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June 6, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Remaining here too long

My experience of suburban living is coloured by the necessity of the commute. Suburbia compartmentalises the domestic and private from the public, the urban, and, ideally, the political; the suburb is the space in which actions are governed foremost by the values of the family. What happens, then, is that the suburban dweller is forced each day to return from their place of work (or play) to the physical site of the “family”, where their role as father, mother, daughter, son, brother, or sister solidifies over the years to a suffocating degree. It’s why coming home for Christmas can be so grating for some; suburbia means family, family means oppression, oppression craves escape. It seems to me that the need (which evolves, through habit, into longing) for commute — the daily reprieve from the constraints of suburbia — can elaborate into the concepts of travel and the “holiday away”.

I’m travelling at the moment; you could call it a holiday. I’m visiting my sister. In my view, short stories or novellas are best for travel reading because their brevity means that the journey on the page will not outlive your journey on the road, across the sea, or through the sky. It’s also preferable that the stories you read are not overly moving, otherwise it’s too easy to find yourself, while flying over Mongolia at 2.00am, grieving the death of Bazarov in the reading light of a Boeing 777. John Cheever is who I would most recommend to travellers. There is the cool, balanced tone of his writing, the charming contrivance of the formula underpinning his narrative trajectories, and the sardonic yet tender treatment of characters who, for all the comfort of their quotidian lifestyles, are consistently struck dumb by existential dread.

I read Cheever’s “The Country Husband” on the plane out of Brisbane. The story begins with the protagonist, Francis Weed, getting caught in a plane crash which he survives. Later, he can’t seem to convey the gravity of what he has been through, and he finds that others are not really interested. I’m not sure myself how to express what I have experienced while “away” to those who belong to my “ordinary life”. Generally, I don’t like to be asked how a trip has been for this reason. Francis, after struggling to assimilate his experience with his suburban existence, goes to therapy. Life goes on. My time away from Wellington becomes suddenly blank and meaningless whenever I’m asked what I have been up to or where I have been. There’s a mental divide I don’t know how to cross between life at home and life away.

Cheever frequently returns to the domestic and suburban. Many people I know have an aversion towards suburbia, perhaps relating it to deathless summer breaks during which they learned to sicken at the sight of rows of houses — the fortunate homes are empty, while the occupied are those belonging to parents whose mortgages likely made travel unfeasible that year.  I’ve never had much of a “travel bug”. I grew up in the suburbs, and the concept of the “holiday away”, which in my Papa’s mind offered a goal to direct his yearning toward, struck me as depressing. The “holiday away” seemed to boil down to the illusion that life is especially wonderful when it is not your life, when it is “out of the ordinary.”

I read “The Hartleys” in 2015 over breakfast, and I give it a quick skim again in transit to Singapore. The Hartley’s bicker throughout their vacation in the mountains, and it seems that the story will culminate in divorce, but instead their little daughter has her neck broken. She dies. We take holidays away from our “ordinary lives”, but if all we’re looking for is escape from predictability, then really trauma can serve the same purpose. Cheever’s use of violence might seem to briefly trivialise domestic issues, making it feel as though the biggest (and ultimately trifling) problem of domestic life is simply boredom with ourselves and with one another. Then again, if boredom is so insignificant, why should people pay thousands of dollars to vacation? We risk our lives in the air, we bear the possibility of being robbed, kidnapped, killed, or lost in a foreign place just to stave the boredom off. Wedged between two people watching Family Guy on the plane, I am enthralled and horrified anew when the little Hartley girl is dragged up the mountain and crushed before the screaming crowd under the iron wheel of the ski tow.

The street where I spent my childhood was called Riverside Drive. It looked much like the name suggests; to one side, a river; to the other, houses; down the centre, a road. I used to throw bottles with messages into the river, and altogether I probably threw at least twenty bottles down the current. The messages were part of one make-believe world of mine, and if all were collected together, the finder would have something like a narrative, complete with a dragon and treasure. With only one or a few parts, however, they may have ended up following a map to nowhere, or looking for a non-existent lost sailor. I think of travel in the same way; incomplete experience.

I encountered “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin” as part of a course on literary criticism, and I revisit it in London where a screen reports that there has been a bombing in Manchester. In the story, the narrator, a traveller returning home to America, encounters graffiti writing in mens’ bathrooms which is more complex than expected, and he proceeds to mull over the implications of this newfound sophistication in toilet scrawl. The feeling I get while reading this in London is similar to the sensation I encounter later in Hamburg, where I am unable to decipher a ticket booth’s instructions. A line of Germans grows impatient with my lack of fluency in such a mundane task.

It’s 12.42am in Bremen. My sister, her partner Christoph, and their newborn Theodore, have gone to bed. The suburb where they live is only a 15 minute walk to the city in the summer, though this time quadruples in the winter when frost covers the cobblestone. A day from now I’ll need to catch a train to Prague where, my sister tells me, I need to be very careful, because it’s a crime ridden place. My time here has been calm and lovely, but, as is always the case, I find myself, locked in by my sister’s presence, playing a part of myself that has been redundant for years now. I don’t feel like leaving, but neither do I feel like remaining here too long where this new family is just beginning to establish itself.


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