The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘suburbia’

Gunplay

June 20, 2016 | by

Illustration by Eric Hanson. Click to enlarge.

Indianapolis, 1964. My younger self owned a bandolier full of bullets; three revolvers, two with bone handles to fit a holster; a rifle; knives; a sword; a full Civil War uniform; a genuine U.S. Army helmet. From age eight to ten, I fought and died a thousand times for fun. My friends and I knew all the best ways to fall down dead, exhaling sighs of pleasure. Awaiting nuclear annihilation, we acted out gun ballets like period folk art. Here, in America’s “Gun Belt,” boys used to get their first squirrel rifle at eight, nine, ten years old; now they get pint-size assault rifles. Get them early, so they can learn to handle the violent kick of firing, learn not to hold the part of the weapon that gets so hot it smokes. And it’s not just boys. Parents can purchase special pink assault rifles for their junior misses.

In my own backyard, I was always alert for enemies. I moved with a stooped, serpentine grace, darting, pausing, looking around for people to shoot before they shot me. There was something adorable about it. We had very convincing submachine guns then. They were made by Marx out of hard molded plastic and came in black—the conventional color, suitable for playing Chicago gangsters or warriors in the European theater—or brown-and-green camouflage, for war in the tropics. There was a knob along the side to unleash a machine gun rat-tat-tat whenever we encountered the enemy. I was unaware of the irony in the brand name: we were training for our turn to halt the march of Marxism, but we were unfamiliar with Marx the mastermind. Every Friday I looked forward to the latest photos of the Vietnam War, counting the dead in LIFE magazine. Read More »

Punk Is Dead, So We’re Burning It, and Other News

May 26, 2016 | by

Glenn O. Coleman, Election Night Bonfire, undated.

  • Raymond Carver’s fiction is good, sure, but you haven’t really lived till you’ve seen the guy’s family photos. His brother, James, has shared a few with a remembrance of Raymond: “I remember the years we shared living together in Sacramento during the midsixties … One of his few jobs in Sacramento was working at Mercy Hospital in housekeeping. He worked three or four hours in the evening but was paid for eight. We both had nothing but spare time; we continued to spend many hours hanging out together, talking, reminiscing, and drinking. We would get in the car and drive with nowhere special to go. We talked about all the moves we and our parents had made looking for happiness. We drank from a bottle of Ten High Bourbon we kept in the glove compartment. One of us would say, ‘Wait until spring.’ The other would say, ‘And things will bust wide open,’ meaning at last, everything would be better for all of us. We both would break into laughter. It was a private joke which we never forgot; Ray mentioned it a year before he died. We always had the ability to laugh at ourselves and our failures.”
  • Queen Elizabeth has declared 2016 the Year of Punk, so you know someone had to stand up and flip her the bird. Joseph Corré, the son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, is doing it right: he “announced yesterday that he will set fire to his entire collection of punk memorabilia, estimated to be worth about £5 million ($7.1 million) … The bonfire is slated to take place in Camden, London, on November 26, to mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the Sex Pistols single ‘Anarchy in the UK’, off the album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols … ‘The Queen giving 2016, the Year of Punk, her official blessing is the most frightening thing I’ve ever heard,’ he says. ‘Talk about alternative and punk culture being appropriated by the mainstream. Rather than a movement for change, punk has become like a fucking museum piece or a tribute act.’ ”
  • There is but one effective way of drawing our attention to the inanity of online polls, and that is fake online polls. Jonas Lund’s new online artwork Fair Warningtakes the form of an eccentric online questionnaire or personality test. The pages invite the viewer to input their preferences. Duck or Rabbit? Window or Aisle? Idol or Douche? Apple or FBI? There are multiple-choice questions, photographs of sculptures and paintings, and news images, as well as, occasionally, solid blocks and color gradients. Each time the animated circle at the bottom of the page completes a revolution—this persistent, nagging counter mimics the buffering animations of video streaming sites and the multicolored wait cursor, aka the ‘spinning beach ball of death’ on Apple computers—there is a computerized chime. This happens every four seconds … Other than an animated ripple that appears onscreen each time you click, user input doesn’t affect the metronomic rhythm of the piece. Nor is it clear if your preferences are even being registered.”
  • With the rise of the suburbs came an almost simultaneous effort to theorize the suburbs—why had so many families marooned themselves in a new environment, and what was going on there? As Amanda Kolson Hurley writes, midcentury studies of suburbia were far from sunny: “Most strikingly, they reveal deep and widespread concern over the stability of mental and physical health in the new suburban environment … It was a social experiment unprecedented in U.S. history. The first suburbanites themselves were well aware of this. Although they felt the optimism of pioneers, they shared in the widespread anxiety that the experiment might not work, an anxiety that manifested as worries about unanticipated health effects. These ranged from the daily, cumulative frustrations of a Mary Drone to more significant problems: stomach ulcers, heart attacks, anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, and juvenile delinquency.”
  • Or you can look at perhaps the suburbs’ most successful export, the mall. Alex Cocotas, being shown around on a visit to Tel Aviv, discovered how thoroughly the mall has metastasized abroad: “We weren’t there to take a dip in the Mediterranean or to feel the sand bunch between our toes; we were not there to admire the yachts or to dream of their interior lives. We were there to go to the mall. We walked down a passageway between the boats and a row of restaurants, and entered a world that was virtually indistinguishable from its American counterparts: multistoried, brightly lit, oozing an arctic tundra of air conditioning from unseen pores, perfumes enticingly wafting from open-door oracles to the ever-confounding enigma of next season, stores bearing a familiar, supranational aesthetic, cellphone stands clotting up busy causeways between them. Everything aspired to that same ethereal timelessness, a fantasy of pure transaction … Why take a foreign traveler to a mall at all? The way I see it, the mall trip is meant to communicate a message about the local culture—who they are, their country, their standard of living. They are taking me to the mall because there is a mall.”

