- Semi-Detached Empire: Suburbia and the Colonization of Britain, 1880 to the Present
The title and the introduction of Todd Kuchta's Semi-Detached Empire provide a clear description of the argument that follows by playing on the idea of a semidetached home in order to communicate the sense of how suburbs replicate empire. The cleverness of the title and the image it creates are used as the guiding metaphor throughout the book. The metaphor also works as a description of the book itself; [End Page 250] whether intentionally or not, Kuchta's text is also semi-detached from the main argument, considering white male writers with the postcolonial writers confined to the epilogue. In the introduction, Kuchta explains why there are few female authors considered in the book: "As this description of suburban male degeneration suggests, my study takes up a distinctly masculine problematic" (15). So although the body of the text studies this "masculine problematic" in the works of H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, E.M. Forster, and George Orwell, the discussion of commonwealth writers is ghettoized in the epilogue, which gives a reading of Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia in the context of a range of commonwealth writers and popular culture representations.
Kuchta also mimics his topic in the sense that like the Victorians who lived in the suburbs in the 1880s, the book is acquisitive and does not confine itself to one type of collection. Instead, Kuchta examines literature, culture, architecture, ethnography, psychology, population studies, language, and economic practices in order to make his point. The endnotes and the bibliography are excellent and reveal an amazing variety of sources. While each of these topics is fascinating on its own and the combination is enticing, there is not enough depth to any of the exploration to make it feel foundational. But perhaps if you are writing about semi-detachment, the point may be to make it difficult to find a footing. The book is separated into sections: "Foundations," "Facades," "Semi-Detachment." And like a work of architecture, this book works to build and scaffold its own argument.
In the "Foundations" section of the book, Kuchta sets out his argument and begins a reading of H. G. Wells that he continues later in the book. This first section introduces the argument: that imperialism is central to both real and imagined suburbs. The relationship of the city and the country as a kind of semi-detachment and the idea that suburbs work to intervene between city and country is overlaid with the idea that the suburbs become the new slums as the slums become totally unlivable. The complications of the spatial identity of the suburbs are further explicated in the sense that the suburb is simultaneously seen as the new wall/fort around the metropolis and also often inhabited by colonial peoples new to England. Therefore, the suburb is both English and not English. This introduction leads to the first argument about literature, Wells's The War of the Worlds, where Kuchta makes a nice argument about reverse colonization and the role of the suburbs in the destruction of culture; "Fusing the novel's instantaneous rural decimation and reverse colonization tropes with an optical illusion of residential growth, the tripods serve as otherworldly surrogates for the suburban development invading Britain" (47). Kuchta suggests that Wells' novel and, I would add, the argument in Semi-Detached Empire, call for a new theory of the suburb.
The "Facades" section of the book examines the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, and E. M. Forster in an effort to depict the struggles with defining and describing colonization and the after effects of imperialism once the previously colonized become citizens. The suburb becomes the location of overexposure to colonization and to foreign influence and therefore becomes a danger to Englishness. In the analysis of The Sign of Four, suburban degeneracy links "physical degeneracy to bodily, architectural, and economic problems of circulation" (79). As in...