Suzanne Berne won the 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction with her debut, A Crime in the Neighborhood, the shocking story of a young boy’s molestation and murder in a Washington suburb in the 1970s. With her latest novel, The Dogs of Littlefield, she’s back in the suburbs again, this time in Massachusetts. A poised study of contemporary middle-class discontent, the novel is a welcome addition to the ever-expanding genre of the American domestic novel. I begin by asking what attracts her (and so many contemporary writers) to such themes.
“Perhaps so many contemporary American writers write about modern middle-class families because a lot of us belong to that group ourselves and we’re immersed in its complexities and contradictions. Novelists also like to focus on characters who are at risk in some way, and I’d say right now the modern, middle-class American family seems quite at risk. Especially when it comes to aspirations. It used to seem reasonable, for instance, to hope for something more than whatever you had, whether it was a better job or a better neighbourhood or a nice retirement village on a golf course in Florida – or at least to hope your children could attain those things. But these days ‘something more’ seems increasingly out of reach. The bewilderment and disequilibrium that has accompanied this shift is very compelling.”
The suburban setting is a key element of this genre (named by the Wall Street Journal as one of the ten best places to live in America, the picturesque, sleepy town of Littlefield ticks all the family-friendly middle-class East Coast suburban boxes – home to college professors, psychologists and educated professionals; great schools; and a quaint village centre), but behind the white picket fences and kempt family homes lurks “a black forest crawling with beasts and creatures, phantoms and monsters”. Somebody is poisoning the local dogs – taking the protest against the proposed ‘off-leash’ section of the town’s Baldwin Park into their own hands – and the residents, with their crumbling marriages, precarious employment situations, and general ennui, already “balanced on the blade edge of disaster”, are now constantly looking over their shoulders, “thinking something prowled in every shadow”. This middle-class discontent is an American literary tradition we can trace back to the novels of Yates and Cheever, if not earlier, yet it remains as compelling as ever. Why do you think this is?
“To me, the American suburbs are an ideal dramatic landscape: they’re often very lovely-looking, with lots of trees and well-kept houses, each mown lawn flowing into the next, as if everyone lives in a bucolic, democratic ideal, one enormous park. And yet behind every gleaming doorknocker is a little knot of human beings struggling with problems. Difficult children, professional failures, substance abuse, illness, disability, mental disorders, financial setbacks, infidelities. All the normal snakes that slither into life, but in this case, they’re slithering around a leafy paradise, where everyone else seems to be so happy. A kind of cognitive dissonance that makes the unhappy feel lonelier than ever. Dissonance is profoundly useful to the novelist because it’s so worrisome to the reader; in this case, it’s the contradiction that lies between a sensible and composed exterior – such as most of us try to present to the world, and which the suburbs epitomise – and a chaotic and weird interior, which everyone experiences during times of stress. The harder a character tries to cling to a ‘normal’ appearance amid inner disturbance, the higher the tension.”
Do you see The Dogs of Littlefield (and, indeed, your previous novels) as self-consciously part of this literary heritage?
“When I’m working on a novel, I’m not aware of following any sort of literary tradition – to me, the story seems genre-less, its own entity, which allows for the most freedom when it comes to creating characters and situations. But yes, I’m sure my novels, particularly the first and the most recent one, fit into a category I’ve heard described as Suburban Pastoral. And I like the idea of being part of a literary heritage – it’s like chiming in on a long and involved conversation.”
We have this idea of the novelist as observer and documenter – someone who watches the world around them then distils the essence of what they see into their fiction. As I read the novel, I couldn’t help but keep thinking of Clarice Watkins, the sociologist who arrives in the town to study the inhabitants and through whose eyes we see much of the drama unfolding, as something of a ‘novelist’. So much of her work is about imposing a narrative onto the events of the town and the lives of her subjects – I’m thinking here, of course, particularly about her proposed monograph with its ‘case study’ chapter on Littlefield resident Margaret Downing. Can you explain a little about your thoughts behind Clarice’s character and the role she plays in the narrative? At what point, if ever, did you realise the importance of featuring an ‘outsider’ in the novel?
