SEMI-DETACHED EMPIRE: SUBURBIA AND THE COLONIZATION OF BRITAIN, 1880 TO THE PRESENT by Todd Kuchta, Reviewed by Yael Maurer
 

SEMI-DETACHED EMPIRE: SUBURBIA AND THE COLONIZATION OF BRITAIN, 1880 TO THE PRESENT
By Todd Kuchta
(Virginia, 2010) viii + 264 pp.
Reviewed by Yael Maurer on 2011-08-13.

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Suburban Studies have become quite popular in recent years. To name but one example, Kingston University has created a Centre for Suburban Studies. As a new object of critical attention for its pivotal role in the shaping of space and culture, the suburbs occupy a unique position. Neither entirely "urban" nor graced with the allure and class prestige of the "countryside," the "suburban" is both a place and a state of mind, or a "type." Studying suburbia in general, then, may help us understand the unique nature of the British suburb, where semi-detached houses and their attending back and front gardens offer a rather uniform, some would say, dire, locale. In this fascinating book, Todd Kuchta reads the semi-detached house as a metaphor for the relations between the suburb and the British Empire.

To map the "colonization of Britain from 1880 to the present," Kuchta charts a literary history based largely on the rise of the semi-detached suburban home. As the British Empire fell, he argues, suburbia replaced it with a different form of domesticity that partook of the Imperial project while marking its demise at the same time. Examining both non-literary texts and novels by H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, E. M Forster, George Orwell, and Hanif Kureishi, Kuchta shows how this "colonization" manifests itself. "Suburbia," he contends, has "a cultural influence that is neither subsumed by notions of domesticity nor limited to texts explicitly about the suburbs" (11). Thus Kuchta aims to uncover "suburban plots on unexpected ground: [not only] the Thames Valley of H.G. Wells's Martian attack and the gaslit London of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, but also the tropical backwaters of Joseph Conrad's Malay Archipelago and the stifling Anglo- Indian communities of E. M. Forster and George Orwell"(11-12).

Kuchta's masterful reading of these authors uncovers the many ways in which the vexed relations between suburb and Empire are played out. Especially impressive is his redefinition of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds --a classic science fiction tale-- as a story of suburban sprawl in which the invading Martians become both the colonized "Others" and the colonizers. As both threaten to overtake the British countryside, the racialized as well as colonized "Others" appear as monstrous beings, out to devour and destroy the British population. This deconstruction of the line between colonizer and colonized enriches the allegorical reading of the text without losing sight of the very real historical circumstances in which the novel was written and in particular, Wells' own interest in the problems of suburban sprawl.

Kuchta bases his book on this architectural metaphor. While chronologically ordered, the chapters are also linked to what Kutcha calls: "architectural keywords: foundation, facades and semi-detachment" (33). Semi-detachment, Kuchta suggests, is "both a guiding metaphor and an organizing principle" (6) for the "separation-in-connection" which in turn becomes a "figure for the embattled relation between suburb and empire"(7). Thus, the semi-detached house stands for the breakdown of Empire but also for Britain's inability to ever relinquish its empire, and its need to reconstruct it at "home." However, as Kuchta points out, this story may reverse what actually happened. The first "suburbs" may have sprung up, not in Britain, but in its colonies, so at least in part, the model for the British suburb may well have been an imperial one. If so, the connections between suburb and empire are more intricate than we have been so far led to believe. Even if British suburbs did not originate in the colonies, Kuchta suggests, the colonies had a great impact on them. Often inhabited by retired India officials and named for Indian districts, the suburbs revealed how hard it was for their inhabitants to leave the empire behind.

It is this double bind (or bond) that Kuchta so convincingly explores in his readings of the literary texts. Like Wells' Martians, "suburbia" in these texts presents itself as a menacing, sprawling, and degenerate "being," but also represents the colonization of dark "others" outside Britain as the root cause of such degeneration. In these terms, Kuchta convincingly reads not only Wells' novel but also Arthur Conan Doyle's tale The Sign of Four, where the "suburban sahib"--the Anglo-Indian in Britain-- comes to represent a cultural malaise. As Kuchta points out, even Dr. Watson is an Anglo-Indian who can be rescued from this "disease" only by his marriage to Miss Morstan, who is "protected from colonial toxins" (83). In Kuchta's reading of other texts, however, especially those by Conrad, one is led to wonder how far the terms "suburbia" and "suburban" can be stretched to accommodate all that Kuchta wants them to represent.

