Suburbia: The Unspeakable Peril in the Everyday

All this thinking about the dangers of suburbia reminds me of a passage from Joan Didion’s great 1970 novel Play It As It Lays. Maria Wyeth, the washed-up, strung-out actress in the novel exists in a near catatonic state.

For days during the rain she did not speak out loud or read a newspaper. She could not read newspapers because certain stories leapt at her from the page: the four-year-olds in the abandoned refrigerator, the tea party with Purex, the infant in the driveway, rattlesnake in the playpen, the peril, unspeakable peril, in the everyday. (Play It As It Lays, pp. 99-100)

This peril in the everyday is the ghost anxiety that haunts many of the signs in my subdivision. Notice in how many of them children are at risk.

Because her own child is somehow brain damaged — and she aborts another fetus — Maria keys into this societal fear of children at risk. But she (ironically, considering her decidedly non-nurturing lifestyle) localizes the fear as a mother’s concern for her child, thereby depoliticizing what I see as a symptom of larger social anxieties:

She grew faint as the processions swept before her, the children alive when last scolded, dead when next seen, the children in the locked car burning, the little faces, helpless screams. The mothers were always reported to be under sedation. In the whole world there was not as much sedation as there was instantaneous peril. (Play It As It Lays, p. 100)

Instantaneous peril, or at least the imagined threat of instantaneous peril, what role does it play in our lives? In our decision-making? In our policies and politics, both locally, here in my own subdivision, and nationally, in an America where our greatest living enemy is supposedly some intangible capital-T Terror?