Think of The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs as an idiosyncratic road trip through America’s suburbs. Your guide, Jason Diamond, grew up in suburban Chicago but has lived much of his adult life in New York City. A recurring question during this excursion is whether or not Diamond will live in the suburbs again.
He tells us he has recently read everything he could find about suburbia. This includes fiction by John Cheever, who shaped our experience of suburban New York, and work by Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury and Celeste Ng. And let’s not forget William Gibson, the speculative-fiction writer who founded the cyberpunk genre and grew up in suburban Charlottesville, North Carolina, which he once described as “like living on Mars.”
There are movies, music and TV here, too. Who could forget Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candle or "Leave It to Beaver"? Or the work of David Lynch, whom Diamond credits with darkening our simple notions of the suburbs with a haunting idea that “there’s darkness hiding in the corner of the [suburban] room or standing on the nice lawn.” Music? Yes! We park for a time along grassy streets to listen to garage bands rouse the neighbors. We imagine other garages where teens tinker toward new technologies.
“I like to seek out places connected to movies and shows I love,” Diamond writes. Thus we travel to Seaside, the real-life location of Seahaven Island from Jim Carey’s The Truman Show. More out of curiosity than love, we visit Celebration, Florida, Disney’s planned community, which Diamond says is pretty creepy in its near-perfection. We’ve already visited ur-suburbs like Zion, Illinois, and Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, would-be Edens founded by confused or saintly hucksters to escape the evils of city life without actually going back to hunting and gathering. And of course there is Levittown, New York, the very image of suburban regimentation. Finally, we pause in a cul-de-sac to briefly consider the changing demographics of suburbs in the age of movements like Black Lives Matter.
Like all road trips, The Sprawl has its lolling moments. Diamond’s suburbs are lonely and boring places in need of a sense of community or at least a trip to the mall. Our attention wanders, and we focus on what Diamond reveals about himself, his boyhood bouncing from suburb to suburb to be with one or another of his divorced parents. But then a thought rouses us: The very blandness of these burbs is at the root of an ongoing restless, creative explosion. Diamond, as promised, lets us see “just how much the suburbs have influenced our culture.”