardens and smoking barbeques that encircle the swimming pools are like rings around a ghetto, each functioning as entrapments rather like Foucault's other places, acting upon the inhabitants with, what Richard Ford in a New York Times Book Review “American Beauty (Circa 1955)” called, that “black-on-black grimness” that never fades from the horizon or the surface of relationships.

Likewise, the novels of the fifties, sixties and seventies, parallel the attitudes of many films produced during this time period. We see the emptiness of financial success, which leaves people devoid of intimacy, in The Graduate (1967) and then echoed in The Stepford Wives (1975). Movies like Dawn of the Dead (1979) focus upon the flatness of affect as limiting and disturbing. The opulent surroundings, the neat and roomy homes do not sustain uplifting views and warm relationships. In the eighties, the world of Father Knows Best (1954) vaporizes as filmmakers move toward profane visions of suburbia in films such as Poltergeist (1982), Cujo (1963), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). In these films, suburbia becomes a backdrop for evil. Films like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1968) further examine suburban ills. These same themes are also found in movies such as Serial Mom (1994), American Beauty (1999), The Safety of Objects (2001) and more recently in Desperate Housewives, the popular television show. The placid world of stability that commercial films like Peggy Sue Got Married sought to uphold loses audience appeal as real life events in the eighties and nineties forced Americans to examine suburban values. As early as 1968, Lynch saw that the dream was dead and dying. Recent writers have continued to explore this truth in their novels.

In a sense, Lynch's film foreshadows the depiction of active violence within this Eden-like environment that a new generation of authors would undertake in print as the nineties arrived on the horizon. His is the first examination of sex, violence, and crime within a picket-fenced suburban environment. He captures such in the first frames of the film. In a world in which sex is colored by the Maquis de Sade’s fetishism and in which crime is well hidden within the Norman Rockwell images, Lynch contends that the American dream contains within it the American nightmare. Indeed, it is this vision that authors like Oates began to express in novels like Expensive People (1968). In this world, children turn to murder because their parents are morally bankrupt. In a recent story, “The Girl with the Blackened Eye” (2000), Oates once again takes our suburban constructs to task as hidden sources of violence. This time it is our shopping malls that are a danger zone, a place where predators are lurking, driving about in search of a victim to kill.

The late twentieth and early twenty-first century writers who see suburbia as a source of America’s pain and confusion are using images that are not only drawn from film, but are also torn from newspaper headlines, TV news, and radio reports. In "Apocalypse in the Suburb," Mikita Brottman recounts the numerous acts of murder and mayhem that occurred in the suburbs during the eighties and early nineties. There’s the man who kills his wife in Huntington, and the father killed by the cheerleader daughter, who accuses him of sexually abusing her. We all recall how America devoured the details of the Long Island Lolita shooting her lover's wife, or the man who built a dungeon for a ten-year lover. There’s also the "Cannibal Killer," a former schoolteacher from Melville who killed and ate one of his students. To this litany of abuses, we can add the Friedmans, the subject of a recent documentary film about child molestation. Not surprisingly, writers, reading through the pages of a daily newspaper, see the suburbs as the perfect setting for social criticism. The suburb is no longer a world in which individuality is threatened; it is a world in which death, suicide, incest, violent rape, and death are ever present, a bit beyond the green grass that grows, in Bombeck’s immortal words, just over our septic tanks.

The first of these popular novels that I will examine is Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides (1993). In this novel, the vapid nature of the suburban landscape proves to be toxic, urging the Lisbon girls to react with violence to promises that can never be kept as their world is sucked into oblivion. Thus the Lisbon home and its outlying gardens mirror the slackness of hope, the raggedness of the dream on the crabgrass frontier. As the blue slate roof darkens and the yellow bricks turn brown and the shrubs grow raggedly in rings around the house, the girls, who are captives of their parents’ morality and reality, realize that the call for pre-marital virginity is an impossibility in a modern world. Eugenides makes it clear that Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a bedroom community, is a suburban paradise that is as doomed physically as the "impoverished" city it overlooks and which the narrators never visit. They are protected from this world by parents who constantly feed them lies: "Occasionally we heard gunshots coming from the ghetto, but our fathers insisted it was only cars backfiring." The residents are led to believe they are protected from that wicked and wild environment by their distance high up on a hill, and by the calm ambiance of the suburbs, those "yellow house lights coming on, revealing families around televisions."

