Suburban Gothic

Cal posted the other day about getting into the Hutt groove. It’s been playing on my mind, too, as I settle back into the neighbourhood of my yoof. I can feel old channels reopening, old patterns reigniting. Leafy streets and low garden walls and drawn curtains and the line of the hills. Older marrieds, high schoolers. Empty streets after dark. The feeling that everything is one step back from view.

Suburbs work out community differently, spacing everyone out, reducing the social importance of physical proximity. Freedom to grow each plot of land in a different way; people do. Lots of worlds unhindered.

We don’t stop at the skin. We’re networked, social, contextual. Our environment is part of who and what we are. Suburbs shape a particular imagination. Curious, respectful, measured, gothic. Vast tracts of surface calm, punctuated by moments of upheaval which quickly sink from view. Intrusions from unstable worlds. The suburbs encourage an imaginative structure where causality is concealed, even impenetrable. Where the observer cannot uncover the web of connections that would make sense of an event. I’m reading ‘The Big Sleep’ right now, and Chandler’s detective stories are chronicles of the big city. There, the fundamental principle is that of overlap, of constant surface tension, the precise opposite of the suburban reality.

The first novel I wrote, “in move”, was set in the world I knew best: the Hutt Valley, mid-90s, teenage boys. (Brian maintains it should be titled “Hutt Boys”.) It’s intensely autobiographical in the sense that it captures the emotional truth I felt growing up here. Looking back on it now, after over a decade away from here, I can see more clearly how it also captures the place. The logic of that novel is essentially suburban. The four central characters are all sealed in their own impenetrable, unstable worlds, and the story is about what happens when they are forced to cross boundaries and negotiate new alignments. The story wouldn’t work in a different environment.

It’s good to be back. I know how this works, I know how my creative energy plays out in this space, I know how the hills look in the morning. I’m excited to see what we can reach.

6 thoughts on “Suburban Gothic”

  1. I find that the movie Edward Scissorhands and the TV show Desperate Housewives contain a lot of suburban inspiration, story-wise.

  2. J G Ballard was a long-time suburb dweller (in Shepperton). From the obituary written by Bea Ballard, his daughter:

    After the success of the Steven Spielberg film of Empire of the Sun, he could have moved from Shepperton to a bigger house somewhere smarter. But he stayed there to the end because he’d been happy there and because the place was fertile for his writing: he felt the suburbs were much more significant as an indicator of contemporary society than some smart dining room in Notting Hill or Hampstead.


  3. I’ve found that the suburban experience in NZ to be an interesting beast in comparison to that in North America. Whereas back home there is a tendency for front yards to always fully be open and unfenced (so as to best show off how much someone has spent on their home) here there are tonnes of high fences to ensure that the owners have full use of every inch of space available. Any also privacy. Or maybe that’s just Aucklanders wanting to hide from each other.

    BTW, is there a preferred Hutt? I ask as the possibility still exists of a move down in the coming year and I want to know where’s a good place that one can get some space and not feel surrounded by neighbours (basically somewhere that isn’t Central Wellington).

  4. You forgot when we were house mates in the Hutt for awhile. All you were doing was writing and doing scientific experiments on how Alligators psychologically torment your mother…

    Those were fine days indeed.

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