“Clarice came about because I wanted to write a social comedy about menace and I needed a character who could observe other characters acting out as a result of real or perceived threats to themselves and their community. The inhabitants of Littlefield don’t have enough objectivity to comment on their own behaviour. So when I began thinking what kind of character could be objective – or at least would think of herself as objective – both an outsider and a social scientist came to mind. And I thought it was a funny idea, a sociocultural anthropologist coming to study a suburban town where everyone takes yoga classes and worries about their children’s SAT scores. I hadn’t conceived of Clarice as a kind of novelist, but you’re right, she is imposing a narrative on the town and its inhabitants by trying to use them to prove a theory – though in the end she fails to write her monograph, which I see as a triumph of moral intellect. As soon as you try to make ‘real’ people correspond to an idea you have of them, you wind up oversimplifying them, which is why, as Clarice finally admits, her findings in Littlefield are too ‘problematic’ for a monograph.”
The Dogs of Littlefield is set in your home state of Massachusetts, so how much of the novel is based on your own social observation? Do you see yourself as a sort of Clarice Watkins, and to what extent are you inspired by the people and places around you? Where does reality end and fiction begin?
“The whole novel is based on my social observations, but that doesn’t mean the story is ‘true’, in that you could locate people who correspond to characters in the book. Comic novels require amplification, and I’d say mine amplifies the self-absorption and insecurities you might find among families in suburban America. On the other hand, most of us are self-absorbed and insecure, at least to some extent, so while I put a suburban New England town under the microscope here, I don’t feel I was confining my observations to suburbanites. For instance, something that I find both poignant and fascinating and is, to some degree, a corollary of self-absorption, is how little we know about what goes on inside of other people. You can live with someone for years, like Margaret and Bill in my novel, and make entirely wrong assumptions about that person. Chekhov said: ‘the personal life of every individual is based on secrecy,’ which if you agree with him means that we are all of us, every day, surrounded by mysteries.”
You rather wonderfully describe the residents of Littlefield as being “strangely infatuated with the idea of menace” – something that surprises Clarice as, compared with her previous case study of an inner-city neighbourhood of Mexico City, she assumes these wealthy Littlefieldians would be balanced, happy people. I read the novel as a collective outbreak of hysteria – neuroses borne out of too much comfort, something akin to that suffered by the drawing room-confined middle-class women in turn of the century Vienna treated by Freud. Do you think that’s a valid interpretation?
“I certainly tried to invoke the ghost of Freud at various points in the story, but hadn’t considered the drawing-room hysteria of late-18th-century Viennese ladies. The inhabitants of Littlefield may resemble those women in having too much time on their hands, and in paying too much attention to small disturbances as a result, but they seem more like social tuning forks to me. Their relative comfort allows them enough emotional bandwidth to pick up all sorts of menacing vibrations from an uneasy, unstable world – though they may register those vibrations as coming from down the block. As for collective hysteria, that seems like a rather apt description of the current American political system.”
Do you think the real world is as full of such deep discontent, anger and fear as that of Littlefield and the psyches of its inhabitants?
“Well, since I just mentioned the political situation in America, I’d have to say yes, at least here. Our economy is unstable. Washington is a partisan nightmare. People have been shooting children in our schools. Climate change is threatening our coastline. We live in dread of another terrorist attack. The feeling that something is out there, waiting to get you, is pretty common these days, and not just in Littlefield.”
Are you working on anything new right now? Do you think you might stay in suburbia for your next novel or switch settings?
“The novel I’m working on now has three different settings: the woods of northern New Hampshire, rural Virginia in the 1960s, and Amsterdam in 1944. So I guess I’ve left suburbia behind – for the moment.”