restricted access SuburbiaNation: Reading Suburban Landscape in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert Beuka. SuburbiaNation: Reading Suburban Landscape in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film. New York: Palgrave, 2004. ix + 284 pp.

SuburbiaNation provides a unique analysis and examination of the relationship between landscape and culture. Though that topic has been discussed in literally hundreds of essays and books, the majority of these studies are sociological and psychological dissections of the origins and effects of the rise of the suburbs after World War II. They concentrate on the dislocating effects that the newly emerging suburban culture had—and continues to have—on the emotional and spiritual lives of their inhabitants. And Beuka's news is not encouraging.

What makes SuburbiaNation's findings so compelling, and disturbing, is Beuka's highly imaginative and comprehensive treatment of this complex topic as it is manifested in literature, films, and classic historical and sociological texts on the rise of the suburbs. Nothing that this reader has encountered comes close to Beuka's comprehensive handling of this troubling topic. The textual loom that he weaves so elegantly is utterly convincing and justifies a fresh reinvestigation of the entire issue: How is it that suburbia has fallen from its utopian glory into a dystopian wasteland, with no spiritual or geographical center? Beuka never loses sight that landscape is his central subject: "Ultimately, the value of studying fictional treatments of life in the suburbs lies in working toward discovering the cultural significance of a place that over the course of a half century has evolved from a revolutionary and emergent terrain to become the dominant landscape of the United States" (21). Beuka never stops reminding the reader that the major proposal of his book is, in the words of geographer, David Harvey: "Place in whatever guise, is like space and time, a social construct. . . . The only interesting question that can then be asked is: by what social process(es) is place constructed?" (22). Each chapter interweaves examples from fiction, film, and sociological/geographical texts to support Beuka's consistent thesis that suburbia has failed to regenerate a fresh Edenic condition but has, rather, devolved into a highly technological wasteland that suffocates mothers and children and emasculates men.

Chapter One discusses two masterful novels from the Twenties, Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Both are early critiques of the empty values of suburbia and establish a secure thematic grounding of the writers treated in this book: John Cheever, John Updike, Ann Beattie, and Gloria Naylor. The author parallels the works of these writers with selected filmmakers who treat the perils of suburbia: Frank Perry, Mike Nichols, Gary Ross, and Sam [End Page 728] Mendes. "Gatsby himself embodies this sense of being caught in an insupportable present—situated, as [Richard] Legan argues, 'between a dead past and an implausible future.'" Fitzgerald always presents Gatsby's romantic quest in terms of geographical landscape, but it is a highly troubled relationship that Gatsby has with his spiritual yearnings and his elegant estate: "Gatsby seems hardly inpossession of his own home at all, and he is consistently portrayed throughout the novel as dislocated from place" (33).

Chapter Two explores John Cheever's sense of the banality of suburban life in eight stories, though Cheever traces, in depth, suburban discontents in "The Enormous Radio," "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," and, most prominently, "The Swimmer." The chapter also sheds valuable insights on Cheever's complex postmodernist treatment of Neddy Merrill's tragic ending. Beuka compares the film version of "The Swimmer"—Eleanor Perry's screenplay—with the original version and discovers a major theme—the emasculating power of a centerless suburban, artificial paradise—a theme that the author develops throughout the remainder of the book. Neddy becomes a genuine tragic hero when he is depicted as "the stranger at the gate" at the conclusion of the story.

Chapter Three, "Rabbit Redux: The Perils of Suburban Masculinity," extends Beuka's investigation into suburbia's symbolic castration of the American male. Updike brutally demonstrates just how suburbia renders Rabbit impotent on a number of levels, but he presents Rabbit's dilemma in unmistakably Freudian terms: "Updike tracks Rabbit's unconscious fixation on his status as a cuckolded suburbanite...


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