Trouble In Paradise

Stepford, Connecticut, may not exist in the real world, but reality isn’t everything. In our collective imagination, the picket-fenced locale of Ira Levin’s classic chiller The Stepford Wives (1972) endures as the nightmare embodiment of privileged suburbia: so lovely to look at, so deadly to live in. One by one, the Stepford husbands kill off their freethinking spouses and replace them with robot duplicates programmed for that old trifecta of feminine virtues: good sex, good housekeeping and innocuous chitchat. Though Levin’s immediate goal was to satirize men’s dread of women’s equality—a testier issue in the seventies than it is now—Stepford’s symbolic longevity rests upon certain wicked ideas about the suburbs.

For years readers speculated about which Connecticut town served as Levin’s model. The favorite guess was Darien, whose rigorous social control was anything but fictitious: A “Gentiles Only” sign once stood guard on Hollow Tree Ridge Road. After a self-inflicted wound like that, Darien could hardly object to the flogging it took in Laura Z. Hobson’s 1947 best-selling novel Gentleman’s Agreement—though one character in the book informs us, “New Canaan is even stricter about Jews than Darien.”

In 2007, the year he died, Levin revealed that “the inspiration” for Stepford had in fact been Wilton, where he lived for a time in the sixties. Wilton? We in Greenwich regard Wilton, when we regard it, as entirely blameless in the malefic suburban scheme. Indeed, Wilton owns the historical distinction of having been Fairfield County’s only stop on the Underground Railroad. Still, if we try a little, we can imagine the New York-born Levin stupefied by the suburban life of that era—its intellectual conservatism, its reflexive intolerance, and its dull routines, interrupted by the odd stumbling affair. We can further imagine Levin searching the eyes of pretty corporate wives for an enlivening spark of Friedan or Steinem. Not finding it, we suspect, is what gave him his eureka.

The Stepford Wives was a hair-raising new twist on an old idea: the prosperous Connecticut suburb as a gilded cage. Though buying a decent house in towns like ours is supposed to be the ultimate sign of making it in life, the novels said that beneath the veils of golden leaves lies a wasteland of dysfunction, and a river of booze runs through it.

Stepford was the third of four influential American novels set in Fairfield County. First came The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson, published in 1955. “By the time they had lived seven years in the little house on Greentree Avenue in Westport, Connecticut, they both detested it,” goes the first line and opening salvo in fiction’s war on the Connecticut suburbs. Tom and Betsy Rath not only detest their house, but the whole of Greentree Avenue, whose up-and-comers slave away at Mad Men-like jobs by day and succor themselves with martinis and highballs by night. “The important thing is to make money,” Tom anxiously reminds himself as he sets off for the city, dressed in the gray flannel suit that is his emblem of rat-race conformity. Betsy, meanwhile, laments their marital drift: “We’ve learned to drag along from day to day without any real emotion but worry. We’ve learned to make love without passion. We’ve even learned to stop fighting together … we don’t really care enough to fight anymore, do we?”

Revolutionary Road (1961), by Richard Yates, covers similar territory: “deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs.” Frank and April Wheeler live in a fictionalized Redding, where Yates himself lived unhappily in the fifties, and where the post-war starter homes, crowding out the dignified farmhouses, looked “weightless and impermanent, as foolishly misplaced as a great many bright new toys that had been left outdoors overnight and rained on.” A dread of superficiality pervades the novel. At cocktail hour Frank rails against Conformity and The Suburbs, though he covertly takes refuge in both. “It’s like a disease,” he pontificates to his friends the Campbells. “Nobody thinks or feels or cares anymore; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity.” They would all stand around drinking and agreeing, “and the happy implication was that they alone, the four of them, were painfully alive in a drugged and dying culture.”

Revolutionary Road, the best of the novels set in Fairfield County, vanished from the literary map in the seventies and eighties, perhaps because of its extraordinary bleakness (though there’s savage humor as well). Unlike The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, this novel is a flat-out tragedy, a Madame Bovary that plays out disorientingly in suburban sitcom land. And aren’t we addicted to happy endings? Still, after a film version starring the Titanic duo of DiCaprio and Winslet popularized the novel and a great biography did the same for the late author, Revolutionary Road assumed its rightful place as an American classic.

The last book in our Big Four is Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (1994). This time we encounter family unhappiness in the New Canaan of 1973, which the author mischievously describes as “the most congenial and superficially calm of suburbs.” Of course, nothing in this New Canaan is congenial or calm: “To survive a sober afternoon was heroic. Only a state of witless inebriation was really sensible.” To some readers, Moody’s characters range from selfish to vacuous. It’s better to say they’ve learned that it’s dangerous to care—that it’s much safer to retreat into comic books and shopping and round-robin sex. “Yes, the thing to do was to relax into this deterioration,” Elena Hood thinks resignedly as the cuckolding ramps up and the intimacy crumbles. The novel’s “slovenly, affluent kids” are particularly depressing to behold (though memory tells me they’re accurately drawn), and one of them dies horribly in the literal ice storm of the title as the metaphorical ice freezes everybody in place.