Your Every Wish for a Home, and Other News

April 8, 2016 | by

The cover of a Cinderella Homes sales brochure, 1955–1957. From Barbara Miller Lane’s Houses for a New World. Via The New York Review of Books.

  • Did you know? Heterosexual men tend to enjoy sexual intercourse—so much so, in fact, that even when they’re not having intercourse, they sometimes wish they were. Undone, a new novel by John Colapinto, explores this fecund quadrant of the male psyche, because no one’s set foot there in a while and someone needed to mow the lawn: “By exploring heterosexual male lust, Mr. Colapinto has written the kind of novel that has gone way out of fashion. The classics of the genre—Portnoy’s Complaint (Roth), An American Dream (Mailer), and Couples (Updike), among them—are many decades old … Many critics and civilian readers would say—and have said—good riddance to priapic literature. In a 1997 essay, ostensibly a review of the late-period Updike novel Toward the End of Time, David Foster Wallace slammed the previous generation of ‘phallocrats’ for its sex-obsessed narcissism … Colapinto said he had read the Wallace essay and largely agrees with it. But on the subject of the sex-drenched novels of Updike, Roth and the other bards of the male libido, he said, ‘I couldn’t deny that I had a lot of fun reading those books when I was younger.’ In his view, there was an overcorrection.”
  • Our Spring Revel was earlier this week, and though you might have expected some kind of superficial tribute to the wonders of the written word, you should know that our writers got real. They also described “their less-photogenic days at the desk”: “Even after thirty years, Lydia Davis said she has her off days. In accepting this year’s Hadada Award at this year’s annual gala at Cipriani 42nd Street, the author admitted throwing out the written version of her speech was a big mistake, and one that left her ‘scrawling little notes in very small handwriting on a jiggling train’ en route to New York … David Szalay and Chris Bachelder, respective winners of the Plimpton Prize for Fiction and the Terry Southern Prize for Humor, also didn’t exactly sugarcoat their career choice. In fact, pretty much every table had a writer in the midst of a one-person battle with the printed page. For novelist Adam Wilson, that means having a safe to lock up his cell phone in his Brooklyn home office.”
  • A reissue of Marianne Moore’s 1924 Observations reminds of its “infectious devotion to everything small”: “A fresh reading of Observations suggests that, while Moore’s descriptive powers are formidable, she is primarily a poet of argument, which is to say that she is most primarily a poet of syntax—the convolutions of her long, charismatic sentences seduce us into agreement long before we’ve had time to consider the substance of the argument at stake … Read as a whole, as it was designed to be, Observations emerges as one of several books that in the 1920s created our lasting sense of what constitutes the modernist achievement—books that court chaos through exquisite artistry: Eliot’s The Waste Land, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Pound’s A Draft of XVI Cantos, Joyce’s Ulysses.”
  • Time to ask again—what were the suburbs? Two new books, Houses for a New World, by Barbara Miller Lane, and Detached America, by James A. Jacobs, look back at the era of Levittown and the postwar suburban-housing boom, which we’re struggling to make sense of. As Martin Filler writes, “Both new books remind us of a time when a popular American middle-class weekend pastime was to pile the kids and in-laws into the family car and drive around looking at model houses, whether or not you were actively shopping for a new place. Lane has found newspaper advertisements and promotional materials for subdivisions that were clearly aimed at wives (who wielded huge influence about housing decisions even though their husbands were the breadwinners) and stressed the transformational nature of life in these up-to-the-minute dwellings. A revealing example of that appeal to women can be found in a 1955–1957 sales brochure for Cinderella Estates, a new Anaheim, California, subdivision not far from the recently completed Disneyland. This booklet depicts a princess-like figure and regal coach next to a rendering of a sprawling ranch-style house and the words ‘your every wish for a home … come gloriously true.’ ”
  • On the poet Ocean Vuong, born in Saigon and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, whose work is “influenced by both the plainspoken ironies of Frank O’Hara and the exotic folklorism of Federico García Lorca”: “Reading Vuong is like watching a fish move: he manages the varied currents of English with muscled intuition. His poems are by turns graceful (‘You, pushing your body / into the river / only to be left / with yourself’) and wonderstruck (‘Say surrender. Say alabaster. Switchblade. / Honeysuckle. Goldenrod. Say autumn’). His lines are both long and short, his pose narrative and lyric, his diction formal and insouciant. From the outside, Vuong has fashioned a poetry of inclusion.”

