I was reading an interesting NY Times Op-Ed on the 5:46 home last night, in which David Brooks pointed out that suburbanites are always portrayed as miserable and unfulfilled in literature–most recently in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, which will undoubtedly sell a million copies and further the stereotype that much more.
Sometime long ago, a writer by the side of Walden Pond decided that middle-class Americans may seem happy and successful on the outside, but deep down they are leading lives of quiet desperation. This message caught on (it’s flattering to writers and other dissidents), and it became the basis of nearly every depiction of small-town and suburban America since. If you judged by American literature, there are no happy people in the suburbs, and certainly no fulfilled ones.
Fair point, I thought. And it’s not just literature. Suburbanites on screen are either philandering boozers with black souls (Mad Men, Revolutionary Road), or inept parents and clueless dolts living in faceless, treeless housing tracts (Super Nanny, Extreme Makeover, most anything else on ABC at 8).
I picked up the new Arcade Fire record last week, which is titled, yes, “The Suburbs.” I haven’t played it enough to follow the theme, but the band–an eclectic mix of artsy types from outside Houston as well as Montreal–said it was “neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs — it’s a letter from the suburbs.” I’m pretty sure that’s their way of saying, we want everyone to buy our record–city kids and suburban folks alike.
I chewed on Brooks’ point about literature as I rode my bike home from the station. Up ahead, a few blocks from my house, I saw a cute Tudor home, it and its yard adorned in some sort of decorations. With the chill in the air and increasing aural presence of crickets on my ride home these days, I figured it was Halloween stuff–we’ve got the scarecrow out, and others have pumpkins.
I got closer and saw the decorations were blue. I saw a man taking a photo from the end of the lawn near the street.
I saw a woman on the doorstep, the focus of his photo. She held a baby tight to her chest, big smile on her face even after the camera did its business.
The decorations celebrated the baby’s arrival.
“Congratulations!” I yelled as I cycled by.
Suburban misery, my ass.