The Ice Storm got Moody noticed as a worthy heir to the great suburban Johns—Cheever and Updike—but it skimmed mercifully beneath the notice of official New Canaan. At least until Ang Lee came to town to film the movie. Then the town fathers, suddenly curious, got hold of the book. “New Canaan will be depicted to the moviegoing world as a cesspool of depravity and a raunchy hotbed of illicit sex,” fumed the New Canaan Advertiser, summing up the establishment view. Others wouldn’t have minded so much if Moody had put all that sex down in Norwalk, where it belonged.

Just outside the Big Four is Ann Beattie’s Falling in Place (1980), set in “a miserable suburban purgatory” (as one reviewer put it) that happens to be, once again, Redding. Falling in Place reads like a precursor to The Ice Storm, likewise spotlighting a sad, broken family, the Knapps, in a picturesque setting. There’s even a potentially fatal accident—the Knapp boy shoots his despised sister with a gun he thinks is unloaded. Their cheated-upon mother, Louise, meanwhile summarizes most suburban fiction when she says, “It’s selling you such a bill of goods to tell you that you should get married and have a family and be secure. Jesus! What your own family will do to you.” For all the misery, Beattie’s sly humor and eye for correct detail keep the narrative percolating along. But Falling in Place falls short of the Big Four because, unlike the other novels (and unlike her own Chilly Scenes of Winter and Where You’ll Find Me), it made only minor ripples in the culture and never got the big boost from Hollywood that the other four enjoyed.

Beattie wrote Falling in Place while living in Redding in 1979. This fact adds to the vital literary history of that unassuming little town: Mark Twain spent his last couple of years there; Flannery O’Connor wrote her first novel, Wise Blood, there; and her landlord, the poet Robert Fitzgerald, translated his definitive Odyssey there. But, like Richard Yates, Beattie could hardly wait to leave. “I guess I had grown very hostile to Redding and was very upset by being there,” she confessed in 1982. “We had had more than a year of very bad times and total isolation living in this wealthy commuter community that had nothing to do with us.” Divorce ensued.

 

Why Not Greenwich?

No significant literary work has been set in Greenwich. (Some may wish to counter with The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton, a popular historical novel published in 1958. The action takes place partly in Greenwich’s founding days.) Our town flits across the pages of novels and stories by major writers like Cheever, Updike, Truman Capote, Richard Ford and Thomas Pynchon, who, in Bleeding Edge, gives the usual view: “You’re shaking, you’re whiter than Greenwich, Connecticut, on a Thursday.” (Why Thursday?) Greenwich also gets passing mentions in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a cult classic whose barfly protagonist is a failed gray flannel suit-wearer.

Michael Cunningham, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours, pays a visit to a Greenwich waterfront estate in By Nightfall: “In Greenwich, one has simply slipped over into a parallel dimension in which people are doing better, and no one here in this dimension finds that fact in any way remarkable. Making a fortune? What’s so hard about that?”

No suburban angst there. Interviewed about this novel in 2010, Cunningham touched on the problem of writing about places known for great wealth: “I just don’t feel much interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.” The difficulty in setting a serious work of fiction here is that the story very nearly demands that wealth and its trappings hog the stage, just as a story set in Beverly Hills would. It scarcely matters that plenty of “ordinary” people live in Greenwich. Its symbolic weight as a world-famous center of affluence keeps it from standing in for a traditional New England town—setting it apart even from the Ridgefields and the New Canaans among us.

Greenwich does, however, make a nifty setting for suspense novels. In the tradition of Agatha Christie, whose stories often play out amid the green splendor of English country manors, the Greenwich suspense books operate among our walled and hedged mansions. A satisfying example is Mary Higgins Clark’s We’ll Meet Again (1999), about a well-to-do Greenwich housewife accused of clubbing her husband to death with a Remington bronze. Then there’s Norb Vonnegut’s The Gods of Greenwich (2011), notable for another unique murder method: smothering by condom. This novel traffics heavily in Greenwich as “the ceremonial capital of Hedgistan,” with its “nouveau elite” of macho millionaires and their skinny, full-breasted trophy wives. (Some would say the only difference between a Stepford wife and a trophy wife is the housework.)

The late Howard Fast, author of Spartacus and The Hessian, took a more literary approach to the thriller with Greenwich (2000), but the result was disappointing. At least Fast, who lived in town, peppers his narrative with little Greenwich references, even mentioning the book exchange at the dump. Leafing through these pages, though, one sees the justice in Cunningham’s remark. It is hard to feel much for characters who are defined by their wealth. Alas, we must wait for a new Fitzgerald to give Greenwich (or its fictional analog) a grand romantic, a character who can dream big and reach big—but never quite grasp the prize.

