Julia Fierro on Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides
Some of my favorite childhood memories are framed by a cold-fogged car window – me in the backseat of my parents’ wood-paneled station wagon, staring into the dark suburban night on a return trip from a holiday party. The scent of my mother’s hairspray mingling with my father’s aftershave. The meditative thrum of the car tires over asphalt, broken only by the thrill I feel each time I catch a glimpse beyond the lamp-lit windows of the passing houses. A family sits on a sofa, faces lit blue by the glow of a television. In another house, a man in an A-shirt perches on the edge of a bed. Then I spot a woman staring blankly out a kitchen window, her yellow rubber-gloved hands holding a soapy dish. Hopper-esque tableaus of middle-class suburban life.
All readers are voyeurs. Our desire to watch the lives of others (ourselves remaining unwatched) is what drives us to open a book. Our need to see outside our finite view – our sole picture window, so to speak – is what allows us to sink into a fictional character’s consciousness so deeply we can experience their most intimate fears and desires as if they are our own.
My favorite flavor of voyeurism is found in suburbia. Perhaps, this is because I grew up in a small town on Long Island – close enough to New York City to feel its glittery pull, but too far to leave the shelter of middle-class haven without trepidation. Moreso, it is the allure of the tension between the appearance of suburban life – trimmed hedges, front doors left unlocked, the family car washed and waxed every Saturday – and the human reality underneath, the two shifting like the convergence of tectonic plates, an eruption imminent. No violence is sharper than that which suddenly pierces the serene suburban scene.
Some of my favorite streets exist only in novels, stretching through tree-canopied neighborhoods of suburban America, past and present. Alice McDermott’s That Night and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road reveal the anxious doubt of the 60s as it replaced the conformity of the 50s. There’s Rick Moody’s tense 70s drama, The Ice Storm, set at the peak of the sexual revolution, and let us not forget John Cheever, dubbed “the Chekhov of the suburbs.” More recently, the literary suburban landscape played a role in the bestselling page-turner, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn; the darkly thrilling cheerleader drama, Dare Me by Megan Abbott; and several of Tom Perrotta’s novels are set in the ‘burbs, seemingly sleepy until the terror lurking under the surface tranquility is exposed, in the form of pedophiles, religious extremism and sexism.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Virgin Suicides, is set in 1970s Michigan, on a street lined with “comfortable suburban homes,” one of which houses the five enticingly dreamy teenage Lisbon sisters.
The novel’s narrator – a clutch of young suburban boys who live on the Lisbon family’s street – retrospectively tell this tragic tale of young suburban angst as a collective voice. The we is a nearly omniscient chorus, as well as a private investigator, analyzing “clues” in the form of old photos, newspaper clippings – artifacts from their youthful obsession. The we are all-knowing storytellers. As if they had peered over the rose-entwined iron fence of the Lisbon home, through the girls’ bedroom windows, and seen all. In suburbia, where the houses sit side-by-side, so one might hear their neighbors’ quiet desperation as they argued, screwed, or shouted at the TV screen during a ball game, omniscience (in combination with the fervor of youth) feels possible. The potential for eavesdropping and spying is endless – a treasure trove of conflicts for the writer to mine, and for the reader to experience.
Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon imposed strict social rules on their girls and the magnetic attraction of the girls’ mysterious private life – blood-spotted Tampax, red lipstick, ruffles and lace – adds momentum to the boy-narrators’ quest to know the five teenage girls named for saints. This was the era before electronic distraction. When children knew what it meant to be bored, fleeing their homes (the TVs had only twelve channels after all) to gather in the cul de sac on a humid summer night, the lightning bugs flaring against the otherworldly light of the gloaming, the cicadas buzzing as the group of boys picked at their scabbed knees and told stories about the unknowable Lisbon girls to pass time.
As the tragedy unfolds, it is as if the narrative we, through their obsessive observations, interpretations and fantasies, gain divine sight, confident they know what their sacred virgins see, think and feel. Not unlike my own imagined omniscience on those cold dark drives of my childhood, or perhaps the way you believe you know your neighbor’s untold story, or that of your therapist, co-worker, or yoga instructor.
What held my tired gaze on those long-ago nights, my nose pressed to the cold backseat window as I searched the windows of the houses flying past, was the hunt. I was searching for a clue, a flicker of something just a tad off – a couple arguing, a woman standing by the window in her bra and slip, looking as if she’d forgotten something outside in the cold. I was looking for a crack in the polished veneer of suburban life, a hint of the dark secrets that hide under the floorboards of every home. I want (and need) to believe there is redemption in that shared vulnerability.
