The suburbs are supposed to be safety incarnate. Originally, they were more closely associated with urban areas, though removed from the inner city where everyone lives so close together, where anything can happen. As the suburbs pushed out farther and farther, as their design plans rejected grids for labyrinths ending in cul-de-sacs, they became their own domain. Sure, the name is suburb, but the idea for so many, the attitude was different: superurbia. Not sub, not less than, not below; super, greater than, above. No one goes downtown anymore. And why would they when we have everything you can imagine here.
Aimee Parkison, in her superb story collection, Suburban Death Project, points out that these winding, maze-like streets may not be as safe as you think because, sure, everything you can imagine may be here, but so is death. Thanks to the (supposed) inherent safety of the suburbs, though, no one is able to deal with this inevitability.
For instance, in “The Mushroom Suit,” the very young narrator, Gillian, wants a traditional funeral for her husband, David, with an open coffin and a preserved corpse. She doesn’t expect this desire will be the least bit problematic. Well, until her husband’s parents inform her that David had been part of something called the Suburban Death Project, which eschews toxic embalming chemicals for a more nature-friendly style of decomposition that allows our bodies to enrich the soil and feed plants. To Gillian, and likely to many of us, this plan sounds outrageous, seeing as how the mushroom suit of the title is set to devour her husband’s body, instead of giving her what she really wants: the illusion that David is still alive. The idea here is that our undertaking practices are firmly rooted in the delusion that nothing bad will ever happen, that even in death we won’t look quite so dead, no, and if the deceased would stop being such a bum, he’d finally jump out of the box and join us, his joke being the only thing that isn’t aging very well. In life, David used to play a kind of Harold and Maude (1971) game where he’d pretend to be dead. Gillian, however, just laughed and laughed and laughed, never quite learning what was definitely going to come.
If Gillian’s response to death seems idiosyncratic, based purely in youth, throughout Suburban Death Project, Parkison gives us characters who are willing to go to great lengths to protect the sanctity of their cul-de-sacs, no matter their age. In “Abandoned Nest,” the narrator is raped and never tells anyone because she fears the repercussions: “What good did it do to report crimes? The neighborhood was a living thing. Every assault altered the landscape. Quiet could protect it.” Suburbanites are also in denial about violence, then, especially violence against women. Sometimes this violence is revealed quickly, as is the case in “Abandoned Nest,” while other times it’s incorporated into a folk tale.
“What Goes on Near the Water” and “Longtime Passing” both take on the mantle of the folk tale by transforming female pain into darkly magical stories. In the former, the legend is of a character named Lighthouse Girl:
I don’t like to think about what he says, don’t believe when he says the girl in the lighthouse ran away from home and is hiding in the lighthouse. The things her family did to her are so horrific she’s afraid to speak to anyone or to come out of hiding. In case they might find her and take her back home again.
In the latter, the legendary figure is the Woman of Echoes, who lives in a dark tunnel the main characters went to when they were children:
As young girls angry for reasons we didn’t understand, we screamed obscenities into the tunnel all during our childhood on the ranch […] releasing emotions too dark for us to process. “You evil bitch!” […] “You monster! Get out of here! Why are you hiding from us? We know what you’ve done. We know what happened to you. Show yourself!”
Although it’s true that lessons can be learned from folk tales, those lessons often back the power structure that already exists. Furthermore, just about everyone who’s ever been told a story with a lesson in it thinks that lesson is for someone else. So Parkison dismantles the folk tale form to show us how we use narratives to cover up the pain and violence experienced by women, thinking such fictions could never actually happen. Or if they do, then the person deserved it. This dismantling is most evident in “What Goes on Near the Water,” since the piece, at one point, presents us with the various iterations of Lighthouse Girl. But Parkison constantly finds ways to unnerve us, never allowing us to retreat into delusion or illusion.
Along with being ignorant of or in denial of death and violence against women, Parkison reminds us that suburban expansion was, at one time, called White Flight, meaning the denizens of the cul-de-sac are often ignorant of how life is lived anywhere else. Elena, a one-time beauty queen and wife of a cartel boss, in “The Shadow Family,” then, becomes the nanny who educates a family in Georgia:
Unlike decades of church sermons on the saving grace of the Christian god, [Elena] opened the eyes of the Lyon family. For the first time, the men, women, and children finally saw each other as they really were. Elena gave the Lyons the gift of perspective. Through fear and wisdom, the Lyons sensed that gift was bought with blood.
But then the suburbanites in Parkison’s stories aren’t completely ignorant of the lies they’ve been fed. Sensing that something is missing, many of the characters reach out to nature, often clumsily, in order to find that which will anchor them to the world. In “Theatrum Insectorum,” “The Ambassador Owl,” and “Ducky,” the protagonists attempt to forge relationships with animals to make their lives more natural. Of these, my favorite is “The Ambassador Owl,” where Jace, an ex-fisherman who has lost his legs to diabetes, begins fishing for owls in the sky. Claiming “Everyone needs to invent a new game or to find a game to make life worth living, or else we die,” Jace continues his catch and release program for a year, while his wife, the narrator, who doesn’t quite see birds the same way her husband does, begins to understand why he enjoys this particular game.
Having grown up in suburbia myself, and finding it mostly mundane, I am in awe of Parkison’s ability to imbue the cul-de-sacs with a disconcerting darkness and a fabulistic absurdity that push the humdrum fantasies fostered by this realm outside of the city to the brink. Suburban Death Project, then, doesn’t add extra twists to the winding roads in our neighborhoods, but instead points out that we’ve been lost in this maze the entire time without even realizing it. By doing so, Parkison, fully understanding our fear of death and violence, encourages a more self-aware existence, one where we may be lost (for how could we be anything else?), but not hopelessly so.
Suburban Death Project, by Aimee Parkison. Unbound Edition Press, May 2022. 176 pages. $17.99, hardcover.
Andrew Farkas is the author of The Great Indoorsman: Essays, The Big Red Herring, Sunsphere, and Self-Titled Debut. He is fiction editor for The Rupture and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Washburn University.