Suburbia Rewritten : Masculinity and Affect in Contemporary American Literature

University dissertation from Uppsala

Abstract: Suburbia has made a powerful return in American literature of the past two decades. This renaissance of suburban fictional narrative bears the signum of alienated, anxious, and resentful white middle-class men in gray flannel suits that has remained since the formative postwar period of the 1950s and 1960s. However, as I show, contemporary suburban masculinities are also often marked by affects such as despair, rage, and shame. Importantly, male characters are represented as not only experiencing but also reflecting upon their emotions. This emphasis on male affective self-examination, I claim, is haunted by contemporaneous “masculinity in crisis” discourses about besiegement, victimization, and lost entitlement. I consider this emphasis part of an ongoing dialogue with the 1950s and 1960s, as new generations of writers have begun to interrogate the heritage of suburban literature and ideas about white middle-class masculinities.Investigating the dynamics between affect, male characters, and settings, I build upon the theories of Sianne Ngai’s “ugly feelings” and Peter Brooks’ propositions about modes of melodrama. I examine how representations of masculinity and affects reconfigure notions of domophobia, separate spheres, escapism, and flight from emotion, notions that have been central in masculinity studies and in literary criticism regarding the United States. To explore these revisits and reconfigurations, I survey a number of early postwar and contemporary texts. I look at the formative “postwar imaginary” that emerged in the 1950s and 60s in the texts by John Cheever, Philip Roth, Richard Yates, and John Updike, which I cast against a socio-historical and literary-critical background. I then offer a broad panoramic view of contemporary suburban fiction and focus on two case studies: Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (1994) and Joyce Carol Oates’ My Sister, My Love (2008). These two novels, I show, reconfigure fictional suburban masculinity through their focus on family relations, particularly homosocial father-and-son relationships, where father characters are retrospectively critiqued and reimagined by sons who act as narrators. The texts examined in this project indicate how certain conventional images of suburban masculinity continue to circulate but are also negotiated, interrogated, and revised in contemporary American fiction. 

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