Example Of We’VE Always Been Breaking Bad: The Absurdity Of Suburbia Essay
Two young men get into a heated argument about a topic that smacks of the arcane or at least the petulant; a few minutes later, the petulant one stands over the other’s bleeding and broken body. Hannibal Lecter points it out in The Silence of the Lambs, but this serial killer is no plagiarist. Instead, he reminds FBI agent Clarice Starling that none other than the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius knew that man’s first impulse was to covet. Fast forward into the twenty-first century, and observe the jealous rage that populates chemistry teacher Walter White’s features as he watches his insolent student pull into the car wash where Mr. White works to supplement his income (teaching not being the lucrative profession that the GOP would have you think it is), only to scoff at the sight of his teacher having to scrub his Corvette. It is this covetousness, of course, that the suburbs were supposed to blanch out of us. Everyone would have access to a nice house with a nice lot and a nice fence and a nice yard and a nice wife. Everyone would be happy, goddammit, and we would achieve the perfect society. Remember those differences that threatened to boil over during the Red Scare? Remember when everybody thought the Okies were going to overrun California and then turn into an army of the destitute, riding the rails all over the country until you just couldn’t hide them? Thank God for that Adolf Hitler, because that Second World War fixed what was ailing the country, and then we had the suburbs to plunk down on top of the nation, a giant band-aid that would heal the Union, once and for all. Except, of course, that it didn’t. The suburbs satisfied many, but for others it turned into places like Stepford, homogenizing everyone and everything as far as the eyes could see. It is the artificial nature of this social engineering that keeps it from satisfying the soul, a gap that John Cheever exploits in his classic tale “The Swimmer.”
The short stories of John Cheever form some of the foundation of the genre of American suburban fiction. Indeed, as his writing shifted from the urban to the suburban, it followed the movements of the American people out to Levittowns and other cookie-cutter developments. Indeed, Cheever’s own family moved from New York City to Scarborough in 1951 (Donaldson, p. 121). Cheever’s white American suburbia was inspired by the commuter towns clinging to the edges of New York City. The majority of his stories have a white male protagonist who serves as the narrator or at least the focus, and the voice of the narrator generally sympathizes with values typical to suburbia.
In “The Swimmer,” the protagonist (Ned) decides one day to swim home, traveling through the pools of his neighbors. As he does, he tries to build a “quasi-subterranean stream,” (Cheever, p. 603), and he bestows the name of his wife, Lucinda, on this new body of water. As the story takes place, the weather and seasons seem like they’re changing even with every hour. The end result is that, even though the story opens on “one of those midsummer Sundays” (Cheever, p. 603), as the story nears its close Ned happens to notice that leaves are falling and that, somewhere, someone has started a wood fire. This change in seasons could represent the psychological and physical wear on Ned as he starts tiring and as both he and the reader start to realize that the suburban panacea is not everything he had thought it would be. By the time he gets home, Ned finds that his family has left, and his house has been barred and locked. The ending line of the story notes that the house is “empty” (Cheever, p. 612).
The reader in “The Swimmer” is not privy to being part of the story. However, the reader may have the ability to distinguish between Ned’s own evaluation of his long swim as an epic journey of discovery and a more objective reflection on the suburban swimming pool as a relatively tame location. However, the reader has no idea what Ned’s domestic life is really like. Instead, the reader only has Ned’s perspective with which to view events, which is why it is so easy to believe that Ned’s wife and daughters are playing tennis at home, kept in comfort by Ned’s own success in his profession. Over the course of the swim, Ned appears to be developing some self-awareness. Those readers who view Ned’s aquatic journey as a ridiculous or absurd endeavor have realized that the swim is Ned’s way of bringing order to an environment that defies that order. The idea of “swimming the Lucinda,” then, is more an act of discovering what Ned is missing or what Ned has already failed to figure out. Unfortunately, it appears that Lucinda herself is no longer around for Ned to figure out, so he must find the best suburban analogue that he can.
