Comparative Literature is a strange discipline because it consists of seeing similarities between very dissimilar texts, usually written in different languages but also in the same language. The whole discipline depends on serendipity, as a particular scholar needs to think of particular connections that are not evident, a type of discovery that only happens quite by accident, when one literary work reminds the scholar in question of another literary work. Evidently, the more a scholar has read, the more connections may appear. The problem, of course, is that we are not very sure what to make of the links we find, except call attention to them.

Gone are the times when literary critics discussed the influence of specific authors over other authors with no proof whatsoever. Now we all borrow from Julia Kristeva the concept of intertextuality, which has the advantage of requiring no proof of direct influence and rewards the powers of observation of the scholar who highlights hidden coincidences and overlaps. Today, quite by chance, I have come across two tantalizing examples of intertextuality that I would like to share, so here I go.

Writing a shot piece (again!) on Manuel de Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (Typescript of the Second Origin), I’ve come across another novel on an isolated teen couple surviving alone and having a child, of which I knew nothing. I was checking the year when Brooke Shields’s very popular film Blue Lagoon came out (it was 1980), as this film tells precisely that kind of story, when Wikipedia informed me that it is an adaptation of a 1908 romance novel by Irish author Henry de Vere Stacpoole. Apparently, this was a hugely successful novel, with previous film adaptations in 1923 and 1949. I find it unlikely that Pedrolo would have read Stacpoole, or seen the 1949 film (though it was released in Spain in 1950 as La isla perdida), and, anyway, his novel was published in 1974, six years before the Brooke Shields’s film. So, the fact that both novels share significant plot points is not relevant at all, unless somebody working on the motif of the stranded adolescents who conceive a child is seeking to enlarge their corpus. It’s, as Sheldon Cooper would say, a factoid. But a fun one, I think. If I get curious enough, I might read Stacpoole’s novel and, of course, and report my findings here. Or write an academic essay, who knows?

Yesterday I had a book club session on Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, a novel published in 2017 and adapted as a Netflix series in 2020 (which I have not seen). When I prepared the novel for the meeting, I focused mainly on the plot and the many class, gender, and race issues it raises, paying no attention to any literary connections and seeing Ng primarily through the focus of her being Asian-American. Now I have found a post on Barnes and Noble’s Facebook and Instagram accounts announcing a book club session on Sarah Langan’s novel Good Neighbours, advertised as a work inspired by Celeste Ng, Liane Moriarty (author of Big Little Lies), and Shirley Jackson. Somebody is probably already writing a dissertation on the Jackson-inspired anti-suburban novel. I myself would have totally missed the connection (or the trend!) if it weren’t because, as happens, I am reading Jackson for a round table I have this week and a did a quick Google search to check whether anyone had connected her to Ng.

I wrote about Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) only a few weeks ago, but I did not mention her other very famous novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), which was the object of a rather bland film adaptation in 2019, though Taisa Farmiga was quite good as the psychopathic teen Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood. Little Fires Everywhere might be closer to Jackson’s first novel, The Road Through the Wall (1948), which I have not read but appears to be a dire exposé of suburban life, based on the affluent Californian suburb where Jackson grew up. As happens, Ng also chose as her setting the planned community of Shaker Heights, in Ohio, where she grew up. This is presented as an asphyxiating utopia that keeps its inhabitants tied to a narrow view of life.

In Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle Merricat, a weird 18-year-old girl, is the first person unreliable narrator and [SPOILER ALERT] Jackson little by little unveils through the teen’s own singular narrative voice that she poisoned her parents, and her paternal aunt and uncle when she was sent off to bed with no dinner. Merricat put arsenic in the sugar, knowing that her elder sister Constance did not take any. Merricat was 12 at the time, and in the present six years later she lives with patient Constance, who accepted the burden of being unfairly accused of the crimes knowing her little sister is guilty, and Uncle Julian, who survived the poisoning but has been left mentally impaired. I have read recently that Merricat is a descendant of eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark, the perfect young girl and  murderess of William March’s immensely successful 1954 novel The Bad Seed. This was made even more popular by the Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson and the Academy Award-nominated film by Mervyn LeRoy of 1956.