Cheddar, Cheever, and the Burbs

September 1, 2015 | by

An illustration from Muriel Stanek’s How People Live in the Suburbs, 1970.

Fifty years ago, John Cheever published The Wapshot Scandal, his second novel. Like many second novels, it’s more ambitious and more playful than its predecessor, the work of a writer who suspects he’s better than he feared. The traditional form suddenly seems boring, the same old themes threaten a categorization that the writer doesn’t want, and the writer—encouraged by praise, validated by awards, perhaps softened by income—realizes he can write just about anything. So he does.

The Wapshot Scandal begins where The Wapshot Chronicle ended: with the Wapshot family leaving the safety of St. Botolphs and searching for fulfillment in more modern suburban communities. An acrid whiff of cynicism rises from the page: we know this won’t end well, Cheever knows we know, and now it’s a matter of how and when. Moses and Coverley Wapshot bring their wives to Proxmire Manor and Talifer, respectively; the first is an archetype of the suburban nightmare, the second an archetype of a Cold War community, built around a missile-research facility.

Scandal is very much of its time, but even in its time the satire was well-trod: husbands drink too much, wives betray, wealth corrodes, families splinter, sex—granted or withheld—destroys. Cheever’s cynicism isn’t unique; he never claimed it was. What was, and what remains, unique, are passages like this:

The village, he knew, had, like any other, its brutes and its shrews, its thieves, and its perverts, but like any other it meant to conceal these facts under a shrine of decorum that was not hypocrisy but a guise or mode of hope.

This is what made Cheever special: he understood that the desperate idealism behind existential decay is still idealism. Which brings me to, well, me. Read More »

Fine Dining

December 15, 2014 | by

Columbano_Bordalo_Pinheiro_-_Refeicao_Interrompida

Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro, Refeição interrompida (Interrupted Meal), 1883.

There’s a human-interest story that’s been making the rounds on the “Weird But True” circuit lately. It concerns a restaurant in Chongqing, China, that gives diners discounts based on their weight. Upon entry, customers step onto a scale. As China Radio International reports, “The policy says, for male diners, the more they weigh, the more discounts they are entitled to. If a male customer weighs more than 140 kilograms, then the meal is free.” That’s 308 pounds. For a woman to eat free, however, she must weigh fewer than seventy-six pounds. In other words, the promotion applies to overweight men and very thin women. It’s what you might call the Anti–Jack Sprat Initiative. The exact thinking behind the marketing scheme is not explained.

My family did not eat out very often. When we did, it was most often at one of two places: Pizza and Brew or the Ground Round. (I always agitated for the sophistication of Red Lobster, but I rarely got my way.) Pizza and Brew’s appeal was obvious enough—pizza, and I guess brew—but we went to the Ground Round for one reason only: Pay What You Weigh Night. Read More »

Michael Robbins on ‘Alien vs. Predator’

March 27, 2012 | by

Michael Robbins.

Reading the poetry of Michael Robbins is kind of like driving around the parkways and frontage roads of America’s suburbs. His poems have a Best Buy, a Red Lobster, a Kinko’s, a Pizza Hut, and a Guitar Center; they reference the slogans of Christian billboards and the bumper stickers of hippies; they offer the choice between Safeway and Whole Foods and between the corporate classic-rock station, the corporate urban-music station, and All Things Considered. The poems are heavy with concern for the elephants, the whales, and the freedom of Tibet. They have a Rhianna song stuck in their heads.

Among poets, Robbins follows in the footsteps of Frederick Seidel and Paul Muldoon in writing about contemporary life using more traditional poetic forms and rhyme. He also references and sometimes even quotes Philip Larkin, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Wordsworth, and others. But Robbins is more playful and less grandiloquent than his sometimes-grim forefathers: after reading his first book, Alien vs. Predator, the two things I kept thinking of were not poetry at all, but rather the short stories of George Saunders and the video art of Ryan Trecartin. As Saunders did with marketing jargon and Trecartin with reality television, Robbins congeals his suburban idyll, transforming its vacant vernacular into unsettling poignancy. And sometimes it’s even funny.

I reached Robbins by phone in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We spoke the day after Rick Santorum’s victory in that state’s Republican primary.

Where are you working right now?

I’m a visiting poet at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, which is where I’m staying and just waiting until I get out of this city.

You don’t like it?

The people are great at the university, my students are great, but Hattiesburg is … it’s just like if you opened a university in a Taco Bell, basically. It’s just the ugliest place I’ve ever seen in my life. Read More »

14 COMMENTS