Aldridge suggests that this story is an example of the types of subjective construction and evaluation in which people take part. However, the text goes beyond giving the reader access to imagined and constructed elements of suburbia. The text embroils the reader in the judgments that Ned makes, bringing the reader almost uncomfortably close in a desire to share Ned’s own image. In the final analysis, Ned’s belief that he had an ideal home life is just as absurd as claiming that “swimming the Lucinda” is some sort of achievement on an epic scale. In his 1964 review of the story, Aldridge suggests that the tale inculcates a notion that the suburban way of life necessarily detaches its members from an authentic existence (p. 79). This means that Ned’s swim is just as illusory as the wife and daughters ostensibly waiting at home for him.
Domestic distress is a theme in several of Cheever’s stories, of course. “The Geometry of Love” erodes Charlie’s self-confidence in himself as a husband and head of household, because he learns that his wife has taken a lover. “The Chimera” features a man who envisions an illusory lover in order to assuage the boredom of his real marriage. “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” features a protagonist who robs from his friends’ and neighbors’ homes because he has lost the ability to provide financially for his wife and children. “The Country Husband” features a protagonist who develops a crush on the babysitter, but rather than cast his domestic tranquility on the rocks that such an infatuation would place in his path, he instead takes up woodworking as a way to sublimate his unmet needs. In “The Swimmer,” of course, the reader gradually learns that Ned’s family has left him, and he no longer has any financial security. In all of these stories, the protagonist is a man who has failed in some way to live up to the expectations of the suburban order, and so have lost their standing as a husband and/or father. In response, these characters find a different place for themselves in that system. This is their way of trying to make themselves feel relevant once again. The ridiculousness of these responses is apparent, but it also shows the ways in which their despair serves as a comment on the similar ridiculousness that is a part of a judgmental society. If one remembers that suburbia is a band-aid tenuously slapped over the social wounds that had threatened to rend the Union in the years between 1900 and 1941, then it’s easier to accept the characters’ decisions. They have simply refused to accept the positions that have been given to them, because they see the system for the arbitrary mess that it is. In “The Swimmer,” Ned does not die, as some of Cheever’s other protagonist do, and he does not fervently resolve to gain his suburban prestige back. Instead, the end is swift but ambiguous, leaving the reader to wonder just what is next for Ned, now that his illusion has been shattered once again.
The fact that suburbia fails to provide a satisfactory life for so many is certainly one of the ironies of the twentieth century. After all, the issues that divided the nation during the excess of the Gilded Age and particularly during the chaos of the Great Depression had to do with having enough, putting a roof over one’s family, keeping food on the shelves and maintaining dignity in the face of an increasingly impersonal world. The suburb was to bring the green spaces back, put people back on an even footing. The 30-year mortgage, unheard-of before the Great War, was a way that people could own their own home as long as they were able to pay for it over time. The interest that such borrowing brought in, of course, enriched a new generation of bankers, but the boom that hit America at every level as America’s soldiers returned home from the fight in Asia and Europe seemed like it would last forever. The utopian dreams from the early 1800s that had collapsed so spectacularly could be engineered here, so long as the streets were laid out in the correct proportions and housing developments offered no more than six or eight different floor plans. A new middle class would emerge, stable and secure. However, this new extension of the American Dream did not satisfy. Instead, the inner angst that defines the wandering mind remained. It nibbled at the Naugahyde couches and jittered as the spatulas that men were holding at Saturday cookovers tapped against the grills. It was not quite satisfied by the influx of liquor and cigarettes, and it kept rattling on even after this panacea was replaced by the visions of Ronald Reagan, only to be replaced again by the down-home seductiveness of Bill Clinton and the audacious hope of Barack Obama. We still have not learned to stop evaluating ourselves, to stop placing false structures around ourselves so that we can find enough people wanting to make ourselves feel better. Ned still stands at his own front door, because Ned is inside us all.
Aldridge, John. “Where Life is but a Dream World.” Review of The Brigadier and The Golf Widow
Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Vintage, c2000.
Donaldson, Scott. John Cheever, a Biography. New York: Random House, 1988.
The Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins. Orion