Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson


For Book Review No. 26, a quick look at David Brooks's On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. It overgeneralizes. It's probably overtaken by events. Start at page 3.
That means we have a huge mass of people who not only don't live in the cities, they don't commute to the cities, go to movies in the cities, or have any significant contact with urban life. They are neither rural, nor urban, nor residents of a bedroom community. They are charting a new way of living.
Perhaps that way was made possible by cheap oil, and it's unsustainable, or perhaps its current existence will influence the innovations to be induced by no-longer-cheap oil. Mr Brooks focuses on how that mass came to be.
It's as if Zeus came down and started plopping vast towns in the middle of the farmland and the desert overnight. Boom! A master planned community. Boom! A big-box mall! Boom! A rec center, pool, and four thousand soccer fields! The food courts come first, and the people follow.
His focus is on who follows, and who stays behind.
This suburban supernova subtly affects every place in America. The cities and inner-ring suburbs are affected because only certain kinds of people get left behind. Quite often the people who stay are either the very poor, because they can't afford to move, or the very rich, because they can afford to stay and live well in upscale enclaves.
And he goes exploring the new suburbs, which have the logic of Von Thünen rings. From page 5:

If you were to judge by the literature of the past century, nobody is happy in suburbia.

But driving through the suburbs, one sees the most amazing things: lesbian dentists, Iranian McMansions, Korean megachurches, nuclear-free-zone subdevelopments, Orthodox shtetls with Hasidic families walking past strip malls on their way to Saturday-morning shul.

At some point in the past decade, the suburbs went quietly berserk. As if under the influence of some bizarre form of radiation, everything got huge. The cars got huge, so heads don't even spin when a mountainous Hummer comes rolling down the street. The houses got huge. The drinks at 7-Eleven got huge, as did the fry containers at McDonald's. The stores turned into massive, sprawling category-killer megaboxes with their own climactic zones. Suburbia is no longer the land of ticky-tacky boxes on a hillside where everything looks the same. It is the land of the gargantuoids.

That's what cheap oil will do for you, and in its passing, the jumbo executive box houses (built plain so as to be $300K houses rather than $0.5m McMansions) and Hummers will sell at distress prices to the once and future poor, and McDonald's will do even more repositioning. What we may have in Paradise Drive is a look at the Thünen rings just before the party ended. From the central place, we pass through "bike-messenger land", home to the edgy and bounded by the left-behind zone of the urban poor. The next ring is the "crunchy suburbs" where the edgy with children live, the "professional zones" (better characterized as "yuppie hell?"), the "immigrant enclaves" where the maltimed traffic lights and 1950s-social-critic fodder commercial spaces remain, the "suburban core", and "the exurbs." Mr Brooks clearly specifies his focus on the middle-class and better-off segments of contemporary life, although he suggests there is not so much social division or social stratification as there is a lack of awareness about how others live. In that, his presentation differs from Paul Fussell's Class, a lamentation about Prole Drift in early 1980s life, although both works generalize extensively about how associational communities live.

But Mr Brooks's real focus, pace Wordsworth, is on the very correctness of getting and spending. Page 90:
America's image is to the world what southern California's image is to the rest of America. When many foreign observers look at America, they see the culture of Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Disney, boob jobs, Bart Simpson, and boy bands. They see a country that invented Prozac and Viagra, paper party hats, pinball machines, commercial jungles, expensive orthodontia, and competitive cheerleading.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. There's also religious belief, a "mighty Achievatron" for the raising of children, too little time to play, a great deal of effort in the promotion of products and the shopping for them, aggregating to the pursuit of a dream, or as Mr Brooks puts it, "A History of Imagination." Hence the "future tense" in the subtitle. Whether that imagination will adapt to the new energy realities or the coming due of contingent liabilities remains to be seen. Wordsworth would probably see those McMansions and Hummers as laying waste our powers. Mr Brooks would likely envision a new manifestation of Zeus, or perhaps a new kind of radiation, at work.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops). 
  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded