Crafting the perfect Gothic McMansion in a 21st century novel

A review of the new novel Fallen Land suggests the McMansion at the heart of the book plays a big role:

The McMansion, that derisively nicknamed trophy home of suburban arrivistes, is different things to all people: the darling of building contractors, the forest-guzzling residential equivalent of the SUV to land preservationists.

Among American practitioners of the modern Gothic novel, the McMansion has rarely been rendered with the resplendent gloom of, say, Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, or the majesterial melancholy of Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher. In his smashing followup to his formidable debut novel “Absolution,” however, Patrick Flanery has fashioned a crumbling 21st-century manor that can hold its own among those authors’ most sepulchral, ALLEGORICAL inspirations.

The trappings of “Fallen Land’’ are pure old-school Hollywood. Imagine a housing development that evokes the splashy-cum-sinister Victorian fantasy of “Meet Me in St. Louis” and Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” and you have Dolores Woods, a Midwestern subdivision committed to a regressive aesthetic “in which the past was preferable and this country was at its greatest before it tried to tear itself apart in the middle of the nineteenth century.” The community’s pastiche array of gabled roofs and picket fences disguise the jerry-built nature of its construction: pop-up palaces whose yawning spaces and teetering infrastructure “terrify where they were meant to comfort,” the American Dream turned nightmare.

The development’s showpiece, classically enough, has been erected atop the site of tragic events from a darker epoch whose emotional undercurrents will haunt the home’s new tenants, Julia and Nathaniel Noailles. The Noailles have relocated from Boston with their smart, idiosyncratic son Copley (named for the hotel address where he was conceived) in pursuit of snazzier positions: she with a university lab, he with a mega-corporation that powers virtually every private enterprise on earth, including the fascistic private school in which Copley is newly installed.

I’ve noted before that the McMansion has become a popular tragic setting for modern stories. See this post about McMansions and horror films. The McMansion represents a hollow setting, a place that may look impressive but is empty at its core. The people who inhabit such homes are similar: people who thought purchasing a big home would bring satisfaction but are sadly mistaken. Even worse, the inhabitants – and it sounds like those in Fallen Land fit the bill – might be bad people, the kinds who squander money, are mean or amoral, and are up to nefarious purposes. All together, these stories suggest at the least that tragedies befall those in McMansions with the stronger argument that those who live in McMansions and their homes are rotten to the core.

Perhaps my argument would be strengthened by searching for counterfactuals: can we find many positive depictions of McMansion dwellers in novels, movies, TV shows, etc.?

Narratives built around the sociological “small world theory” of social networks

A review of a new novel highlights recent ideas in the sociological analysis of social networks:

In sociology, the “small world theory” holds that any two people can be connected to one another along a chain of no more than a few acquaintances (typically six, the fabled “six degrees of separation”). Though the research behind it is at best contentious, there’s something deeply appealing about its logic-defying simplicity, something exciting about what it implies. In a world that can seem vast and alienating, the idea that we’re all much closer than it seems is, at first glance, comforting. The flip side is that our influence may extend further than we realize.

In his second novel, “The Illusion of Separateness,” Simon Van Booy presents a cast of characters who have had a profound effect on one another’s lives, yet cannot see the bonds that link them. He divides his book into six separate narratives, each following a different character through different eras, from the Second World War to the present: Martin, a retirement home caretaker; Mr. Hugo, a disfigured Wehrmacht veteran; Sébastien, a lovelorn young boy; John, whose B-24 bomber is shot out of the sky over France; Amelia, a blind museum curator and John’s granddaughter; and Danny, a budding filmmaker. Van Booy presents their stories in a nonlinear fashion, shifting back and forth from character to character, decade to decade.

Van Booy’s premise — that we are all linked in ways we may not fully understand, and that our smallest actions can have a significant effect on the lives of others — is fairly banal, and its execution verges on overly sentimental. He builds to the scenes in which his characters cross paths with great ceremony, yet these intersections are the book’s weakest moments. While the plot seems to aspire to present an overarching sense of meaning, Van Booy never quite drives it home. For some, the significance is inscrutable, as when John and Mr. Hugo engage in a tense, but ultimately inconsequential standoff in a field in war-torn France. Others, like when Martin cradles the dying Mr. Hugo in the book’s opening pages, seem like contrivances meant to give the narrative the appearance of structure and meaning.

For more popular descriptions of recent sociological research on this topic, see Six Degrees by Duncan Watts, Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, and Linked by Barabasi (a physicist who covers a lot of ground).

This kind of narrative involving interweaving stories is not new. It seems to be popular in movies in the last 10-15 years – I’m thinking of films like Crash, Love Actually, and others that make use of intersecting characters. This leads to two thoughts:

1. Is this a good instance of social science discoveries, that social networks influence people without their knowledge, influencing popular culture? It could be relatively easy to track whether this is a new kind of plot or whether it has a longer history.

2. The reviewer suggests that while the author has impressive prose, the overall structure of the story is lacking. Since we do indeed live in social worlds strongly influenced by social networks, how can that be effectively translated into a compelling narrative? Going back to the movies I mentioned above, those intersecting storylines involved quite a bit of individual or small group interaction by the end of the movie. In contrast, this book seems to be going for a more disconnected set of stories. Setting up the structure of a social network narrative likely involves balancing the connections alongside the individual interactions that tend to characterize and propel narratives.

McMansions part of the “dark side” of the Midwest

A review of the work of author Gillian Flynn suggests McMansions help fill in the scene for the darker side of Midwest life:

But the novel – like the 41-year-old Flynn herself – is a deeply felt product of the midwest. The real place, not the idly dismissed fantasy image held in the minds of those too lazy to venture out into what really goes on in the American heartland. The book is set in an ailing Missouri river town on the banks of the Mississippi – the same giant waterway that inspired Mark Twain. But the town is dying, its mall crushed by an ailing economy and its McMansions crumbling at the seams. Beneath the surface glitter of the marriage of Nick and Amy Dunne, dark things lurk: secrets, hidden plans and desperation.

To anyone who knows the midwest for real, this is no surprise. This is the same region that gave us Truman Capote’s exploration of random, empty Kansas murderers in his masterful In Cold Blood. This is a place founded on the old grass prairies, whose Native American inhabitants were butchered and displaced, and whose soil was ripped up. The midwest is the Indian Creek massacre and the “dust bowl” as much as Little House on the Prairie.

Who knew the Midwest was so dark? Actually, this sort of portrayal sounds very similar to a common genre of work about suburbs that arose after World War II. Both the Midwest and suburbs might be viewed as the “heartland” or where “average” Americans go to live. (At the same time, the Midwest can’t claim the same sort of population proportions as the suburbs – now over 50% of Americans live in suburbs.) But, authors, filmmakers, artists, and musicians have frequently “exposed” the seemy underside of these places. There is no doubt that there are bad things lurking below the surface in all places so perhaps the issue here is the facade that cultural producers think too often gets portrayed as “the truth” about the Midwest and suburbs.

Overall, certain places tend to get a more noir treatment compared to others. For example, the Los Angeles School of urban scholars has argued that Los Angeles also is presented in this way – it may look like a glamorous, sunny place but there is a lot of crime and cruelty below the surface. (See the revered movie Chinatown or the TV show Dragnet.) From the perspective of the LA School, this noir treatment tells the truth as it exposes the capitalistic underpinnings that make Los Angeles both glittering and a hotbed of inequality. Should we take a similar perspective about the Midwest – it really is a place with problems that need to be revealed to the world?

Argument: Tom Wolfe’s “sociological novel” about Miami doesn’t match reality

A magazine editor from Miami argues Tom Wolfe’s latest “sociological novel” Back to Blood doesn’t tell the more complex story of what is going on today in that city:

TOM WOLFE has often declared that journalistic truth is far stranger — and narratively juicier — than fiction, a refrain he’s returned to while promoting his latest sociological novel, the Miami- focused “Back to Blood.” With cultural eyes turning to Miami for this week’s Art Basel fair, and on the heels of a presidential election in which South Florida was once again in the national spotlight, “Back to Blood” would seem a perfectly timed prism.

Yet Mr. Wolfe would have done well to better heed his own advice. The flesh-and-blood reality not only contradicts much of his fictional take, it flips the enduring conventional wisdom. Miami is no longer simply the northernmost part of Latin America, or, as some have snarked, a place filled with folks who’ve been out in the sun too long.

For Mr. Wolfe, the city remains defined by bitter ethnic divisions and steered by la lucha: the Cuban-American community’s — make that el exilio’s — frothing-at-the-mouth fixation on the Castro regime across the Florida Straits. The radio format whose beats Miami moves to isn’t Top 40, rap or even salsa, but all Fidel, all the time. It’s a crude portrait, established in the ’80s, reinforced by the spring 2000 telenovela starring Elián González, hammered home in the media by that fall’s Bush v. Gore drama and replayed with the same script every four years since.

Yet the latest data hardly depicts a monolithic Cuban-exile community marching in ideological lock step. Exit polls conducted by Bendixen & Amandi International revealed that 44 percent of Miami’s Cuban-Americans voted to re-elect President Obama last month, despite a Mitt Romney TV ad attempting to link the president with Mr. Castro. The result was not only a record high for a Democratic presidential candidate, it was also a 12 percentage-point jump over 2008.

Can a novel, even a sociological one, capture all of the nuances of a big city? Or, is a novel more about capturing a spirit or the way these complexities influence a few characters? While I do enjoy fictional works, this is why I tend to gravitate toward larger-scale studies about bigger patterns. One story or a few stories can explore nuance and more details. However, it is hard to know how much these smaller stories are representative of a larger whole. In Wolfe’s case, is his book a fair-minded view of what is taking place all across Miami or does he pick up on a few fault lines  and exceptional events?

While browsing in a bookstore the other day, I did notice an interesting book that was trying to bridge this gap: The Human Face of Big Data. On one hand, our world is becoming one where large datasets with millions of data points are the norm. With this, it may be harder and harder for novels to capture all of the patterns and trends. Yet, we don’t want to lose perspective on how this data and the resulting policies and actions affect real people.