Freedom, Suburbia, and "Expensive People"
By Jasmine Brown
In the novel, Expensive People, Joyce Carol Oates describes suburbia as a dreamlike trance. Everyone wants the same things: an expensive house, a fancy car, brilliant children, and a perfect life. Richard, the narrator, says that it is “like sleep: something…that drew you into it [where] you could inhabit the vacuum…and not worry about getting out or about what you should be doing since you couldn’t do anything anyway until you did get out” (Oates 117). Oates uses the story of the Everett family, particularly of Nada and Richard, to display the horrid destruction that suburban life can cause, turning the American Dream into a nightmare. Specifically, she uses this family to show that the only way to escape the incredible grip of the black hole of suburbia is to exert one’s free will.
Natashya Romanov Everett (or Nada) believed in the suburban “dream” more than anyone else. For her, the dream dictated everything, from the clothes she wore, the way she spoke, even her name (her real name was Nancy Romanow Everett). On page 35, Richard (Nada’s only son) describes her manner as being “suburban and wholesomely nervous, American as the flag.” In a desperate attempt to fit the mold of a Fernwood socialite, Nada even hid her intelligence from her acquaintances. Unfortunately, because Nada yielded to the control of suburban society, she lost herself and her happiness. She “thought she would like to be Nada—that is, the image, the dream-self that was Nada, not the real, unhappy, selfish, miserable, and rather banal person” (Oates 83). Had she merely asserted her freedom, lived the way that she truly wanted, and resisted the lures of suburban life, Nada could have held on to her true self and experienced happiness.
Unlike Nada, Richard was not a direct slave to suburbia. He lived for his mother, and would do absolutely anything to please her. However, since Nada lived for the suburbs, he was inadvertently forced to do so, as well. In one of the most tragic scenes, Richard describes himself as he takes the entrance exam for the elite Johns Behemoth Boys’ School: “I felt as if I were trying to fly with wings soaked in sweat, feathers torn and ragged, falling out, and on my shoulders Nada rode with triumphant, impatient enthusiasm…me weeping with shame… waiting for the end” (Oates 43). Richard’s inability to please Nada does not end here. It continues throughout the entirety of the novel. He gets accepted into the private school, raises his I.Q. nine points, and constantly uses his best manners. However, Richard can never satisfy Nada, and he constantly laments that he is not good enough for her. He explains her voracious greed in terms of a constellation: she sails toward whatever she seeks, taking “along with her…satellites and particles of dust, among them myself” (Oates 166). Richard’s love and devotion towards his mother bring about his undoing. He becomes a morbid, melancholy, insecure teenager with no hope for the future. It is not quite certain whether Richard actually ed Nada, but the fact that he thought about it so extensively and wanted to do it so desperately makes actually doing it seem irrelevant. In his mind, Richard Everett did kill his mother. If he had exercised his free will, and sought love from a different source, Richard could have saved his sanity and prevented his unfortunate disintegration.
While there are many instances within this novel in which the suburban dream dictates people’s lives, there are also some instances in which individuals use their free will to wake up from that dream. In a slightly humorous example, Mr. Hofstadter (the father of Richard’s friend, Gustave) deliberately drives his car straight into the closed door of his garage. Certainly, this seems like an incredibly ludicrous thing to do, but Gustave says that his father “seemed satisfied…He went right inside the house and upstairs and to bed, where he slept soundly” (Oates 125). Richard describes his ransacking of the Johns Behemoth Record Room, and his demolishing of a neighborhood flower bed, in similar terms. Of the former, he asserts, “I formally swear—that never in my life until that moment had I truly been alive!” (Oates 100). Of the latter, he says, “I had been in a kind of slumber…Then, suddenly, I did awake” (Oates 201). In fact, after every single time that he “shoots-to-miss” at someone (again, it is uncertain whether he actually did this) Richard notes that he sleeps well. These instances show that when one rebels against suburban ideals in order to assert oneself, it is possible to live truly and to “sleep soundly.”
The ability to live happily, however, is not a strictly upper class phenomenon. Richard also uses lower class people to illustrate how resisting suburbia can lead to happiness. Every Negro described in the novel, from the woman working at the hair salon to the little children playing, is happy in spite of the fact that he/she belongs to the lower class. Even the low class bowlers at Oak Woods bowling lanes exude such happiness with all of their “side-splitting laughter” (Oates 94) as to make Richard and his father Elwood jealous.
In the novel, one of the most pivotal instances of free will assertion and resistance to suburbia is deeply ironic. On page 209, Richard declares that he has become a “Minor Character” in the story. However, it is only after this point that he resolves to go on a spree, which leaves him feeling alive, like he has discovered himself. In fact, up until this point, Richard constantly talked about how he vomited all of the time. Miraculously, his nausea and vomiting, after making this resolution, disappear. He even begins eating gluttonously, without any complications. Then, Richard also decides to “kill his mother”. Though the belief that he has killed his mother s Richard, it serves as a way for him to exert some control over his life. His father, believing that he is a lunatic, kicks him out. In that respect, Richard has actually become a “major character” in his own life, since his actions and beliefs provide an escape from the stronghold of suburban life.
In the end, he finds consolation for what he has done in the fact that “it was done out of freedom, out of choice…my free will” (Oates 236). Unfortunately, though, he admits that he sometimes doubts this consolation, and the novel is left without a solid ending. It could very well be that, after such an incredible degeneration, and after such emotional turmoil, Richard sees no true consolation for his life. Perhaps, if he had found a way to love someone by his own free will and escape suburbia, before it was too late, he may have been able to salvage his heart, mind, and soul.
© Jasmine Brown