I suppose it's become normal for "setting" (usually a city or a decade) to be a character in novels. What made me realise this, is how background the 80s are in Model Home. I was expecting lots of shout-outs to... well, everything I remember from my childhood. Instead, the references that tie the characters to a time are minimal, and a bit startling when they do appear. Because I'm so used to being bombarded by reminders of where/when a novel is happening, I wondered why the novel had been set in the 80s at all. Why not now? What makes the 80s special and integral to the storyline in a way that, say, the 90s could not have been? As part two of the novel opened, I understood the reason: The Cold War.

I was a kid in the 80s, and I basically accepted nuclear annihilation as fact. We didn't have the "duck and cover" drills of the early 60s (though I'm not sure they ever had those in Canada), but we were hyper-aware of the USA/USSR conflict, and the way it was "fought." We had Red Dawn and "Wild, Wild West"* and "Land of Confusion" and probably about 1000 songs I'm forgetting, telling us we were just a step away from the earth being blown up six times over. Eldest son of the Ziller family, Dustin is also a product of this saturation of nuclear fear. When he awakens in the hospital, half-covered in third-degree burns, his first thought is of nuclear war.
When they told him he'd been burned, his first thought was World War III. The Russians must have attacked. He didn't remember the accident, but when they told him about it--the cigarette, the house exploding into flames--it seemed too ludicrous to be true.
The Ziller family, homeless from the explosion, and bankrupted by father Warren's investment in a non-starter of a desert subdivision, has no choice but to move to a house they own by default. The street is completely devoid of people, stinking from the garbage dump not far away, and full of scalding surfaces. Youngest son Jonas, who is blamed for the explosion in the former home, rides his bike "in a place with only one block [...] there were no pedestrians, the block was utterly, echoingly empty." They may as well be the last people on earth.

It's probably apocryphal, but there's a theory that bugs, roaches, would be the only animals to survive a nuclear holocaust. I began to think about this supposition, and the relationship of Mobile Home to Kafka's Metamorphosis** after a couple mentions of the proliferation of roaches, and of feeling "buglike." The explosion that displaces the Ziller family to the desert also changes the Ziller boys into twin Gregor Samsas; hideous, unlovable, and alienated. Jonas' parents acknowledge that they no longer love their youngest child, who they assume is responsible for physically changing their eldest son into something unrecognizable from the rock 'n' roll, golden boy surfer they knew previous. The family purposely barely recognize Jonas in their midst, in an effort to keep themselves from outright hating him. For his part, Dustin retreats to his room. The life he had pictured for himself is utterly destroyed by the immense change not only in his appearance, but health and mobility.

Model Home does an excellent job of personalizing the cultural anxiety of the West in the final, escalating stages of the Cold War. The Zillers have The Bomb dropped on them, but only them. They are isolated not only within their community of no-one, but within themselves. Technology encroaches, and isolates even further. Dustin remains with his father, in the desert, watching movie after movie on his VCR. Jonas plays Joust for hours, with no possible end, as the game is unwinnable. The future's not so bright.

*This video is as creepy as I remember it.
**Which I'd not read before, but borrowed from the library immediately after finishing Mobile Home so I could make sure I wasn't totally off-base.
I'm not proposing that Model Home is at all a retelling of Metamorphosis. However, there are thematic similarities.


Dan said...

I'll just leave this here...

Panic said...

See? I knew I was missing an obvious one. Thanks!