NOVEMBER 27, 2013
NOVELS SET AGAINST the landscape of suburban gloom are nothing new. Consider Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, first published in 1961, and then reprised as a film more than 50 years later. A thread on a popular book review website cites at least 37 titles dubbed “suburban malaise,” a genre whose writers range from A.M. Homes, Sherman Alexie, and John Updike, to Tom Perrotta, the patron saint of picket-fence angst. These novels, on the whole, explore the anxiety and horror associated with “grown up life.” It seems that, even as suburban development is on the decline, suburbia remains the No Man’s Land of adulthood, the place where you and all your friends go when it’s time to grow up. In a fresh take, Katherine Bucknell’s +1 makes the rather bold claim that the space and quiet in these neighborhoods allow an opportunity for reflection and meditation.
In Bucknell’s novel, experiencing the good life is a matter of adjusting your vision — literally. As the novel opens, middle-aged Alice Gregory is buying a pair of readers. With her youngest son off to boarding school, Alice is ready to update her outlook on life. In addition to enhancing the beauty of her surroundings, the glasses reveal some painful truths. Her husband Richard, a successful publisher, has been spending most nights in the city, and while Alice has remained willfully naive about the implications of this habit, once she puts on her glasses she must face his infidelity. And so, with a new pair of eyes, Alice begins to explore her life at middle age. She ditches the husband. She reignites an old flame. More than prompting her look at her marriage with new eyes, this perspective shift will ultimately result in her no longer needing glasses at all.
In a clever twist on the theme, Richard starts wearing Alice’s readers and we are suddenly viewing the story from his perspective. Highly intelligent, passionate, and dedicated to his work, he is the proverbial Golden Boy. We get a measured and apologetic account of why he dabbled in affairs. Through him, we witness what happens when you are left alone to sort out unresolved issues after the death of a loved one. As the point of view shifts, we experience the same events through different characters, one plus one, plus one, the stories building upon one another to create a more dynamic, perhaps more accurate, whole. These stories are all too familiar after all.
One fateful day, Alice tucks a mirror into the backseat of her car, unsecured, and sets off to deliver it to a friend. She never makes it there. Later Richard discovers pieces of the mirror scattered throughout her car, which the wrecking service found smashed into a tree. As it turns out, it was the shattered mirror that actually killed her. Myth of broken mirrors aside, a reflective object killing its onlooker is a strong metaphor. Whether it’s Alice running to the arms of an old lover and discovering that “you could fall in love again […] without ever falling out of it,” Richard’s regret over not being a better husband, or a child’s remorse for being left behind, the characters in +1 are joined in the project of self-examination.
“Speculation’ leads back to meditation,” wrote Thomas Aquinas in The Mirror. Like the glasses Richard and Alice share, the mirror symbolizes the role of reflection in our lives. Medieval thinkers used the term “mirror” to describe encyclopedias because they believed mirrors contained everything. Its contents were also subject to examination. A suburban housewife like Alice had her own mirror. It contained the reality of a life pairing mismatched socks and waiting for her unfaithful husband to come home for dinner and a life she loved filled with family, a quiet town, and space to think about love:
The real thing is just too hard for most people, she thought, the inner work of trying to understand, of waiting, of listening, of giving away time — a day, a week, the better part of a life — to someone else’s needs and desires. That’s what love is, she thought, not that crazy wrecking passion, but caring enough to cede control and let someone else decide how the moments will be spent. Bending the will, and giving over.
For Alice, bending is not defeat. The question she and countless people struggle with is how much to bend before things break. The familiar setting of suburbia with its iconic, mass-produced imagery — minivans and mom-jeans, kid’s sporting events and endless laundry — allows us focus on the inner world of the characters without distraction. One has to wonder then if it’s really suburbia we are afraid of or the quiet it affords us to meditate. Maybe Alice, in choosing to wholly embrace her suburban life, is braver than we think.
Mary Warner has contributed to Paste Magazine, Edible, Garden & Gun, and is the author of the website Coucou Home, a meandering collection of writing, interviews and images exploring how home is the intersection of design and memory.