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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there