Boyd Tonkin: Tracts for our times: fiction in suburbia

It diminishes the late John Updike to classify him merely as the supreme anatomist of Middle America in its spreading suburbs and snug commuter towns. Yet every artist needs a canvas, and this former student of drawing (and lifelong critic of art) found in the uneasily affluent communities of the post-war East Coast the ground on which to paint his sumptuously shaded episodes from the human comedy. Updike cherished what he satirised, as every glittering sentence that unfurls across his landscape shows – especially in the four Rabbit novels.

Other US writers who gazed into the suburban soul found a deeper darkness there. Today marks the release of Sam Mendes's film of Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates – a novel that occupies what became Updike territory, but diagnoses a starker tragedy in its shackled lives and thwarted dreams. A later novelist such as Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm) feels closer to Yates than Updike in his dramas of family dysfunction. In Richard Ford's masterly sequence of novels about Frank Bascombe (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land), however, a more Updike-like grandeur and magnanimity finally prevails.

They do suburbia proud across the Atlantic. Can British novelists match this level of eagle-eyed attention? Here, a tighter, smugger register of social comedy becomes the default setting for too much fiction from the 'burbs. Clipped hedges, small minds and semi-detached lives make for over-obvious targets. Much as I enjoy Nigel Williams's Wimbledon imbroglios, the lure of the domestic sitcom – that glory and bane of British culture – never seems that far away, in these and other books.

Other writers do aim higher than the top of the privet hedge. The under-rated Wendy Perriam, Surbiton's star novelist, concocts a heady homebrew of sex and religion down her leafy avenues. Shena Mackay's south London manors abound with lyrical grace and even a touch of magic-realist wonder amid the pin-sharp comedy of class. And a diverse metropolis has, in fiction, shown its smartest face not on the clichéridden mean streets of the inner city but in more petit-bourgeois boroughs. Multi-culti London thrives most on the page amid gentility, not grime: with Hanif Kureishi, from The Buddha of Suburbia through to Something To Tell You; in Zadie Smith's White Teeth, or at respectable addresses such as Diana Evans's 26a (a real gem of a novel).

Of course, suburbia need not mean London and the Home Counties. From Birmingham (Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club) to Sheffield (Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency) middle-class manners rooted in a richly evoked time and place have prompted rewarding returns to the green lawns of home.

For all this quality and breadth, modern British fiction still lacks its Updike. Why? Perhaps it relates to the familiarity that breeds, if not contempt, then indifference. Most of the suburbs that feature in our novels feel, to their survivors and observers, aged and settled spots – as mature as those coveted back gardens. In the US (and Revolutionary Road shares this perception), suburban life looks like far more of an experiment – even an adventure that may go horribly awry. It's significant that some of the most haunting home-grown novels of suburbia also capture this new-fangled oddity: in George Orwell's 1939 Coming Up for Air or, recently, in Michael Frayn's Spies, set during wartime when a freshly-developed Surrey estate still harboured a strange and exotic air.

So it could be that a British Rabbit Angstrom will not hail from Bromley or Barnet, Solihull or Didsbury. Instead, inspiration might strike on some semi-rural tract of Barrett-colonised ex-farmland where the buses go only to Asda. Agents will tell you of the knock-down bargains to be had along rows of "executive homes" where cows lately grazed. Would-be Updikes should think about quitting the innards of Shoreditch for the outskirts of Swindon.

P.S.Last Saturday, Tate Modern hosted a stimulating day of debate on relations – or lack of them – between the arts and the sciences. Among the star turns was Dr Ben Goldacre, scourge of "bad science" in the media. Goldacre suggested that the arts benefit from much "richer" and more reliable coverage than almost any science. Er ... up to a point, Dr Ben. When publishing meets celebrity, any old rubbish goes. Last week, the Mirror claimed that Britney Spears (left) is writing her autobiography and "the ink should soon be dry on a £10m publishing deal". I can find no evidence for that. Yet almost every showbiz website in the world (yes, the future of journalism!) has repeated it as gospel. But if, by the time you read this, the invisible deal has materialised, I'll do something far more painful than eat a copy of the Mirror: listen to a Britney album.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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