The wind that carries the sounds of the cities in its embrace brings to Grosse Pointe other contagions that have a metaphoric content of their own. The dying elms, which line the streets of the suburb, become the author's symbolic representation of the belabored last gasps of the suburbs themselves, an emblematic representation of the almost extinct vision of virginity that the girls are forced to embrace. The opening scene of the novel is ripe with death, as the narrators describe a landscape of trees succumbing to a fungus spread by Dutch elm beetles. There is also the plague of fish flies that descends upon the town every June, coating each "comfortable suburban home" in a sticky residue. A car lies encased in fish flies on the streets on which Cecelia wanders to play, dressed in her Miss Haversham wedding dress. "You better get a broom, honey," Mrs. Scheer advises Cecelia, who looks back at her with a "spiritualist's gaze" before sticking her hand in the foaming layer of bugs and writing her initials in the detritus. In this scene, the virginal bride, Cecelia, is clearly leaving her imprint upon a dying world. According to Mickiko Kakutani, the deaths of the Lisbon sisters symbolize the innocence lost as "adolescents are initiated into the sad complexities of grown-up life, and the lost, dying dreams of a community… finds its collective dreams of safety spinning out of reach." Eugenides depicts this death in laborious detail because nothing is left of the dreamlike innocence associated with former images of suburbia. There is only the relentless Conradesque horror, which no psychiatrist, hospital, or EMS service can circumvent. It is not surprising that Cecelia dies twice and the deaths of the other girls, as part of a suicide pact, are so carefully detailed: Bonnie twisting on the beam, Mary with her head in the oven, Therese in a sleeping bag, gagging from gin and pills, and Lux, music playing, cigarette lighter in hand, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The vision of suburbia as an inadequate Eden, incapable of nurturing families, is reiterated in Michael Cunningham's second novel, Flesh and Blood. In this novel, the suburb has become so contaminated and foul that four generations of one family slowly succumb to its affect upon the individual psyche. Flesh and Blood depicts how a family travels from near poverty in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to an opulent lifestyle in a nouveau riche enclave in Connecticut. However, only one member of the family survives to carry on its name. The Stassos clan is the new house of Usher, now living in suburbia. In this case, incest and rage are responsible for its desecration. Once again, the metaphor of diseased flora is factored into the action. In Flesh and Blood, the malady has attacked the Dutch elm on Susan and Todd’s property. Susan and her husband are proclaimed to be the elm’s caretakers, the “custodians of something precious, a monument,” but the trees and the bright promise of suburbia are as blighted and as doomed as the plantings in Eugenides' novel. This is no paradise, although Susan's father, Constantine, peddles the prospect of an American Eden to his interested buyers. Con, whose name brings back to us the image of the American con man from Herman Melville’s short story “The Lightening Rod Man,” is the central character, the progenitor of the family that disintegrates within this dreamlike ambiance. He’s also a developer of suburban homes that are tacky copies of the suburban dream, “reproduced, in particle board and aluminum” with “green wood and plastic pipes.” Because it’s all a con, the owners of his suburban four-bedroom creations face ghastly destinies; they “die in a car accident or lose a child or just disappear one day, with the dishes still neatly stacked in the cupboards.”

Cunningham's Constantine tempts people into buying the illusion of the “perfect village, new and orderly.” When times get tough under Bush Sr., he lowers his price, cutting back on frills and pulling in the poorer man and woman with appealing ads and insincere promises. Con is an American huckster, a drummer selling an illusion to people who are deceived into believing that here they have found a safety net. A voyeur, watching what happens to the people in these poorly crafted homes as they live out their equally ineffective existences, Con, who lives in mansions, is no happier than they are, something that he realizes as he watches them from his parked car.