I still feel a kind of perverse comfort when the dark disenchantment of suburbia surfaces. As long as it’s fiction, of course. Tragedy in a novel is a reminder that there is danger everywhere, that bad things can and do happen, even behind a white picket fence. That we must always be watchful, because so much is at stake in this one fragile life we lead. This knowledge, somehow, makes the meaning of that life bloom like the flowers in a manicured front yard. And so I read.
Julia Fierro is the author of the forthcoming novel Cutting Teeth (St. Martin’s Press 2014), and founder of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop.
Gabriel Roth on Kensington Park Gardens from Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty
Kensington Park Gardens in Notting Hill, London, 1983. A summer evening “when the wide treeless street was raked by the sun, and the two white terraces stared at each other with the glazed tolerance of rich neighbours.” Nicholas Guest, a lodger, finds himself temporarily in possession of one of the big white houses.
Nick is a scholarship boy from the provinces who has insinuated himself into the home of a rising Tory MP and his aristocratic wife. What he covets is their easy, unthinking access to beauty: “the pictures, the porcelain, the curvy French furniture.” Behind the house is a communal garden, “big as the central park of some old European city, but private, and densely hedged on three sides … There were one or two places … where someone who wasn’t a keyholder could see through to a glade among the planes and tall horse chestnuts.”
Nick is in a liminal position—a keyholder, for the moment, but not an owner. He savors life in Kensington Park Gardens with an avidity its rightful residents could never muster. The communal gardens become the site of his first sexual experience. He discovers, eventually, that the beauty he pursues is obtained with money and power, things that are not themselves beautiful.
Before his final exile, Nick gets a vision of the street’s history, “the years since the whole speculation rose up out of the Notting Hill paddocks and slums.” That was 160 years ago. With enough perspective all richesse is nouveau, all beauty an improbable gamble.
Gabriel Roth is the author of The Unknowns (Little Brown)
Simon Van Booy on Northern Boulevard from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
My favorite street in all of literature is Northern Boulevard. If you’ve never been to Queens or Long Island, then you may not have heard of it. It was made famous in The Great Gatsby as the street that Jay, Jordan, Daisy, and her husband take to get from their palatial estates on Long Island into Manhattan. It’s also the street where poor Myrtle is killed, and remains to this day one of the most dangerous stretches of road in North America. I like it because it winds through some of the poorest and richest neighborhoods of New York City and its surrounding suburbs. Along its banks you will hear at least a dozen languages, and can sample the most expensive, the cheapest, the most exotic and the most frightening food in the world. It’s the world wrapped around a stretch of road that in the 1920s was described as a series of ash pits. But from the ashes, a multicultural phoenix has risen, and if you ever need inspiration — remember these words…
Simon Van Booy’s most recent book was the novel The Illusion of Separateness (Harper)
Emma Straub on Central Park West from Kay Thompson’s Eloise
When I was a child, I would often mix up fact and fiction. I took books so seriously, so personally, that I truly felt like I knew the characters. When I walked by places they’d been, I would point them out, if only to myself, and say, oh, that’s where my friend lives. Growing up, my house was half a block from Central Park West, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. That meant that if I’d wanted to, I could have walked down Central Park West until I hit the end of the park, turned left at the corner of Central Park South (also known as 59th Street), and walked straight until I hit the far corner, by the fountain. I knew that corner because my friend lived there, at the Plaza — my friend Eloise. She and I had a lot in common — we both liked wearing things on our heads and our hair was stick straight and really messy. She had a dog and a turtle and I had a cat but still, she had suspenders and I liked suspenders and I really liked hotels, and she lived in one. We had a lot in common, starting with our basic joie de vivre. Eloise and I would have been fast friends. In my mind, we were. When I got my period for the first time, my mother took me to the Plaza for tea, and I was half-surprised not to see Eloise at the next table, lurking under a giant potted palm tree, raising her tea cup with her pinky extended. We would have nodded to each other, now fully grown ladies, still capable of pressing all the buttons in the elevator, but only if no one was looking.
Emma Straub is the author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (Riverhead), which is now in paperback.
