There is something satisfyingly voyeuristic about Aimee Parkison’s Suburban Death Project. Through her riveting collection of twelve short stories, Parkison extends an invitation: join her in peeking through the windows to watch suburban families immersed in their everyday traumas of love and loss.
Suburban Death Project disturbs with its threads of violence and rivers of grief, yet remains relatable as the reader witnesses the common human struggle of protecting our precious ideas about our ordinary lives, ideas inevitably challenged by death and mourning.
The journey through the Suburban Death Project begins with “Theatrum Insectorum,” a story of failing to connect with our loved ones, even as they prepare to leave us through death. Garner loves Joyce, his wife of thirty-seven years, but as her health fails he prefers the comfort of his hobby — a theater he created entirely dedicated to the acting abilities of insects. Joyce accepts her husband’s peculiar fascination yet understandably declines to participate. Rather than existing with his wife in a shared reality, he lives for the theater he has created on his tiny insect stages. Garner spends the last hours of his wife’s life with his insects, catching a new cast of grasshoppers and wasps for his theater. The curtain closes with Garner whispering to his new actors, “Don’t die…I don’t want to be alone.” As Garner yearns to be seen and understood, we’re reminded of our own missed opportunities. Tragically, Garner is so preoccupied with his insect companions that he fails to see those around him, even his wife, as she slips away.
Not every story in Suburban Death Project is as bleak, although the first few lines of “The Mushroom Suit” threaten otherwise. We learn that Gillian, who has lost her young husband, desires the perfect casket. Her husband, who had a history of pranking her by faking his own death, ultimately does kill himself. Her initial reaction when she walks into her blood-splattered living room? She laughs. Suddenly, she is at odds with her in-laws over the funeral arrangements. She craves the certainty and soothing nature of a traditional ceremony and burial — but her in-laws insist that their son belonged to the Suburban Death Project. He has been raising mushrooms in his basement for years as part of his natural funeral plans.
Along with the implication that her in-laws were privy to a side of her husband she never knew, she must wrestle with the idea of burying David, and his exquisite body, in a literal mushroom suit. David’s mother cajoles, “Don’t deny his mushrooms,” she said, “the ones he raised and trained to eat him.” This is one of the few stories in the collection with a hopeful conclusion. Gillian relents, allowing herself to stretch beyond her comfort zone. Her husband’s mushrooms consume his body, and Gillian understands her perception of her marriage is an illusion. She had not wanted to see it before, but David had always been suicidal. At the story’s beginning, she is horrified by the absence of a casket, but by the end, she tastes David’s body in the form of a juicy peach plucked from the tree planted on his grave, and concludes “biting into the first peach, I tasted his sadness, and his love.”
The sweetly sad story “Ducky” is an ode to love’s second chances, even if it is codependent. The reader joins Loren and her father, newly widowed after her mother passes from a smoking-related illness. Her father copes with his loneliness by sharing his home and cigarettes with his pet duck. Ducky, however, is more than a companion; he is an impressionist artist. His artistic medium is his droppings on canvas, the walls and floors of Loren’s father’s home. “Like Pollock, Ducky was an abstract expressionist, creating a unique style of drip painting, his leavings transforming my father’s house into what the neighbors deemed ‘a work of art,’ what the city called ‘a public health hazard.'” By the way, Ducky is also disabled. Loren’s father refuses to let him suffer, as his wife did in her final days, so he fashions a duck bong so that Ducky can partake in his late wife’s medical marijuana. Ducky passes prematurely, as any duck addicted to marijuana and cigarettes might. Shortly after, so does Loren’s father. Like Loren, we’re left feeling grateful that father and duck had found each other.
The stories in this collection mesmerize with their creative premises and immersive characters. While several stories explore uncanny scenarios of fishing for owls or receiving a birthday sex toy from a boyfriend’s mother, readers with trigger sensitivities should take heed — references to suicide, violence and sexual assault are pervasive. “Locked In,” the final story in the collection, and, arguably the darkest, reads like horror. The narrator operates on — nay, skins alive — a doctor who, in his attempt to save the biological diversity of a deteriorating planet, hid the DNA of the world’s creatures in his tattoos.
As these stories demonstrate, the suburbs are not immune to death. However, their residents might be most poorly equipped to deal with it. Americans move to the suburbs because they are supposedly safe — there is an illusion of security in the cookie-cutter pleasantness. Privacy and appearances go hand in hand as if the neatly kept lawns must not betray any emotional messiness inside.
Suburbia as a concept is isolating. Here, lives are separated by fences, space, privacy and appearances. This isolation is highlighted in these stories as the characters experience loneliness, suicide or yearning for connection. While bleak, there is also something reassuring about recognizing the messy traumas within these twelve stories as our own. Even in our suburban despair, we are not alone.
Suburban Death Project
By Aimee Parkison
Unbound Edition Press
Published May 17, 2022