As its title suggests, Robert Wood’s Suburbanism is centrally concerned with the concept of place as both ideological site and lived experience. These two elements are fused in Wood’s sense of space as deeply connected to one’s personal identity; rooted in words and shaped by the imagination, “my world is a world of suburbs…being from Wembley means being from, about and for those suburbs” (51). However, identity is also conceptualised as fluid and multiple; built and re-built through language and social interactions, constantly renegotiated through the examining of various aspects of the spaces he encounters. Throughout the book, Wood tells the reader narratives of these encounters, his interpretations and the way he is shaped by each experience. Undergoing a meaning making process in response to each space to produce multiple forms of subjectivities shaped through language, Wood ultimately achieves a more abstract notion of each setting.
From the outset, within the first essay, “Dear Redgate”, Wood establishes his voice as an astute critical observer who is conscious of the influence of past locations on his current identity. As he writes: “I carry you [Redgate] in me…Here in New York I don’t stop to chat…unlike [in Redgate] where strangers pause and comment” (4). He refers to “America, or to be more precise New York…as being in the centre.” claiming “It is an old idea that all centres are made by their peripheries” (5), then referring to broken dreams, the people in the periphery and immigrants who move to the States each having a different idea of the place that “is nowhere to be found” (5). For him the stars above the city symbolize the self-awareness possessed by the inhabitants. As the stars are covered, so is the self-awareness of the people by a preconceived image of the place: “just as I cannot see the stars I cannot see the limits of myself, and here, particularly, one realizes the possibilities of what one is not” (6). While Wood understands that identity is shaped by one’s past, it is also nonessentialist: hybrid, fragmented and multiple. This approach has facilitated a multilayered understanding of suburban life within the context of Wood’s personal experiences and identity challenges. For Wood, suburban life and the individuals within it constantly take up different positions in a dynamic process of becoming.
One of the most striking essays in the collection, “Archipelago Republic”, is written as a parable. It begins with a man on an island – an ambivalent symbol of both potential community and isolation – who speaks in a language to his fellow islanders that has come to him in a dream, only for them to condemn him as speaking in “a dead man’s tongue” (99). In pursuit of a sustaining identity, the man travels from island to island searching for people who will understand the longing expressed in his dream. After the thousandth island the story begins to feel like Kafka’s Before the Law, in which a man who seeks entry into the door of the law gives up his entire life and all his possessions, only to understand the impossibility of his endeavour upon taking his final breath. Wood’s story ultimately rejects this pessimism, offering instead an epiphanic moment in which the man experiences a non-linguistic sense of communion with the natural world.
Struck by lightning the man is able to ‘see’ not only his true personal identity but also the existential identity of the human race; what he describes as “the future of all life…and the death that would come for them when the time was up, when lightning ran out”, (101) as though finally reaching enlightenment.
he saw what it was to be conscious, to become at peace, at one with the cosmos from the crayfish to the planets, from the beetle to the galaxy, from the wood to the sun. And when lightning came next, he would be there to meet him as one. (101-102)
Suburbanism is centrally concerned with a concept of ‘home’ not as a geographical location but as a sense of existential peace to be found within. Exploring the loss and eventual re-discovery of communal identity, the story conceptualises place as transcendent of language.
Wood encapsulates his suburbanist thinking within an intricate image, woven with various levels of meaning, symbolism, allusion and allegory. The text is much too personal to fit well into any specific style of writing, and Wood’s occasional ambivalence of meaning is brave, increasing the reach and impact of the work. The book is written for, but not restricted to, an informed readership, appealing to readers interested in poetics, belonging and identity, the journey of self-discovery and notions of home; and for those who enjoy fine writing. A revelation and an insight within every line, Wood’s Suburbanism is densely written with the power to leave you wondering. Would he or you or I feel the same about the place or the places we call home had we travelled more? Or less, had we been born somewhere and somebodies else?
Robert Wood. Suburbanism: Poetics. North Melbourne, Victoria: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2019.
Baran Rostamian is a second-year student studying English Literature and Law and Society at the University of Western Australia. She is also a current participant in the Inclusion Matters mentoring program for emerging local writers from CALD backgrounds at the Centre for Stories in Perth. In her spare time, Baran enjoys cats, Instagram and critiquing French cinema.