In Conrad's first novel, Almayer's Folly, Kuchta detects another "illness," this time not in Britain but in the Malay Archipelago. Almayer is "beleaguered by something closer to ressentiment-- that mixture of outrage, envy, and consuming ill-will that Nietzsche diagnoses in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)" (99). Almayer, writes Kuchta, is experiencing a form of this malaise, "precipitated by a tension between feelings of superiority and a powerlessness to act upon them," thus becoming "a form of surrogate or repressed vengeance against one's real or imagined enemies"(99). Almayer's feelings emerge "from his déclassé status in Sambir, where his self-importance is undercut by the eroding conditions of his homes"(100). Thus consumed by ressentiment, the eponymous protagonist obsessively labors to build his "Folly": an exact replica of his former home. While Kuchta links Almayer's doomed project to Nietzsche's ressentiment, a "folly" has gothic implications, suggesting decay and destruction. Instead of eliciting the gothic elements of the tale, however, Kuchta uses the story of Conrad's own life to measure Almayer's failure with "books" (meaning account books) against the success of Conrad's "books" (novels). Even if we see the links between Conrad's life and his character's "folly," Kuchta seems to be stretching the suburban metaphor beyond the breaking point and replacing it with the psychological concept of ressentiment.

In turning to Orwell's two overtly suburban novels, however, Kuchta treads firmer ground. While Coming Up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying seem at times to be at odds with Orwell's other novels, Kuchta masterfully shows that they present us with the typical emasculated suburban male who cannot escape the shackles of suburban living and is forever trapped in suburban hell.

In Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia, Kuchta finds, the fiction of the colonized appropriates and rewrites the notion of suburbia as a menacing "other." Kuchta's brief epilogue challenges accepted readings of this novel; "despite [its] apparent celebration of a performative or improvisational self," he writes, "Karim's suburban origins resist his conscious attempts at styling a new persona" (208). For Kuchta, "suburbia remains the foundation of Karim's identity"(210). The aversion to suburban life, which Kureishi's novel exposes at every turn, demonstrates that suburban identity is not so easily discarded. Furthermore, as Kuchta points out, Karim may have a lot more in common with Orwell's white suburban males, trapped in a hellish existence in the suburbs, than with racialized identity.

Does this rereading of Kureishi's novel, however, explain how the "Buddha" figure Haroon, Karim's father, incorporates the longing for an imagined India that is shared by the former colonizers and the colonized? This merging of the "Buddha" in "Suburbia" seems to wrench the very notion of the suburb. Kureishi's title mocks both the notion of suburbia as a stable referent and the idea of the Buddha as a spiritual presence. Yoking them together may be not so much an act of semi-detachment as a gesture of rejecting both suburban "hell" and its attendant craving for all things seemingly of the East. In this gesture, Kureishi takes on the white man's burden of suburban living, and makes it the brown man's burden.

This appropriation of suburban identity by the formerly colonized may thus change the narrative of suburbia and Empire that Kuchta delineates. For the "brown," "black," and "beige" (as Karim wryly describes himself) inhabitants of the racist British suburb, escape to an imagined metropolis, in this case London, remains the only option. Whereas Kuchta insists on Karim's inability to break away from the suburb, Kureishi's novel shows us the results of staying there. Comparing London with the suburbs, Karim thinks: "Although I was only a few miles away from the river, I missed the London I was getting to know and played games with myself like: if the secret police ordered you to live in the suburbs for the rest of your life, what would you do? Kill yourself? Read?" (Kureishi 145). For the protagonist, then, suburbia is not so much an option as a sentence to death in life. The novel thus seems to encapsulate the conclusion of Kuchta's brilliant book on the effects of suburbia on Empire and vice versa. For it may be that we find the new suburbia in the literary productions of second and third generation immigrants. Consider the painful lyrics to Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs":

In the suburbs I learned to drive
And you told me we'd never survive
Grab your mother's keys we're leaving
You always seemed so sure
That one day we'd be fighting
In a suburban war
Your part of town against mine
I saw you standing on the opposite shore
But by the time the first bombs fell
We were already bored
We were already, already bored

The next "suburban war," then, is still to be fought. Laying the ground plan for what we may expect, Kuchta's book shows us where this "war" started and leads the way to further exploration of this battleground of boredom and angst.

Yael Maurer teaches at the Department of English and American Studies, Tel Aviv University. Her PhD dissertation centers on Salman Rushdie's science fictional locales. Her article "Rage against the Machine: Cyberspace Narratives in Rushdie's Fury" is forthcoming in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature.


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