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House Arrest

Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses

by Marjorie Garber

(Pantheon, 243 pp., $23)

Marjorie Garber, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and the director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, is a woman of almost sinister prolificacy. Every year or so, for many years now, her printer has burped forth some fresh chunk of cultural analysis. There are, one imagines, members of the cultural-studies crowd who set their watches by the regularity of these productions. Early in her career, Garber's work tended to a knotty, theoretical earnestness. Her books had long, fancy-pants titles with semicolons, and fulsome tributes on their acknowledgements pages to the noble institutes that had subsidized them. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, for example, which Garber published in 1992, was a 390-page slab dedicated to the rather platitudinous proposition that the cultural function of transvestism was the subversion of "definitional distinctions" and binary oppositions. It drew heavily--ca va sans dire--on the work of Barthes and Derrida and Lacan, and it was full of slightly anguished, grammar-deficient sentences such as the following.

     What this book insists upon, however, is not--or
     not only--that cultural forces in general create
     literary effects, nor even--although I believe this
     to be the case--that the opposite is also true, but
     rather that transvestism is a space of possibility
     structuring and confounding culture: the disruptive
     element that intervenes, not just a category crisis
     of male and female, but the crisis of category itself.

In recent years, Garber's appetite for the rigors of theory seems to have diminished. The books have kept coming, but the italics-heavy meditations and the recherche terminology have receded. In their place, a new, doggedly accessible style has emerged--full of chat and cheer and chummy colloquialism. First there was Vice Versa (1995) , a study of bisexuality that was widely praised by reviewers for the wealth of "gossip" that it provided about bisexuals through the ages. Next there was Dog Love (1996). One rather thought that with this relentlessly cute disquisition on the bond between humans and canines, Garber had descended as far into the realm of perky banality as she was going to descend. But then came Symptoms of Culture (1998), a brazenly complacent ramble through some cultural phenomena that tickled Garber's fancy. (Jell-O! Fake orgasms!) And now, just in time to greet the new millennium, Garber has delivered Sex and Real Estate, a book so serenely silly--so untroubled by any whiff of a serious idea--as to invite a kind of awe.

This latest work, which Garber's publishers are peddling as "an acute analysis of the ways in which we think about the places we hang our hats," proceeds by way of seven essays, on the "cultural role of the house as mother, lover, body or self, fantasy, trophy, history, and escape." Once, Garber would have taken us on a long-winded hunt for the fissures--the aporia--of these tropes. But she's been there, done that. Now she is content to serve up a salad of personal and apocryphal anecdote, literary quotation, advertising copy, and anything else that she found in her clippings file--all of it bound together by smirky musings redolent of the "Life's Like That" section in Reader's Digest.

"When you stop to think about it," Garber writes in her introduction, "buying and selling a house is a lot like dating." For the next several pages, she will pursue all the ramifications of this lively apercu--all the funny ways in which real estate transactions can be said to be like the human mating ritual. Real estate is sexy, don't you know. Shelter magazines are sometimes called "decor-porn." Real estate ads are "singles ads. Literally." The vocabulary of real estate is "seductive, flirty, a come-on." Open houses are like mixers. When you want a house you make an offer--or a proposal. Geddit? People lie about real estate transactions and, as Jerry Seinfeld "trenchantly" observed, people lie about sex, too. Waiting for a prospective buyer to make an offer is like waiting for your date to call you. Buyers sometimes suffer morning-after remorse! Brokers are like panders! House-buying is like going on a blind date! People fall in love at first sight and house-buyers fall in love at first site! (The latter linguistic felicity is so pleasing to Garber that she is moved to repeat it three times in as many pages.)