Kyle Minor on Stephen Dixon’s Interstate
If interstates qualify as streets, my favorite street in literature is the stretch of highway Stephen Dixon writes and rewrites eight times in Interstate, a novel deeply concerned with the question of What If? Interstate’s protagonist is a father of two daughters. In the first chapter he is threatened in traffic by a man who aims a gun into the back seat and kills one of the daughters. Over the next 67 pages, the father enacts a revenge fantasy, which lands him in jail. Things get worse from there, and by the end of the chapter, the father is dead, and the surviving daughter has become the narrator. Then, at the beginning of the second chapter, the man is resurrected, without explanation. He is young again, and driving the interstate again with his two young daughters. Again, he is accosted by the man with the gun, and again one of the daughters is hit,and again she dies . . . I don’t want to ruin the pleasure of this book by telling you what happens next, but suffice it to say that the scenario is repeated through eight iterations, a catalog of the dread and fear particular to a father, and — that rarest thing — something like a happy ending, to the tune of “Oh My Darling, Clementine.”
Kyle Minor is the author of In the Devil’s Territory and the forthcoming Praying Drunk
Matthew Specktor on Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles
So many to choose from! If literature is composed of its locations — sure it is, if it’s composed of anything at all — then how could one possibly select a favorite street? Even if you do away with all the competing roads, boulevards, avenues, prospekts (with apologies to Gogol, the first person I thought of when asked), you’re left with more vivid thoroughfares than you can count. I love the one at the beginning of The Man Without Qualities, for example: Hundreds of noises wove themselves into a wiry texture of sound with barbs protruding here and there, the one where Automobiles shot… into the shallows of bright squares. But that street remains unnamed, and so I’m forced to choose a different European Street, Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles. That particular street, which is introduced to us via a map, is defined for us first in negative terms, its “equivocal and doubtful character,” before we move on to its tailors’ shops and trams, its “tall, dark salesgirls, each with a flaw in her beauty.” The more vivid the street becomes, the more questionable, the more unsure. “We shall always regret that, at a given moment, we had left the slightly dubious tailor’s shop. We shall never be able to find it again.” In a sense, this is every street, and every page, in literature. In life, too.
Matthew Specktor’s latest novel is American Dream Machine (Tin House)
Ivy Pochoda on Dean Street in Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude
My favorite street in literature without a doubt is Dean Street in Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude. Like Lethem, I grew up in Brooklyn, on Clinton Street, several blocks away from the author’s Dean Street. I was living in Europe when I read Fortress of Solitude and from the first page (it opens on Dean Street) I was immediately transported to the neighborhood of my youth. So much can happen on a city block and Lethem nails the sensation of an entire neighborhood in flux and telescopes in down to a single street. As a kid my world was my block and Dean Street in Fortress of Solitude conjures that sensation pitch-perfectly.
Ivy Pochoda’s most recent book is Visitation Street
Karolina Waclawiak on Bunker Hill in John Fante’s Dreams From Bunker Hill
Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill is technically not a street (though it once was), but I’m going with it. John Fante immortalized the area in his many Los Angeles novels but his phenomenal last novel, Dreams from Bunker Hill, sealed the deal for me. The opening is a memorable one, filled with a sense of hope and wonder, with a tinge of despair:
“My first collision with fame was hardly memorable. It was a busboy at Marx’s Deli. The year was 1934. The place was Third and Hill, Los Angeles. I was twenty-one years old, living in a world bounded on the west by Bunker Hill, on the east by Los Angeles Street, on the south by Pershing Square, and on the north by Civic Center. I was a busboy nonpareil, with great verve and style for the profession, and though I was dreadfully underpaid (one dollar a day plus meals) I attracted considerable attention as I whirled from table to table, balancing a tray on one hand, and eliciting smiles from my customers. I had something else beside a waiter’s skill to offer my patrons, for I was also a writer.”
That world, confined to the small section of Los Angeles, is by far my favorite place in any literary work. When I found Fante and Bukowski (who was also beguiled by John Fante’s downtown world), I went there as quickly as I could. I would walk up and down the hills around the LA Public Library, where I would write on the weekends, and look for the ghosts of Fante and Bukowski, especially when I couldn’t think of anything more to put on the page. I’d wander as far as Clifton’s and try to conjure an image of Ray Bradbury hunched over a table, eating pie and trying to make something of himself. I’d look for signs of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles in the alleys.
That time in Los Angeles just seemed so romantic to me, full of hopeful and hopeless people clacking away on their typewriters, trying for a bigger life. John Fante once said, “A good novel can change the world. Keep that in mind before you attempt to sit down at a typewriter.” I can imagine him sitting in some secret, broken-down flophouse or dollar hotel, dreaming big. Old Bunker Hill itself was razed to the ground, built over with high-rises, but it’s still very necessary to commune with its ghosts from time to time.
Karolina Waclawiak is the Deputy Editor of The Believer and author of How to Get Into the Twin Palms (Two Dollar Radio)