People are fond of talking about their favorite characters in books, but sometimes, in books like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, structures also play a central part in the story. So when we heard about the debut of Flaneur, a magazine that “presents one street per issue,” we started thinking more and more about the streets where some of our favorite novels take place, and decided to ask several authors about their favorite streets in literature. Click through to see their responses.
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.