Suburban Blight


When was the last time you read a story in which something good happened in the suburbs? It seems to be a common, almost universal, tactic in American literature to depict the suburbs as a duplicitous world where a safe, materialistic, blandly cheerful surface conceals a dark secret life of deviations and infidelities. Julia Slavin pushes this theme to surreal extremes in her collection The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club. Her suburbanites do not merely break rules of propriety; they defy nature and logic as well.

In these stories metaphors become physical realities: a nature lover has an affair with a tree, an infatuated housewife ingests her lawn boy, a man in a disintegrating relationship literally falls to pieces. Slavin’s setups are clever, verging on precious, and her stories take outlandish twists. But most of them are rescued from gimmickry by their grounding in familiar human fears and preoccupations. At heart they are driven by the simplest of emotions: jealousy, loneliness, boredom, the desire to have children and to protect them.

In the first story, “Swallowed Whole,” Slavin lulls the reader with familiarity before embarking on fantastic flights. She locates the story in a world so mundane she hardly needs to describe it. A barely sketched outline suffices: middle-class suburb, bored housewife, teenage boy mowing the lawn— the reader knows a tryst must be only paragraphs away. But rather than simply seducing the boy, the narrator swallows him and then continues their relationship with him inside her. This conceit is strange and funny in itself, but Slavin expands it far beyond a simple lust-equals-consumption formula, exploring swallowing from unusual angles. For example, the narrator is trying to get pregnant and is taking fertility drugs, and she mentions “a bulimarexia period in college,” making the act of eating, of taking something into the body, fraught with implications. It can suggest both sexual love and a nurturing love, the desire to bear children; conversely it can be an act of violence and self-abuse.

Slavin toys with the reader’s expectations by playing up conventions and then slyly undermining them. “Swallowed Whole” begins, “There’s a way young skin looks that no amount of plastic surgery can recapture.” The first part of the sentence suggests that this story will be a nostalgia piece, a wistful look back at lost youth, but the second half quickly deflates that romanticism, cynically reminding us that the most surefire way to recapture youth is through a face-lift.

“Dentaphilia,” “Covered,” “Blighted,” “He Came Apart,” and the title story are all variations on a theme introduced in the first story. Love is made tangible; it is manifested as a physical object or condition. It takes the form of teeth sprouting all over the body, spontaneous bodily disintegration, or a persistent security blanket. The bittersweet irony of these stories lies in the revelation that love reduced to a simple physical state is just as complicated, painful, and difficult as love in its evanescent form.

The story that gives the collection its awkward title is a warped take on the exclusive-beachfront-community genre. The opening sentence, “Word spread down East Beach that a woman had cut off her foot in front of the Maidstone Club,” tweaks Chekhov’s famous opener: “They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.” Slavin’s story takes place in a sort of Cheever country inflated to farcical extremes, complete with ludicrously
ultra-WASPy names like Pasty Pugh, Maisie Haselkorn, and Minty Serk. The athletic, privileged Maisie falls in love with an invader, a hairy businessman with an ethnic name, and her forbidden love is manifested as a susceptibility to mosquito bites. He later deserts her, and she is driven to cut off her infected limb and fling it into the sea. The story has an engaging, humorous windup, but falters on the follow-through, its absurdity undermining Slavin’s subtler points about race and class. A few other stories share this weakness. Slavin’s physicalized metaphors occasionally become unwieldy, and rather than resolve them she simply gets rid of them through death, disintegration, disappearance, or an abrupt conclusion.

Mostly, though, the clever farce and fairy-tale twists keep the stories sparkling on the surface, and the human preoccupations lurking underneath give them depth and an uncanny accessibility. One of the most affecting stories, “Pudding,” does not rely on fantastic tricks. It’s the story of a family threatened on all sides by the instabilities and accidents of the everyday world. The children are beset by infected piercings, dangerous cookie cutters, venereal diseases; the parents take CPR classes to arm themselves against disaster; the mother considers infidelity; the unspoken tensions between husband and wife congeal like the months-old pudding stain on the floor. Slavin depicts both the family’s fragility and its resiliency, held in a tenuous balance.

A sense of menace pervades all the stories, a view of society similar to Don DeLillo’s all-encompassing paranoia. The suburbs are not immune to the troubles of the outside world. In one story a character observes: “It’s always the joggers who find something bad. They’ve become our disaster scouts, the shock messengers of the metro page.” The fear of invasion and infestation is an inherent part of the suburban universe. Slavin’s characters try to insulate themselves by baby-proofing their homes, learning the Heimlich maneuver, refusing to go outdoors. But attempts at isolation prove futile. Life and love persistently impose themselves on characters, unbidden, like infectious diseases.