I would say that Ng’s 14-year-old Isabel ‘Izzy’ Richardson has a little bit of Merricat, and a little bit of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye (1951), and, of course, plenty of any teenager who dreams of running away from suburban life. Ng’s novel is called Little Fires Everywhere because, as the first chapter narrates, Izzy burns down the family’s ample middle-class home by starting a little fire in each bedroom, as a perplexed fireman tells her mother, Mrs. Elena Richardson. Izzy’s rebellion against her unbearably perfect mother is fuelled by the novel’s antagonist, Mia Warren, an unconventional woman who cannot but clash with Mrs. Richardson.

While Elena, who is in her forties, is a firmly middle-class woman, rooted in her planned community for three generations and the mother of four children with great expectations in life, 36-year-old Mia leads a nomadic existence as an artistic photographer. Her art has carried her and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl already to 46 places all over the USA. It is not clear, however, whether Mia is genuinely attached to this lifestyle or whether she has no option but to hide, so as to conceal the existence of Pearl from her father (that’s a plotline I will not go into). The fact is that Izzy takes inspiration from Mia’s subtle hints to rebel. Mia, who rents her apartment from Mrs. Richardson and works eventually as her housekeeper, never confronts Elena openly but she understands very well Izzy’s dissatisfaction and indirectly helps the girl to vent it. She does not outright tell her to burn down the house, but she offers metaphors for regeneration that pretty much go in that direction.

As I read Ng’s novel, I thought that if I ever write a paper on it, this will deal with her criticism of utopia. Since the 1940s, as we see in Jackson’s case, there has been a constant dislike of suburbia in fiction, which grew to immense heights after Betty Friedan’s essay on how the suburbs kill women’s spirit in The Feminine Mystique (1963). The suburbs grew in US cities as the inner cities were abandoned to the poorer layers of the urban population. The white middle classes ran away to the cities’ outskirts and, further aided by trains and cars, created the stereotype of the devoted commuting husband and the happy stay-at-home 1950s wife. In Ng’s novel, set between 1996 and 1997, Mr. Richardson is indeed a commuting husband (a lawyer) and if Elena works, as a part-time journalist, this is only because her feminist mother shames her into doing so.

As a working-class kid raised in an old Barcelona neighbourhood, I do wonder what is so bad about suburbia, and why a privileged teen like Izzy should be so angry. I read a few months ago a memoir by English singer Tracey Thorn, part of the duo Everything But the Girl that perhaps offers an explanation. Her volume is called Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia (2019). You will see that the excerpt published by The Guardian carries the title “We looked at suburbia and wanted to burn it down”, a sentence that Izzy would certainly sympathise with, though she only commits arson against her own home. Thorn’s main complaint against Brookmans Park, where she grew up in the 1970s, is that it was “a village but not a village. Rural but not rural. A stop on the line, a space in between two landscapes that are both more highly rated–the city, and the countryside. A contingent, liminal, border territory. In-betweenland”. Her rather stark diary, frequently cited in her memoir, describes a boring life which only became exciting when she gained some autonomy and started enjoying London’s club scene. Izzy, who is only 14, has no such outlet, which increases her resentment against her mother, as she seems to embody the suburb itself. Ng allows her to run away, a solution that the book club members loved, even though they saw that a 14-year-old roaming the USA on her own would be soon caught. Hopefully by the Police, and not a rapist and killer.

Whereas Jackson’s girls and young women become unhinged by their disconnection from their surroundings, always being on the verge of some form of psychopathology or fully trapped by it, Izzy is not so far gone. Towards the end of the novel, her mother’s anger dissipates and “her heart began to shatter, thinking of her child out there among the world”. Elena considers why her child “had caused her so much trouble” and realises that Izzy us not “her opposite” as she believed but the only one of her children “who had, deep inside, inherited and carried and nursed that spark her mother had long ago tamped down, that same burning certainty that she knew right from wrong”. Jackson herself famously clashed with her mother, who always criticized her and had misgivings about her marriage to a Jewish man, and actually moved to the other side of the USA once married. The two managed to reach some kind of truce and be in good terms, as I imagine Izzy will eventually reconnect with Elena. Jackson became a very good writer, as we know, though she never managed to leave suburbia behind, becoming in essence a faculty wife in Vermont. I want to believe that, like her, Izzy manages to find her own place as far away as possible physically from Elena, and to build a satisfactory life, perhaps as an artist like Mia. I’ll end with what one of the book club members observed: what is really clever about Ng’s novel is that someone like Mrs. Richardson could read it without seeing how obnoxious her behaviour is, but we, who dislike her, do see it. I believe this is a narrative effect Jackson would have enjoyed very mu