It was always one of the most readily appropriated aspects of post-structuralism, this low-grade "mischievousness" with language. Even dim undergraduates who had not made it all the way through Of Grammatology could stump up some headline-writer jokes and hope to pass them off as polysemic jouissance. Now that subverting metaphysical hierarchies no longer yanks Garber's chain, the wretched propensity for wordplay is all that remains of her former method. "Cabin Fever" is the title she gives to her discussion of the log cabin as an American symbol of humble origins; "Buying Time" is her jubilant description of the American consumer's interest in nostalgia homeware. And so it goes on. The lasting legacy of Barthes and Derrida and all those terrifically sensual French feminists is not, it turns out, the subversion of the humanities as we know them. It is the dodgy pun.

Like the Kosher product of the cultural-studies mill that it is, Sex and Real Estate brims with multidisciplinary references--wacky juxtapositions of high culture and low culture--designed to demonstrate the democratic breadth of the author's interests. Her first essay on "The House as Mother" whisks us through Freud's unheimlich; Bachelard's "Poetics of Space"; the paintings of Louise Bourgeois; the novels of Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, and E.M. Forster; and any number of studies on the role of the Victorian housewife--all in a mere twenty-three pages. Here's a gal who can move seamlessly from the role of the unicorn in medieval lore to saucy consumer-reportage about the advent of the "integrated refrigerator":

     [Y]ou can stash your Granny Smiths among
     the lingerie. No need to tiptoe past the kids'
     rooms at night in search of a quart of Rocky
     Road. Instead you can keep your sinful tastes
     under control, and under wraps, by storing
     your treats in the bedroom.

Despite its strenuous show of range, however, this book's preoccupations are bizarrely narrow. Give or take a few passing references to a homogenous entity called Europe, the focus remains fixed on the meaning of real estate in late-twentieth-century, boom-time America. And even within that restricted ambit, Garber's discussions do not venture much beyond the mores and the preoccupations of her own social subset. There are entire chapters devoted to "The Summer House" and "The Trophy House," and endless drear about the cool things you can buy at Restoration Hardware--but there is nothing about postmodernist houses or urban, working-class real estate. There are acres of persiflage about walled gardens, but zip about stoops.

The other thing to note about Garber's barrage of allusions and citations is how little she actually does with any of them. It is as if the effort of accumulating all this undifferentiated cultural "evidence" had tuckered her out, and she were now excused from any obligation to construct an argument. No matter how far one ploughs into this book, one never quite becomes accustomed to the sheer irrelevance of Garber's personal anecdotes, the blithe pointlessness of her free-associative digressions. By far her favorite trick is to plonk down a long exposition of something that she has read, observe smugly how "interesting" or "suggestive" it is, and then move briskly on.

This is maddening--but slightly less maddening, on the whole, than Garber's habit of misappropriating quotations in the leaden pursuit of "fun." During a prolonged riff on "distressed" furniture, she decides--what a madcap!--to interpolate a little Wordsworth.

     "A deep distress hath humanised my Soul,"
     wrote the poet Wordsworth, feelingly. Would
     it have done the same for his love seat? (His
     contemporary Cowper did write a famous poem
     called "The Sofa," but...)

And here she is press-ganging poor Robert Frost into a discussion of the American fashion for twin beds during the 1950s:

     If poet Robert Frost could muse that writing
     poetry without rhyme was like playing tennis
     with the net down, what might he have to say
     about the provocative barrier posed by that
     yard of empty space, occupied only by night
     table and lamp, that kept the two beds apart?
     Could it be that some Americans chose twin beds,
     not because they held sexuality at a distance
     but because twin beds were sexier?

This gruesome jauntiness of tone pervades Sex and Real Estate. At first, one assumes that it is a calculated affectation--the honey with which Garber hopes to catch the general reader. But it is too sustained for that. Somewhere along the line, the dread possibility that this is Garber's authentic idiolect must be confronted. Nobody could fake the illiteracy of sentences such as "Nor are such moments only a by-product of contemporary malaise or over-the-topness." Nobody could simulate the way Garber murders a joke, or the tedious amazement with which she reiterates a cliche:

     "There's a saying in the real estate business,"
     a New York City broker confided to me.
     "Buyers are liars."

     "Buyers are liars?"

