As someone who grew up in suburbia and didn’t really enjoy it all that much, I have a particular soft spot for anything that describes artfully the depressing facts of life which comprise the coming of age in such an environment. What I’ve tried to do here is assemble the ten best such works, which can be anything from songs to movies to books. The flip side of all this is something like “Manhattan”, the Woody Allen film I had such a love of when I was a teenager, mostly because it revealed a world that seemed incredibly inviting, one that involved having intense intellectual conversations in front of glorious cityscapes. That was the fantasy, where escapism allowed me to go – the below list contains what was the expression of reality made palatable.
10. The Breakfast Club
Yes, this is a very obvious choice but by the same token, could I really have left it off? For a movie which takes place almost entirely in one room, it covers a lot of ground. The four poor, teenaged souls who convene on a Saturday to see out a draconian detention regime under the supervision of the all time greatest “teacher as existential demon” performance, delivered by Paul Gleason as the amazingly sadistic Richard Vernon, talk amongst each other – at first in hostile tones, but the closer we get to the ending the more convivial the proceedings become. What holds them back at first are the trappings of the high school social cliques they belong to, which unravel as the kids get to know one another. Best scene: the one where all four of the main characters, now stoned on marijuana, dance to some forgettable 80’s synth pop number.
9. “In the Garage” by Weezer
The song starts with an appropriately mournful harmonica riff, going on to describe beautifully the solipsism of youth. “In the garage/I feel safe/No one cares about my ways/In the garage/Where I belong/No one hears me sing this song.” Best moment: the bit about Kiss, of course: I’ve got posters on the wall/My favourite rock group KISS/I’ve got Ace Frehley/I’ve got Peter Criss.” Not only name checks New York’s clown rock quartet, but the two coolest ever members of it at that.
8. Blue Velvet
A wonderfully warped view of suburban American life from the master of the form, David Lynch. If you haven’t seen it, I’m not about to set about trying to describe it to you. It’s a David Lynch film and may even be the quintessential David Lynch film. Best scene: the very opening, in which scenes of suburban calm are shown in slow motion, only for the camera to unexpectedly plunge into the earth to reveal a squirming mass of insects just below the surface. An honourable mention does need to go to Jack Nance and his “I’m Paul” moment though.
7. Naked, by David Sedaris
Ostensibly a straight series of autobiographical short stories about Sedaris’ youth growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, it becomes clear soon enough that the book is instead a surreal exploration of just how weird the American suburbs can actually be (making this a good pair with Blue Velvet for an evening in). Becomes less suburban as the book goes on, but the early stories are the best portion of the book anyhow. Best bit: the third chapter, “Next of Kin”, which describes what happens when little David finds a poorly written pornographic novel in a park, brings it home and from there how its journey in front of the eyes of all the family members changes the dynamic of the household temporarily.
Although Kevin Smith went on to make some very self-indulgent films, his first, very cheaply made effort remains his one true masterpiece. A look at two guys in early adulthood, lost in the suburban wastes, one working at a convenience store, the other in a video rental shop (remember those?) that is immediately adjacent. One of the definitive statements about suburban ennui, if you want to understand why suburbia can be hell, and a very amusing hell at that, this is required viewing. Best scene: what else was it going to be? Of course it’s when Randall reads the porn titles out while on the phone to the distributor in front of the mother and her kid.
5. “Lions (Linden)” by Pavement
“Every building same height/every street a straight line” is a great opening gambit if you want to sing a song about the suburbs, and Malkmus doesn’t let us down from there. Almost the aural equivalent of a very good John Hughes film, Pavement treated this in their typical way, shoving it into the middle of a rare EP. Best bit: the fact that the team which plays its games twenty miles westward, known as the Redbirds, play in blue.
4. The Swimmer, by John Cheever
This is one of those stories you were forced to read in school that made little sense to you at the time. Which is a shame because it is an absolutely brilliant story – you just have to be a grown-up to understand that. And yes, it’s mostly about the ravages of alcoholism, but it’s always been obvious to me that what drove Neddy there in the first place had something to do with the existential horror of suburbia. Best part: can only be that harrowing ending.
3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
After you’ve just read or re-read “The Swimmer” and need to feel good about life again, watch this classic. One of those films that can make you feel joyful about life anew, even if you’re terminally depressed about something, it follows a day in the life of one Ferris Bueller, a guy who is about to graduate from high school in a suburb of Chicago. He convinces his best friend, Cameron, who is the neurotic opposite of Ferris, to take a trip into Chicago and have a great day skipping school together. Along the way, the usual coming-of-age lessons must be absorbed, but there remains an anarchic, stick-it-to-the-man feel that is unusual for this kind of thing. Best scene: I really want to be more outré than this, but I would be being dishonest if I didn’t tell you it’s the “Danke Schoen”/”Twist and Shout” on the parade float bit.
2. The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
Certainly the best portrayal of the awfulness the suburbs can contain put into print, it’s also one of the best portrayals of dysfunctional family life I’ve ever encountered. The pain and regret that drips from each page make it heavy reading, but one worth the effort. Best bit: when Chip as a child is forced to sit at the table to finish his by then cold dinner, forcing it down his throat while guilt eats away at the father who has made this scene happen.
1. “Frontwards” by Pavement
It is undoubtedly self-indulgent of me to put not only two Pavement songs in the top five, but two Pavement songs from the very same reasonably obscure EP (that being the brilliant Watery, Domestic), but the truth must be outed. The lyrics to this classic say so much about suburban life, starting from the opening couplet: “I am the only one searching for you/and if I get caught, then the search is through” which somehow explains the flight from suburbia perfectly on an emotional level. But it’s the chorus that makes this deserve the number one spot for me. “Empty homes, plastic cones/Stolen rims, are they alloy or chrome?/Well, I’ve got style, miles and miles/so much style that it’s wasted.” The double meaning of “wasted” – the one being an expression of braggadocio, the other a literal meaning – gets me every time. Best bit: just all three minutes and sixteen seconds of it.