Reading suburban narratives

Pope, Gerald (2012) Reading suburban narratives. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


This thesis discusses London suburban-set fiction as enacting a key semiotic problem of modernity: how the individual must interpret, make sense of, and inhabit a particular locality. By semiotic here I mean the individual's drive to capture external reality, to read and constitute a sense of what is meaningful and objectively real in the suburban habitat. The suburb is presented in much suburban fiction as a key exemplar of modem built space insofar as it continually thwarts the individual's attempts to see and read it, to make it home. Suburban fiction presents a site that continually thwarts its perception, understanding and constitution and one that is thus experienced, in different ways, as strange, odd or unsettling. The thesis discusses London's suburban fiction from the 1860s to the present day and each chapter focusses on different aspects of this struggle to see the truth of, and find meaning in, the suburbs. Suburban fiction presents a chronicle of compromised seeing. It repeatedly emphasises doubt and confusion, spectacle and performance, varieties of deception and falseness, modes of fantasy, vision and dream, the ghostly, insubstantial and unreal. It foregrounds the anxious urge for rational investigation and the complex relation of surface signs to the reality of depths. Related to this, suburban fiction also presents an environment that is materially compromised. There is a doubt anxiety expressed in suburban fiction over the substantive nature of external reality and we note constant references to a materiality gone awry, to the things of the domestic real that threaten to overwhelm and suffocate the individual, or else to withdraw, or to actively attack and terrorise the suburban inhabitant. The suburban body itself, in so much suburban-set fiction, becomes the site of this struggle, portrayed as thing- like, as ineffectual and powerless, as sickly or diseased, as comic and absurd. In most suburban fiction the suburb is never homely and inhabitants struggle to make such spaces legible and meaningful. The present work traces how such fiction has evolved over the last century and a half.

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