More evocations of chaos follow this – of marital sickness and shedding of dogs and screaming children and the like; the staples of the 1950s TV comedy – but what they prove about marriage as “a spectacle” watched by “everyone” I’m still not sure. I only know my own marriage, just like her, and I prefer to hide the crazier moments. marriage is – for myself and others – a secret.
“The suburbs are a place where people go to embrace the dominant paradigm because the dominant paradigm makes them feel safe and comfortable.” A dominant paradigm? In today’s America? As happens often in the book, Havrilesky’s big wedding is an example, the paradigm here is in the mind of the author and that of her particular cohort and feels decidedly anachronistic, like a cult tribute to traditions that allegedly once dominated but now be in the order of Americana music or consciously “basic” clothing styles. Indeed, the suburbs she describes – with their complement of tortured warriors who sacrifice themselves to raise their children – come across as rather new, seen. Yet the focus of the text is on large lawns, lawns with warning signs about dog feces, concerns about property values, and other clichés.
I suppose that’s the point – the suburbs are cliche – but so is complaining this way. To her credit, Havrilesky says the same thing, but then she storms forward anyway and spits out truth about silent despair. “Being part of a community,” she notes, repeating a vision of the burbs articulated by legions of pastors, “turns out that you spend countless hours trying to look relaxed while panicking inside. .”
This attraction to the categorical, this desire for the definitive broad explanation, is unfortunate in a writer whose signal is for biting, close-up descriptive prose. (Perhaps much to husband Bill’s chagrin.) One of the book’s best episodes involves a chaotic last-minute cross-country run of too many miles and too few bathrooms. Pieces of scatologically low comedy are cut short with appropriate asides about the insane intimacy of driving with children. It is a brave example of family portraits: fierce, tender, claustrophobic. And Bill comes to life, escaping the gravity of the author’s well-known egocentric consciousness. The journey is in fact a high point for their partnership, after which their story darkens and drifts into a romantic stalemate, possible infidelity and a harrowing medical crisis. We’ve spent enough time with the couple at this late stage that the universality of their predicament doesn’t have to be claimed to be appreciated. Betrayal is betrayal. Fear of death is fear of death.
But what is marriage? A paradox. This seems to be Havrilesky’s last answer, but she gives it in advance and repeats it along the way. It is “everyday” yet “exotic”. It’s “grueling” yet “exciting”. It’s bad yet good in a thousand different ways that cover nearly every marriage ever made, yet seem specific to none of them except perhaps hers. That she finds it particularly exemplary in an age of runaway domestic improv is somewhat mysterious and debatable, even from the sly, obnoxious Bill, I’ll bet, who no doubt sees things in his own way.