While he sells others this dream, using every advertising enticement under the sun, Con achieves financial rewards, but comes up empty on a personal note. His relationship with his children is fundamentally troubled. In fact, the only way that he can interact with his only son, a homosexual and intellectual, is to beat him senseless either physically or verbally. Con even violates one of his daughters, propelling her into an early marriage that is dissatisfying to her physically. In Flesh and Blood, the suburb is a place for stranded and confused people, whose lives are about to capsize amid the perplexities of modern life. The area is filled with gardens as ruined as Constantine’s patch of yard in the first of his mansion homes, land that is overgrown and abandoned. It is also a land that is deceptive and filled with secrets. For example, Ben dreams of burying the bloody rag filled with his blood from the knife cut in the far end of Susan and Todd’s yard.

In her mansion, Susan creates new secrets that spill out into her future, more secrets than her incestuous relationship with her father. When she violates her vow of fidelity with Joel, the tree surgeon who is called in to save the historic elms, she changes the course of Ben's paternity, for Joel is Ben's probable father. These secrets will undermine her life, eroding the solid and substantial home life that Constantine had wanted for his children in the suburbs. Although people are supposed to be safe here, as Cassandra notes, the family raised in these environs slowly fades away. Zoe succumbs to AIDS. The bright promise of Susan’s child, Ben, is cut short when he drowns on an outing with his grandfather. Indeed, in one of the last scenes in the novel, Susan shames Con at Ben's funeral, for this is where she exposes her father's sexual abuse. In the final pages of the book, the family members are turned into ashes and bone and bits of memory that the one survivor, Jamal, a racially mixed child, tries to keep alive as he tells his son about his lineage.

In Music for Torching, A. M. Homes creates an unhappy couple who set fire to their own home, move in with neighbors whose seemingly perfect marriage collapses, and ultimately parent a child whose actions parallel the Columbine tragedy. The novel opens with Elaine taking a knife to Paul's throat. Midway through the book, characters talk in hushed voices about another child who bites off a teacher's finger. Undoubtedly, the author takes a disturbing look into the desperation of housewives and househusbands, as well as their troubled offspring. Indeed, the novel closes on a scene in which a child enters a grammar school with a gun and explosive strapped to his body. A SWAT team follows in hot pursuit, and someone blasts the child to hell or heaven: "Sammy's head is swathed in an enormous wad of white. There is a bandage over one eye. The other eye is open, pupil dilated, fixed as though it has seen something horrible."

The same type of full-blown mayhem reverberates in another suburban novel, Eric Bogosian's Mall. Bogosian, who teaches at Drexel University and is the author of the plays Talk Radio and subUrbia, uses the iconography of the suburban mall as a flashpoint for the intersection of the lives of ordinary off-balance individuals, and one drugged out, well-armed crystal meth addict after he has murdered his mother and set fire to their home. In an interview with Gadfly Online, Bogosian, born and raised in the suburbs, provides support for the contention that violence isn't just a city thing anymore: "If you say city to people, people have no problem thinking of the city as rife with problematic, screwed-up people, but if you say suburbs…here’s a sense of normalcy. It certainly should be a happy place by design. But, there are all kinds of bad things happening there.”

All of the bad things that could possibly happen in suburbia actually do occur in Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. Susie Salmon, who lives in a development in Norristown, Pennsylvania, close to where new houses are being built for new families, notes that the roadway near her home "led to Valley Forge, to George Washington and the Revolution." The home should be built in a safety zone, close to where the battle for liberty occurred. Nonetheless, Susie is hacked into small pieces by a serial killer who is her own neighbor. There is no liberty here, Sebold indicates. Susie notes that her killer is "a man from our neighborhood. My mother liked his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertilizer." The suburb Sebold creates is a twisted version of Wilder’s town, which appears as an aside in Sebold’s text. Indeed, Mr. Harvey's hidden underground room is reminiscent of the backyard bomb shelters that flourished in the 1950s. This safe retreat becomes the scene for a type of destruction more subtle than the atomic blast and in some ways, even more eerie. Sebold's murderer is an everyman drawn from the daily news clippings, a Jesse Timmendequas, a Richard Allen Davis, a John Wayne Gacy, a Robert Golub, a Joel Rifkin, or a Gary Wilensky, who actually built a dungeon for his teenaged tennis student, Jennifer Rhodes. He is all these people and everyone's Grim Reaper, unavoidably close at hand. Because of modern life's emphasis on anonymity and mobility, Harvey can be anyone's next-door neighbor, even our own.

