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The Suburbs Are Still Hell

Two new books by Jason Diamond and Eula Biss expose the fraught moral dilemmas of living in the ’burbs.

GraphicaArtis/Bridgeman Images

Before he vaulted to infamy in August for allegedly shooting three people and killing two in the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Kyle Rittenhouse led a regular teenager’s life in the Illinois village of Antioch. Its slogan is “Authentic by Nature.” It’s the type of slogan, and Antioch the type of town, that Donald Trump wants to put at the center of the 2020 election. He recently tweeted that “people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream” would “no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood” if they voted for him—an obvious appeal to white fears of Black people. Those fears are so real that Rittenhouse had his mother drive him and his tactical gear across state lines to protect storefronts in danger of being harmed by those protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

The American suburbs, created by white flight from the cities, have long been the site of racialized terror. They also have been an expression of this country’s capitalist creed, presenting the opportunity for millions of citizens to own a bit of property. “I’ve long believed one of the mainsprings of our own liberty has been the widespread ownership of property among our people,” Ronald Reagan said in 1987. A year earlier, David Lynch gave the lie to the Suburban Lifestyle Dream in the first scene of Blue Velvet, with an indelible depiction of insects swarming under the surface of a manicured lawn. The utopian sheen of American suburbia is a mere lick of paint over the dark forces of fear, greed, and violence.

Those forces have become ever more apparent in our era of rising income inequality and staggering student debt, and now the suburbs represent yet another fault line in American society: a generational one. While almost half of America’s Baby Boomers snapped up their first home before the age of 35, the prospect of buying a house has now zoomed preposterously out of reach for most young people. Between 1960 and 2017, the difference in homeownership rates between Americans under 35 and over 65 went from 25 to 44 percentage points. One set of Americans rent the bricks and mortar, and their forebears own it.

The classic American family home has morphed from a symbol of success to one of deep injustice. Two new books, Jason Diamond’s The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs and Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had, take this transformation as their prompt to ask: What does it mean to own a home in modern America? And might there be another way?

Diamond’s book is a cultural history of American suburbia, embedded in his own recollection of growing up shuttled between divorced parents in various identikit Illinois ’burbs. He is not concerned with the nitty-gritty of mortgages so much as the dominant myths of these places, particularly the quintessential vision of teen life John Hughes depicted in mid-1980s films like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs
by Jason Diamond
Coffee House Press, 225 pp., $15.59

The suburbs, with their strip malls and IHOPs and quiet nights, are for Diamond redolent both of nostalgia and terror. He revisits the many classic works of art about suburbia as a place of repression and homogeneity: the gloomy fictions of John Cheever, Ira Levin’s horrifying Stepford Wives. He then expands that canon to include a new theory of the alienated American teenager.

The anti-social tendencies of the children of white suburbia—which he extends all the way to the Columbine shooters—is an underappreciated symptom of a culture bloated by private wealth in postwar America, he argues. Chief among his evidentiary artifacts is the 1979 movie Over The Edge, which Diamond watched on television on many an unending summer afternoon as a kid. In his debut role, Matt Dillon plays one of a gang of teenagers who terrorize “New Granada,” their affluent suburb, after growing bored and listless among its easy comforts.

The movie was based on real events in Foster City, in the early 1970s, Diamond explains. After the developer T. Jack Foster announced the incorporation of the California town in 1960, buyers flooded in. But the schools weren’t prepared for the influx of students, and the region’s children began to form gangs called “mousepacks” that committed petty crimes like theft and vandalism. Diamond quotes a letter published in the San Francisco Examiner during the “mousepack” scandal, in which a local resident diagnoses these irksome kids as “having too much, too soon.”

Raised amid perfect comfort but without any street culture or other forms of organic social interaction, children of the wealthy postwar American suburbs experienced a form of existential despair reminiscent of that of well-off housewives in the same period. In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote of the “suburban housewife” in The Feminine Mystique that, “as she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’”

Alienation, in other words. If suburbia in the period of America’s explosive postwar growth epitomized the problem of growing up with too much, and homeownership is a bigger extravagance today than it has ever been before, it follows that the alienation of contemporary home-buying would also be stronger than ever. And as the pandemic triggers a wave of affluent people moving from the center of cities like New York to its outskirts (“The people from New York are coming with a sense of urgency,” a New Jersey real estate agent told the Times this week), the question is whether this new generation is going to recreate the suburban culture of America’s long-gone boom times, or aim for something else.

Eula Biss’s new house is the subject of her new book, a collection of essays circling elegantly around the object of her study. At first, this object appears to be furniture. “We’re on our way home from a furniture store, again,” the book’s first chapter opens. “What does it say about capitalism,” Biss’s husband, John, asks her, “that we have money and want to spend it but we can’t find anything worth buying?” The couple almost bought a credenza, she notes, “but then John opened the drawers and discovered that it wasn’t made to last.”

Having and Being Had
by Eula Biss
Riverhead Books, 336 pp., $23.92

Just like Biss’s book On Immunity and her 2008 essay “Time and Distance Overcome,” both of which purport to be about vaccines and telephone poles but are actually about fear and racist lynching, Having and Being Had is only about furniture insofar as it is about the act of buying things for ourselves, and how we know (or feel, in some subconscious twisting of the guts) when we have bought too much or the wrong thing.

Biss reaches this point at Thanksgiving, in the house she has bought with her husband on the shore of a lake to raise their child. (She’s vague about its precise location.) She is “upset about the gravy boat” that John bought for the occasion, a disproportionate reaction that is actually about how “it all feels like too much. Even the phrase ‘our own house.’” The gravy boat is surfeit, as is the whole enterprise of material satisfaction in an era defined by precarity.

Biss is honest about her desires: “What I wanted, more than anything, was the illusion of permanence the house provided.” She then sets out on an inconclusive series of conversations and musings about the meanings of terms like capitalism: “After a pause, Bill admits that he doesn’t really know what capitalism is. In trying to explain it, I realize that I don’t know either.” Spoiler: Biss never quite succeeds in finding a definition, but she learns plenty about herself.

Biss is limited by her interest in modernity, which stymies her research. She uses the term feudal or feudalism several times throughout the book, for example, to contrast modern systems of labor and capital with society in earlier times. But “feudalism” itself is not defined rigorously enough—historians themselves rarely use it these days—becoming a conveniently vague place for Biss to put her ideas about what other possible lifestyles might be out there beyond market capitalism, as if she doesn’t want to look at them too closely or get too far away from the material conditions before her.

Diamond similarly stumbles by taking the definition of his own topic for granted. Though he presents strong arguments in The Sprawl, he neglects to describe in detail the suburbs he thinks of as universally familiar. I left the book not knowing much about what Diamond’s suburbs feel like on the granular level and how the discontent he describes among people of his generation connects to such detail.

Diamond and Biss are both curiously modest, to the point of uncertainty, when they make their observations. Both are interested in power, money, and exclusion, and the way these invisible forces have created the visible environment of modern America. Their self-deprecating attitudes, as well as their use of first-person perspectives, seem designed to avoid causing offense. Perhaps they’re cognizant of the optics of speaking too loudly about their own comfortable white lives.

There is a connection between the far right’s radicalization of the American suburbs and the social inequality that private property augments, and which every person who purchases a home taps into by dint of their social position. That connection flows, too, between the alienated teenagers Diamond writes about and the feelings of unease Biss examines in herself. Though Biss and Diamond might consider bringing more fire to their next projects, a little treachery toward our property-obsessed suburban norms—and the racist attitudes they continue to spawn—is better than none.