Sunday, December 28, 2008

An Unexamined 'Burb: Lee Siegel and "Revolutionary Road"

I live in the suburbs. I do it for my children. I want them to live where other children live, where they can play in the front yard, on green grass, under broad leafed trees, where other children will come to play, where the schools are good, where the streets are safe.

I have, though, lived elsewhere. I have lived where drunks vomit and sleep on the curb, where fights break out in the street, where drug deals transpire below my window, where shootouts send bullets to pierce my windows.

Despite these contradictions, my detest for the suburbs continues to this day. It has its origins in my youth. I lived in the suburbs from the time I was eight until I was old enough to run from them. Primarily, I saw my own neighborhood as the embodiment of misplaced ideals. Where the uniqueness of souls was given over to the same uniformity as the tract homes. Where football games were more important to a fulfilling life than art in any form. The suburbs represented sprawl, by man's desire to pave over nature, erect strip malls, and design away the randomness of life.

Lee Siegel, in an article from this weekend's Wall Street Journal, "Why Does Hollywood Hate the Suburbs: America's long artistic tradition of claiming spiritual death by station weekend," uses the film version of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road to minimize my detest of the suburbs as intellectual snobbery and classism. Siegel explains, "With the growth of suburban towns, the liberal American intellectual now had a concrete geography to house his acute sense of outrage."

I won't defend the film. I haven't seen it. Ironically, or maybe typically, it's not playing anywhere near me. I will, though, say that Siegel's interpretation of the novel is symptomatic of someone extremely defensive of the suburbs. Perhaps, pathologically so.

He describes the novel's "fatal deficiency":

Frank and April's total lack of talent or substance makes their ultimately thwarted attempt to leave the suburbs for Paris less the stuff of tragedy than irritating farce.

Or more succinctly, "In "Revolutionary Road," the two principal characters are brought down by lawn sprinklers and station wagons."

The Wheelers are not brought down by the suburbs. Their undoing comes from the notion that they are better than their surroundings. They are not swallowed by it and stripped of their souls. Their fatal flaw is intellectual, cultural hubris. They believed they would some day escape the soulless conformity of their surroundings for fashionable Paris salons. Never did they realize that they lacked the talent or capacity necessary.

The novel is not set on Revolutionary Road as an excuse to excoriate suburban standards. It is an examination of how one's imagination can lead to ruin. Siegel cites, and idealizes, John Cheever's suburbanism. Of his story "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," Siegel writes that "life's complexity and surprise follow you everywhere, even over the city line, across the river and into the suburban trees. You wonder why the creators of the film 'Revolutionary Road' are blind to such an obvious fact of human existence."

What Siegel fails to realize is that the suburbs where much of America lives are not like Westchester. It is not the place where the well-to-do have escaped the dangers confines of the city for tree-lined streets. The suburbs I know are those of the working and middle classes. It is where those of even meager means attempt to grasp a piece of the American dream. The suburbs are detestable for this displaced notion, not the result of some displaced envy.

The suburbs I know are not those of John Hughes movies, the Stepford Wives, or the "Real Housewives" franchise that Siegel cites. Hollywood does not hate the suburbs, not my suburbs. My suburbs remain, sadly unexamined. And Siegel's idea of the suburbs demonstrates his own regional snobbery.

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