In The Lovely Bones, paradoxes occur because Susie's suburban paradise is an illusion. The beautiful death that Mendes immortalized with the rose petals that floated across Lester's broken body is echoed in the loveliness of Susie's bones. These contradictions exist because the suburban paradise is irrevocably flawed. In the last decade, sociologists have started to link the form of the suburbs to the problems it is spawning. James Howard Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere and Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Syberk and Jeff Speck's Suburban Nation note that suburbs isolate and place undue burdens on at-home mothers, children, teens and the elderly. They blame suburbia for the tough reactions that have been expressed by its many lonely, angry individuals who exit from “society’s boiler room” to threaten us violently with extermination.

It is not surprising then that Susie is broken into parts, her elbow found by a dog out for walk in the local cornfield. The cornfield, Sebold's metaphor for America's past, links suburbia to the Indians and the Pilgrim heritage. Although her blood is spilled here, Susie’s body is placed elsewhere, lost forever in a sinkhole just a short ride away from her home and up the road from the battle for freedom. Her burial in a place where one could watch a refrigerator disappear as the earth swallowed up metaphorically presents suburbia as someplace in which not only is one’s personal history unknown, but where all life, death and identity is lost. Progress, represented by the dormant bulldozers near Route 202 frightening in their bulkiness in the dark, has brought with it terrifying results. Unsecured suburban sprawl brings with it a kind of diaspora that erases hope in a perfect future. Progress brings with it hidden dangers: individuals with an unknown history, the eradication of older homes with significant village history in them, and the filling in of the sink hole in which Susie's remains lie inadequately protected against future efforts at progress. All progress is self-defeating. A sinkhole at the industrial park swallows up all the cars parked on it. As Ruth notes “everything that is changing,” making one spot in this world indistinct from another. It is just a matter of luck that one is safe, just as it is a matter of chance that the soil regurgitates Susie’s charm bracelet from its womb. Only a false faith makes individuals believe that things like the abduction, the rape, or the murder of little children "didn't happen" here. Sebold’s Susie provides us with the message that all the new novelists are offering to us: in the suburbs, as in the cities, every day is a "question mark." There is no escape from the violence that spills over into houses so uniform that "only their accessories marked them as different."

Modern novelists have shown us that we aren't in Pleasantville anymore. We are Far From Heaven (2002), for we live knowing that the shootings in Paducah, Stamps, Jonesboro, Edinboro, Springfield, and Littleton have come to undermine our perceptions of suburbia as a sacred landscape, capable of protecting our children from violent crime. In addition, every day the list of suburban children kidnapped, raped, and then murdered keeps growing: JonBenet Ramsey, Cora Jones, Amber Hagerman, Danielle Van Dam, Jessica Marie Lunsford, and Samantha Runnion. Indeed, in the same year that Sebold's debut novel was published, Joyce Carol Oates would win the O. Henry award with "The Girl with the Blackened Eye.” Holding up a mirror to our society, Oates asks us to take a look at our own future, so darkly tragic and threatening. The speaker, who is amazed that she is still alive at twenty-seven years of age, tells us, "In America, that's a lifetime." In essence, our writers are asking us to think about how long a life our children will have. If violence continues to proliferate in America's cities and suburbs, and in its rural recesses, the hope for a perfect world can only be found in the snow globe that Susie holds or in Sebold's depiction of a personal heaven. It is not present in Sebold's Norristown, Homes' Scarsdale, Eugenides' Grosse Pointe, Oates' Menlo Park, or Cunningham's Connecticut. The authors of the modern novel of violence intimate that safety from aggression is not present anywhere in modern America. To create a world inviolate, a world that is not empty of hope, we must make elaborate changes to the society we have before us now, because just wishing us "a long and happy life" won't get us to that goal. After all, as Oates observes, violence must be averted because we "have our whole life before us." How to make that lifetime long enough and how to make it safe enough for us is the challenge that our society must meet in the very near future.

May 2006

From guest contributor Sue Orenstein

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