I’ve just been reading an interesting article by Christian Long on the (general) absence of travel between work and the suburbs in suburban fiction – and what might be read into this absence.
Long begins by aligning two quotes in a way I find quite powerful: “Suburbanization, probably more than any other single factor, hid the poor from view … Suburbanization nourished the solipsism of the middle class, which looked around its new environment and concluded, short-sightedly, that it was alone in America.” (Barbara Ehrenreich, quoted p.193)
“Then you make a map of the book, and everything changes.” (Franco Moretti, quoted p.193)
Long then goes on to write: “…the suburbs are more than cookie-cutter tract houses and depersonalizing offices; they also are the roads and rails on which suburbanites ride. In spite of the practical importance of commuting, of all the routine segments of everyday suburban life, moments of transit seem most prone to disappearance from fictional narratives and their critical engagements. The critical history of suburban literature more often than not defines suburb/suburbia/suburban/suburbanite/suburbanization in terms of houses, workplaces, and the discursive regimes that order them, drawing a line between the urban world of work and the suburban world of ‘home.’” (pp.193-194)
Long proposes that we might “redirect examination of suburban fiction outside and beyond the bounds of houses and workplaces. By ignoring representations of in-between moments like commuting to get to the easy pickings of the ranch house or copy room, we risk ignoring an important factor of suburban life—that is, all the time and space spent coming and going.” (p.194)
“[Sinclair Lewis’s] George Babbitt’s attention to the space within which he commutes models an active engagement with his environment—an engagement that pays attention to the economic inequality embodied within the built landscape. In contrast, representative post-war suburban fictions like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Corrections narratively and formally normalize a disconnection from the spaces between home and work, between the suburbs and the city. In these narratives—which represent the standard suburban narrative of American culture—the protagonist shuttles between the conflicts of suburban life—at home and at work—with as little interference from the built environment as possible.” (p.194)
“While suburban literature thickly describes domestic-house space and office-work space, maps of Babbitt, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and The Corrections reveal that between the house and office lies a nearly-blank, unrepresented space. Such empty space on the map represents a blind spot in the suburban imaginary: inequality. Recognizing the space between suburb and city—both narratively and as a critical reading strategy—makes it possible to understand the history of suburban discourses and to challenge the inevitability of the current sprawling, stratified suburban way of life in America.” (p.195)
“…this separation of home and work also generates a blindness to the in-between spaces through which suburbanites travel—highways, bridges, streets, sidewalks, trains, trolleys, and even subways—and a similar blindness to the price non-suburbanites pay for the convenience of that infrastructure. Deconstructing the home-work binary allows us to understand and highlight that price, to uncover the hidden structures of exploitation and inequality which the conventional account of postwar suburbia glides over.” (pp.194-195)
Reading this, I was wondering how urban fantasy deals with this space between suburb and city (if, indeed, it does)…?
Note: Long also points us to the following work: “The best book-length analysis of suburban fiction I have found—Catherine
Jurca’s White Diaspora: The Suburbs and the Twentieth-Century American Novel—uses a metaphor of movement.” (p.194)
Reference: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Christian Long (2013) ‘Mapping Suburban Fiction’ Journal of Language, Literature and Culture 6(3)Dec, 193-213 DOI 10.1179/2051285613Z.00000000019
Abstract: “In spite of the practical importance of commuting to everyday suburban life, moments of commuting are rare in American fiction. While the experience of commuting offers chances for reflection and self-knowledge for the suburbanite’s psyche, that time for introspection comes at the cost of ignoring the built environment. The separation of home and work that the often-elided moments of commuting perpetuate generates a blindness to the suburban built environment and infrastructure. This article redirects an examination of suburban fiction outside and beyond the bounds of houses and workplaces by paying attention to scenes of commuting. Placing the space between home and work at the centre of the analysis allows us to understand and highlight the price of the suburban way of life, and to uncover the hidden structures of exploitation and inequality which a conventional account of post-war suburbia glides over.”
Quotes referenced more fully as: Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: Harper
Perennial, 1989), 42.
and: Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (London: Verso, 2005), 36.