My first glimpse that something was deep wrong in America came while driving across it. It wasn’t the bullet holes in the door or blood covered sink in Kalamazoo. It wasn’t even the incredible parched surface of the drought stricken Midwest, where heavy machines ploughed useless dead wheat back into the dirt, and earth born again as an alien plant inhospitable to human life. Those things were real. And American reality has always been haunted, violent, and terrible. The problem was in the fantasy. In the fantastic America.
I’d always pictured driving across America in a certain way. Nothing so glamourous or exiting as a Beatnik road adventure but still a fantasy. I thought the food would be good. After all, America was built for the road. Without even trying to imagine it, I’d always believed there’d be an assortment of burger joints, hot dog stands, rib-spots, and strong coffee served at truck-stops. You can probably imagine the sort of places I pictured. Quirky little feats of architecture. Diners where the waitress calls you “hon.” Independent operators. Good grub. Big servings.
Those places do exist. Rarer every day but they are out there. I’ve been to them. But along the I-80? No. Along the I-80 it’s the same thing again and again and again. Fast food. Chain motel and meth-head parking lot. Corporate gas station. The same service center again. Again. Repeated on a loop from Michigan to California. Again and again. A constant return to the same place. Every time, more tired, more frayed and sketchy. More worn out from the same hamburgers. More tired from the same motels. More on edge from the same energy drinks. And here we are again. In the same place. Again and again. The skin wears off.
The American road fantasy was as parched as those wheat fields. Dead. Gone. Still there.
I hadn’t thought about this for a while. But thanks to the charity of a friend, I’ve been able to catch up on some TV. I’ve finally been able to see Twin Peaks, The Return.
It might be the best TV show I’ve ever seen. Even before I’d finished the series, I’d watched Episode 8 three times. If it were up to me, there would be whole channels of television that were like that episode. Just ambient dream channels. That would be most of TV.
I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds of why I liked the show so much or all the things I think it did so well. And, I should be clear, I’m not even a huge David Lynch fan. I like some of his stuff a great deal and other things I’ve just never been able to really get into. I love the original Twin Peaks, I like Blue Velvet, and The Elephant Man is pretty damn good too. That thing were he talks to the monkey on Netflix makes me laugh. I do think he has a really special set of skills. When it works for me, it works so well. There’s nothing like it.
The thing I want to talk a little bit about is the show’s sense of the American suburb. It’s not my favorite thing about the show (not sure I have one) or even what I think the show did best, but it’s one that resonates with me. That might be because it’s a sense of it that I tried to capture in some of the books I wrote while in California. You’ll never read these books. They’ll never be published. That might be for the best. I mean, my agent read them and then he fired me so, well, that’s the sort of thing that gives a person some pause. God knows, it sent me into a hot shed to drink a cold beer, listen to Johnny Cash, and think.
The sense is –and I’m not totally sure how he accomplishes this– is that the suburb feels both abandoned and fortified. It’s like a set. Unreal. Then sudden explosions of incredible violence. A neighbor you never see. Their house suddenly raided by police. A shootout. A weird Thomas Kinkade energy to the whole thing. Houses without humans. Stand outside on a hot Sacramento day and it’s bright and clear and hot and no one is there. Just the loud hum of air conditioners. It all feels inhuman. And it’s gone sinister.
I’d never lived in a suburb before California. I was raised in the country, then in a village, then at 18 I moved to the city. To me, the suburbs felt what I imagine living in Soviet bloc housing must have felt like a decade after the fall of communism. Like living in an abandoned monument to a dead dream. I’d heard that many of the houses made money by allowing porn shoots. Others were just called ‘ho-houses’ and others ‘dope houses.’ You can imagine what happened in there and in there was about every third house. Every time I raked my lawn, I’d find empty plastic drug bags. Never really saw where they came from. Come home, there might be a single high heel shoe and purse in my driveway. For some reason. It just remained a mystery.
Suburbs are often thought of as affluent places. Now, one I lived in wasn’t like that. It was blue collar. A sort of base level for the American Dream. Hollowed out by 2008. But I knew people who lived in more moneyed suburbs. And while their neighborhoods felt less like occupied territories and more like fortified management zones, they were under lockdown due to GUNMAN ON THE LOOSE just as often as we were. Maybe more.
There’s a sort of longstanding narrative trope about the suburbs They’re places where there’s a sort of oppressive conformity on the surface and a deep yet materialistic perversion below the appearance. Ballard did a lot of stuff like that, I think, but the trope is pretty widespread and, I think, predates him by quite a ways. It’s a lot of noir, Stepford Wives, Desperate Housewives, and just a bunch of fiction. It’s all sort of Peyton Place.
But The Return seems to get that the appearance is gone. Or different. That the neighborhoods themselves no longer look desirable. They look unhuman and unoccupied. There’s no keeping up appearances because there’s no one even looking. It’s a psychotic and paranoid zone where everyone had retreated deep inside. A place where people can only communicate with each other through violence. It’s all borders and isolation.
To be sure, Twin Peaks has its fantastic and surreal elements. But The Return is solidly grounded in truth. It’s not dealing with obsolete narrative tropes. It’s grounded. It’s the actual psychic terrain. And that’s the sort of science fiction or, Satan help me, “art” that I like. I can’t pretend to do it near as well as Lynch but it’s what I try to do. I don’t give a shit about predicting how things will be in the future, I only want to capture some of how things feel in the present. Speculative elements are often required. A more talented writer could probably do without them. I can’t. Nor can I sell any of it. But, I’m fucking thrilled someone can.
And it’s awesome to see it on TV. To see TV that expands the possible.
It’s unusual to see anything like The Return on television. I think a lot of that is because to get something on TV, even to get something published, you have to be able to pitch it like “this is like _____ meets ____.” But so much of ____ is just so fucking obsolete.
And fiction is stuck using obsolete methods to communicate with dead tropes. It just keeps bringing us back to the same fucking place. Again and again. And again.