     "Yes," he said, with a nice mixture of
     sheepishness and bravado. "Buyers are liars."
     But what did it mean? What could a buyer possibly
     lie about? From a home buyer's point of view, it would
     seem more likely that sellers, or indeed realtors were
     liars. ... But why should a buyer lie?

There are occasions on which Garber wanders, as it were inadvertently, into an interesting topic. In the course of a disconnected chat about the Historical Commission that oversees her neighborhood in Cambridge, for example, she mentions that her application to put up shutters and clapboards on her nineteenth-century house was turned down because these additions, while historically appropriate, would highlight other, inappropriate additions that had been made to the house in the 1960s. "What I wanted to know," Garber writes, "was whether the inappropriate dormers and the inappropriate kitchen windows were now protected by the Cambridge Historical Commission--since they had been on the house when it entered the historical rolls--as another piece of 'history.'"

There is something potentially rather interesting here about the sentimental arbitrariness of the preservation ethos. The moment that an architectural feature comes of age and earns the right to be protected is usually when it is old enough to have featured in the preservationists' misty watercolor memories of his or her own childhood. This is why people live happily with hideous nineteenth-century additions to medieval houses but rail against the twentieth-century owners who want to make useful changes to the plumbing. It is also why middle-aged Americans have recently started lying down in the dirt to save "mid-century" suburban ranch houses from the oncoming bulldozers.

But if Garber harbors an opinion on any of this, she is unwilling to share it. She rapidly veers off point, to take up an anodyne survey of various contests that have arisen between the "individuality" of house owners and the "authenticity" of their houses. And her insistence on being officially "non-judgmental" persists even when, as in her discussion of nouveaux riche trophy homes, her snobby opinion is laughably apparent. Here she prissily enumerates all the faux finishes and architectural anomalies favored by the suburban "super-middle class," but carefully leaves it to others to actually disparage these aesthetic choices as vulgar or unethical. "'Starter palaces,'" she writes, "is how one environmentally concerned couple dismissed these mass-market mansions and the wasteful habits of boomers who take up more space and resources than they need.'"

Of course, it may have occurred to Garber that people who summer in charming Nantucket houses, as she does, ought not to throw stones at wasteful bougies. It is significant that the closest Sex and Real Estate ever comes to advancing an authorial idea occurs in a passionate defense of George Babbitt's middle-class materialism. This unique appearance of an angle is worth quoting in full.

     It is easy to lampoon poor Babbitt, who is
     "enchanted with his bathroom fixtures...."
     And it is easy to critique the materialism of
     the surface, to decry "commodity fetishism"
     and "conspicious consumption" as symptoms
     of status display. But take away the sense
     of invective here--too easily hurled by both
     moralists and journalists--and you will be left
     with a different kind of "reality": things,
     commodities, objects, consumable goods are not
     only possessions but a kind of language. They
     are, like it or not, the way we communicate with
     each other, with ourselves, and with the world.
     If Babbitt's sense of virtue seems misplaced, it is
     not the fault of his water-faucets.

Whoever said it was? Whatever. We get the message: we ought not to moralize about consumer frenzy, or feel guilty about slavering over Pottery Barn catalogues. For when all is said and done, buying things is just a another symptom of culture--another groovy way of talking to one another. This, I believe, was the sort of thing that Terry Eagleton was getting at when he criticized the deconstructionist stance as "being mischievously radical in respect of everyone else's opinions. ... while utterly conservative in every other way."

In making one's way through this bad, sad book, one's mind eventually turns to the innocents who pay cash money to have their precious offspring attend Harvard University and receive instruction from Professor Garber--the loving parents, who even now are scrambling to get the fees together for little Lucinda's autumn installment of Garber-think. Those dupes should read this book immediately--drink deep from the fountain of Garber's wit--and wise up. Then they can take their tuition money and spend it on a new kitchen or a leather sofa or some other spiffy thing from the lovely language of commodities.

Zoe Heller is the author most recently of Everything You Know (Knopf).

By Zoe Heller