Exposing the problems and paranoia lurking beneath the surface of a seemingly idyllic middle-class American neighborhood is something that has been done in many novels and films. Anything so ordered and perfect must be hiding something when it’s inhabited by that wild part of the animal kingdom known as homo sapiens. Yet Suzanne Berne brings something so fresh and moving in her expose of the privileged and ordered fictional town of Littlefield. When a number of dogs are poisoned at the local park, the resulting anger and fear shakes up the complacent lives of the citizens. Mistrust and paranoia grow. The central character Margaret begins seeing the threatening specters of departed dogs and her civilized existence begins to unravel with her husband Bill who claims to no longer feel anything and her socially awkward teenage daughter Julia.
Through vivid descriptions of the surroundings and minute details, Berne creates an atmosphere of unease in an environment intended to be ideal. Carefully planned landscaping, tight community spirit and progressive ideals conversely result in the sensation of an impending nightmare. It all feels a bit Lynchian like a slowed down sprinkler system drawn out to sound like a scream. In one scene Margaret even has a nightmare of intimidating figures that have the heads of dogs. For all the safeguards this community builds into the structure of their community and the security they impose it’s as if the gaping hungry jaw of death will snap at their vulnerable faces at any moment.
Is this novel satirical? The author does certainly poke fun at her characters and there are many funny observations – all viewed through the observant eye of a sociologist who has infiltrated the community as part of her research to write a paper about suburban discontent and fear. However, more often than not (as I believe the author intended) I felt real sympathy for and related to the characters’ plights although many of them are nothing like me. Maybe a key to understanding Berne’s method is with the tragic-comic tone she employs when writing about a novelist named George who is working on a novel about a zombie baseball player. He really wants to write about the deeper darker things about life, but feels like he has to transmogrify his subject through established modes of genre.
Death looms large in this haven of progressive civilization that also holds fast to traditional values. The realization of its inevitability amounts in many cases to moments of existential crisis. “From across the room, Margaret saw herself sitting on the sofa, a slim blonde-haired woman in a blue silk blouse, holding a wine glass and smiling, a small piece of barbed wire in her mouth.” Especially in social gatherings characters are pulled out of themselves, witnessing the way pain and fear is being suppressed in going through the motions but they are unable to break out of what is habitual and seems “right.” Personal pains are subsumed for the sake of social appearance and are usually only revealed in overheard conversations or sly observations or personal meltdowns.
It’s only through an acknowledgement of common fears and embracing idiosyncratic behavior that the social network of this community is able to find real comfort rather than experience individual isolation for fear of being socially stigmatized. When Margaret tells George about hallucinations her husband is experiencing where he sees his dead father George comments that this “‘Sounds like regular nuts to me.’” In other words, this sort of recurrent fear is normal and part of everyone’s life because misfortune and death find us no matter how carefully we try to safeguard against it. Berne examines this not only in the lives of the adults in the novel, but how this manifests itself amongst the next generation down with the teenage children of several of the characters.
“The Dogs of Littlefield” is an extremely clever novel that presents what is familiar in poetic language that makes it wholly new. It made me think about and see the world differently when I walked down the street after finishing a chapter. It’s as if my senses were newly attuned to the micro world around me and the veiled emotions of the people walking past. There haven’t been many books I’ve read where I felt such a strong shift in my own vision of what’s around me.
Read a good interview with Suzanne Berne at Bookanista here: http://bookanista.com/suzanne-berne/