Plenty of books are set in Chicago, but few take place in an alternate-history, science-fiction version of Oak Park. In Margaret Wappler’s debut novel Neon Green, the thinly disguised Prairie Park, Illinois is a “moderately affluent, educated, green and safe” suburb full of Frank Lloyd Wright mansions, Montessori schools, farmers markets, and—since it’s set in the mid-’90s—“the el train shuttling workers in Reeboks they’d exchange for heels and Oxfords once they hit the office.”
But in this version of 20th-century Chicago, the U.S. government discovered an alien civilization on Jupiter shortly after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Still cloaked in secrecy nearly 30 years later, the aliens visit Earth to monitor the behavior of suburban families, hiding behind the opaque glass of a flying saucer in their backyards.
Brisk, funny, and often moving, Neon Green is a biting satire of suburban Chicago during its pre-9/11 innocence and pre-recession opulence. Despite the science fiction premise, Wappler has essentially written a comedy of manners about an “eco-affluent” family on the brink of the digital age.
A former arts and culture critic at the Los Angeles Times, Wappler grew up in Oak Park during the ‘80s and early ‘90s before completing her undergraduate studies at Columbia College Chicago. Hyperlocal details provide Neon Green with a distinct Chicagoland flavor. Prairie Park, for instance, “liked to call itself a ‘village’ in its self-promotional literature, as if all the roofs were thatched and the women balanced gourds of water on their heads.” The same goes for her allusions to ‘90s culture, from Fugazi and Depeche Mode to Jolly Ranchers.
“For starters, it’s probably going to kill the lawn,” says Wappler’s paranoid paterfamilias Ernest Allen when the spacecraft lands in his yard one summer night. His wife Cynthia, an environmental lawyer in Chicago with a better grasp on reality, is privately suffering through a different kind of intrusion: a sharp pain in her left breast.
Meanwhile, their children investigate mysteries of their own. For 15-year-old Alison, it’s her budding creativity and sexuality. “I just want my life to hurry up and get beautiful,” she says after a strange man compliments her voice. For her slightly older brother Gabe, a shortwave radio geek, it’s a series of bizarre voices coming through the airwaves at night. One woman recites a list of names over and over, while another hosts a show called “The Book of Missed Connections,” spouting cryptic messages like “Neon is a vapor dragon.”
Wappler has mastered the narrative technique of suggesting things are a little off. Staring at the family cat, Cynthia suspects “for a moment that she might be the cat as well as herself.” Lost in the gleam of a Ziggy Stardust poster, Alison wonders if the entire world could exist inside one of David Bowie’s eyes, “all controlled and ultimately created by him. Why not him? Wasn’t he as good as any other God?”
When the spaceship starts dumping waste onto the family lawn, Ernest turns his energy away from saving the planet—“a temperate rock cradled in a gaseous film as moth-eaten as a vintage veil,” he calls it, in one of Wappler’s best turns of phrase—and toward confronting the extraterrestrial intruders. And then, a family tragedy changes everything.
Somehow, mixed in with the flying saucers, government conspiracies, suburban politics, and pop culture references, Wappler has crafted a clever and touching family drama about life’s big transitions. Nostalgic but never saccharine, serious but never depressing, Neon Green reminds us that our loved ones, our thoughts and feelings, and even our bodies can be just as mysterious as aliens.
I recently spoke with Wappler about why she returned to mid-’90s Oak Park for her debut novel, as well as how science fiction can illuminate truths about family, culture, and society.
Why did you set the book in the Chicago suburbs?
I wanted the most ostensibly baseline American setting possible for an alien spaceship to land, and the Midwestern suburbs seemed like a good candidate. A few friends from other countries have told me that they find Chicago to be the most American of big cities because it doesn’t have as many outside influences as Los Angeles or New York. Of course, a statement like that is endlessly arguable but I do think there’s something very insular and quirky about Chicago. It’s also diverse and a little old-fashioned without having a “seen-it-all” attitude. All of those qualities play one way or another into the book and its characters.
How much of the setting is directly inspired by Oak Park?
I grew up there in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and I wanted a setting that felt warm and familiar but still at a remove from my daily life (I’ve been living in Los Angeles since 2002). I had fun playing with Prairie Park as a site for the ordinary and the strange. Suburbs are often written off as the land of Stepford Wives and other mindless conformists, but I actually find suburbs to be bastions of weirdness and idiosyncrasies, especially in that period of time before big-box stores really took over. The individuality still survives. Now there might be a Staples next to a family-owned small business that’s been around for 50 years, but it’s less prevalent.
Why did you set the book during the mid-’90s instead of the present-day?
The ‘90s were key because I wanted a pre-Internet time to preserve certain mysteries, and an era I could render in warm detail because I lived through it. I have a lot of personal affection for the time but I also wanted the Allen family to be on the cusp of the Internet age. They don’t realize it yet, but so much of what they know of their daily life will be radically different in 10 to 15 years, in positive and negative ways. That kind of radical but incremental change appealed to me because the book is concerned with what gets lost when we’re not paying attention—people we love, a certain texture of life, and possibly the planet itself.
Why did you use science fiction elements to tell what is essentially a family dramedy?
To me, science fiction elements signal to the reader that the book has other concerns besides the earth-bound dynamics in a particular family. One family’s dynamics is certainly enough to anchor a book, but science fiction cracks open a deeper philosophical vein within the story. The spaceship represents not only an outside, possibly invasive force, but also the intangible, or the potentially numinous. At first it almost seems like a joke—and the clichéd imagery of a flying saucer hopefully enhances that—but these old symbols of science fiction, like the time machine, still embody a lot of our (light and dark) fantasies.