Posts Tagged ‘suburbia’
April 8, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
- 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.”
September 1, 2015 | by Micah Nathan
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 »
December 15, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
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 »
March 27, 2012 | by Emily Witt
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 »
July 21, 2011 | by Adam Wilson
I’m a Reagan baby, a product of recession, later reared in the economically secure Clinton nineties, in a McMansioned suburb of the Eastern Seaboard. Our athletes—statuesque Celtics and sinewy Red Sox—were billboarded, televised, and extra-life-sized for us to admire as we turned into populist fist-pumpers in the soft reflection of our screens.
My own sports career ended at fifteen, soon after my discoveries of breasts and marijuana—plus, my post-pubic body’s physiological rejection of the command, “Run laps.” I attended a large public high school known for its high rate of acceptance into Harvard and for its unattractive cheerleaders. Once, at a basketball game, a rival school’s fans chanted “Who Let the Dogs Out” when our Lady-Lions took the court.
Still, one makes do. When it comes to social strata in American public schools, life has no choice but to imitate, if not art, then at least John Hughes movies. Our football players held the top position in the high school hierarchy. They wore jerseys over ties on game day, took Creatine, shotgunned beers, spoke with put-on Boston accents. Sensitive stoners like me hung girl-less at the edge of the party, colluding in the mass self-delusion that this was a football team, that this was a party.
I watched Friday Night Lights for the first time four years ago in my New York apartment, bedridden by the idiocy of avoiding a flu shot. Some cable channel had the first season on marathon so that sick boys like myself could feel the pull of pigskin, forget our ailing, gene-weak bodies amidst the rush of Panther pride and the belief that no woman in a million years will ever out-MILF Ms. Tami Taylor, aka Mrs. Coach, the strong-willed and substantially cleavaged matriarch at the heart of the show.
Which is all to say: When I lie in bed at night and imagine white-bearded God making his earthly presence known at the foot of my futon, he asks, “And what is your deepest desire, young man?” I say, “Lord of all things, king of the universe, purveyor of rain, and pain, and occasional love, would you be so kind as to turn me into Tim Riggins?”
August 10, 2010 | by Dan Piepenbring
Have we abandoned the quest for serious smut?
When I was sixteen, my most literate friend gave me a copy of Couples, John Updike’s 1968 “seductive” celebration of “the post-pill paradise.” (It was the mass-market edition.) Even that snippet of cover copy gave me chills. Sure, the rest of the world had long since realized that there’s more to heaven than birth control. But I was growing up in the Catholic heart of Maryland. This was a primitive, pre-pill prison. You could whisper “Ortho Tri-Cyclen” and every boy on the street would get a boner.
Updike is vaunted as a realist par excellence, a careful chronicler of our suburban mores, but what I found in these pages seemed pretty fantastical to me. Certainly it bore no resemblance to the suburbia I knew. His characters talked about Bertrand Russell, bristled at undercooked lamb, and screwed each other senseless at every possible interval. It called my own world into question. Was this man in the grocery store just shopping, or was he composing a paean to his penis as he browsed, “his balls . . . all velvet, his phallus sheer silver”? Had the man shearing his Japanese maple praised his wife mere minutes ago for her “surprisingly luxuriant pudendum,” kneeling to pleasure her in the crabgrass? Was this couple merely waxing their PT Cruiser together, or was he squirting her with the hose in hopes that “she would take his blood-stuffed prick into the floral surfaces of her mouth”?
I couldn’t say, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. The truest moment of mystification came when I encountered the first of many instances of adultery:
Between the frilled holes her underpants wore a tender honey stain. Between her breasts the sweat was scintillant and salt. He encircled her, fingered and licked her willing slipping tips, the pip within the slit, wisps. Sun and spittle set a cloudy froth on her pubic hair: Piet pictured a kitten learning to drink milk from a saucer.
Color me baffled—blushing, but baffled. “Underpants”? Women wore panties, sure. Women wore thongs, g-strings, boy shorts, maybe garters. But “underpants”? This was a revelation. Verbs like encircling, fingering, licking—these were titillating enough, and for all I knew, this slant-rhyming “slip tip pip slit wisp” business was a good indicator of how it felt: an expressionist’s take on balling another dude’s wife. But the kitten simile I could not abide. Kittens were the paragon of innocence, one of those distracting nouns I’d trot out mentally during pre-calc when summoned to the chalkboard with a tent pole in my pants. To claim that any part of sex had anything to do with kittens, even metaphorical kittens, was ruinous to their deflationary power. This was prose so resolutely sexy that it sucked other, unsexy nouns into its vortex. I read and reread the passage, repulsed and attracted, trying to file it under “like” or “dislike”; I couldn’t. I understood, then, why most people stuck to porn. At least that raises fewer questions than it answers.
Couples is a funny thing, a bodice-ripper with a sense of entitlement. It goes on far too long. To this day, I’m neither old enough nor suburban enough to say for certain if it’s realism or not. Part of me hopes it is—if one is to while away one’s forties in a tiny New England hamlet, one might as well get laid—but the more sensible part of me suspects otherwise.
I understand perfectly why it’s fallen out of fashion. We’re inured against the erotic jolt it once promised. But I wonder why, in the era of radical genre-grafting surgeries, when zombies hijack Jane Austen and vampires haunt our every lowbrow nook and highbrow cranny, we’ve abandoned the quest for serious smut. An undead Mr. Darcy may be good for a chuckle, but has it got staying power? Many decades down the line, will it float around at yard sales and in school lockers, just waiting to blow some sixteen-year-old’s priggish little mind?
Dan Piepenbring is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.