As Cunningham’s protagonist—Peter Harris—rides Metro-North out to Greenwich, he remarks to his companion, “Hard to believe we’re half an hour from Cheever country.” Strictly speaking, Fairfield County isn’t Cheever Country. Cheever’s short stories were usually set in two fictional suburbs in northern Westchester, Shady Hill and Bullet Park. But they sure do feel like Connecticut, these towns; and indeed when Hollywood filmed “The Swimmer,” it did so in Westport. (In this famously eerie story, Neddy Merrill swims home from a friend’s house pool by pool, but at the same time swims into a later season in his life, in which everything has mysteriously decayed, including his social standing: “The bartender served him but served him rudely.”)

 

Allure Of The Burbs

The towns of our fair county became so identified with anxiety, sin and woe that academics wrote papers with titles like “After Auschwitz, Connecticut?” The idea behind that title was not to compare the relative horrors of those two places, thank heaven, but to denote a shift in literary focus. The war was over. What would happen next, as we resumed our pursuit of happiness? As it turned out, Americans were tired of merely getting by after fifteen years of depression and death. They wanted abundance. They wanted clean-lined new homes in pleasant neighborhoods, they wanted Ford Country Squires with power steering, they wanted Zenith TVs and Sunbeam mixers and Foodarama fridges. And they wanted it all within striking range of the corporate jobs that made the good life possible.

Cultural artifacts like the Nelsons and the Cleavers and the Comics Code Authority spoke of suburban order and decency, but also of a reality so whitewashed that even the threat of nuclear incineration inspired a cute jingle. (It advised school children to “duck—and cover” because an A-bomb could “knock you down hard.”) Protesting the artificial tenor of the age, Yates’s Frank Wheeler says, “It’s as if everybody’s made this tacit agreement to live in a state of total self-deception.”

The novelists, beginning with J. D. Salinger and his “phony” obsessed Holden Caulfied, offered a realistic counterpoint. They may have gone a little overboard. Among our Big Four novels, early death haunts all but The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. As that book closes, Tom and Betsy have reconciled after a bitter fight, and they’re about to escape the Fairfield County razzle-dazzle for a week’s stay in Vermont. So they live happily ever after… right? In 1984 Sloan Wilson wrote a passable sequel that nevertheless made his fans groan: Tom takes up with a younger woman and divorces the admirable Betsy. Only when Tom leaves Fairfield County for Manhattan does he find happiness again.

What is it about suburban Connecticut? Why is it literature’s land of spiritual death? Is the idea really to suggest that there’s something nasty and destructive about living here? Well, the old cocktail culture did seem to lead, as Jonathan Franzen writes, to “ugly fights” followed by “desperate or despairing sex.” By the seventies our spirits were dulled further by a junk-tide of consumerism that thrived amid affluence. It’s worth noting that the Moody and Beattie characters are preoccupied with the ephemera of their times—comics books, martial arts movies, pop songs—and the Levin women are preoccupied with cleaning products. These 70s Connecticuters, unlike their 50s counterparts, are bored, adrift and almost devoid of passion and energy. (A notable exception is doomed Stepford wife Joanna Eberhart.)

But the real problem these novels identify is not about Connecticut. It’s about our modern conception of the American Dream. Over generations, the Dream gradually morphed from a religious ideal (John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill”), into a pursuit of happiness and its fruits (a plot of land, a house), to, finally, an avarice-tinged “having it all” (culture as a big box store). Our literature reflected that change. Once upon a time, many of our great books centered on an epic quest, as in Moby-Dick or Huckleberry Finn. (Our other great literary stream addressed manners and mores.) Now we get a lot of novels about people who feel miserably, if comfortably, stuck in place. Kathryn Knapp, an English professor at University of Connecticut and an authority on suburban literature, has observed, “[T]he protagonist of the suburban novel has completed his quest, survived his trial, and now lives in the land of happily ever after. … Yet he is nevertheless still unfulfilled.”

If a writer is going to expose the American Dream as hollow, as any dream predicated on relentless materialism must be, it makes sense to set his story in Fairfield County. Not only are we geographically correct as suburbs at the center of the universe, but our physical opulence lends the vital contrast to the spiritual decay that these novels call to task.

It’s been twenty years since the publication of the last important novel set in Fairfield County. Though this might suggest that suburban themes have grown tired, the truth is we’ve seen a massive renewal of them in books like Franzen’s The Corrections (set mainly outside St. Louis), Tom Perrotta’s Little Children (outside Boston), Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (outside Detroit) and A. M. Homes’s Music for Torching (Westchester), not to mention films and TV shows like Pleasantville, American Beauty, The Sopranos and Mad Men.

Regarding the last, an interesting thing happens when a comedian named Jimmy Barrett greets the show’s lead character, Don Draper, as “the man in the gray flannel suit.” Draper knocks him out cold.

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