This John Lanchester piece in the Guardian does the business. I want to point to two paragraphs in particular, one about literature and one about film.

First, literature:

I’ve never seen a film or television programme about the importance of commuting in Londoners’ lives; if it comes to that, I’ve never read a novel that captures it either. The centrality of London’s underground to Londoners – the fact that it made the city historically, and makes it what it is today, and is woven in a detailed way into the lives of most of its citizens on a daily basis – is strangely underrepresented in fiction about the city, and especially in drama. More than 1bn underground journeys take place every year – 1.1bn in 2011, and 2012 will certainly post a larger number still. That’s an average of nearly 3m journeys every day. At its busiest, there are about 600,000 people on the network simultaneously, which means that, if the network at rush hour were a city in itself, rather than an entity inside London, it would have the same population as Glasgow, the fourth biggest city in the UK. The District line alone carries about 600,000 people every day, which means that it, too, is a version of Glasgow.

Second, film:

Orson Welles once said that the only two things that could not be filmed were sexual intercourse and prayer. I take him to mean that they were the two human activities whose significance was entirely internal: they were happening to the people who were experiencing them in a manner that could only be experienced, and not depicted. The underground is like that – not exactly like that, because there are significant differences between travelling on it and either having sex or praying, but it is on the same continuum, because its significance for us is internal. It’s a going in, a turning in, not exactly a mystical state, but one that we know deep down inside ourselves is not an ordinary or routine condition. We escape it with distractions, or we try to switch off, but we can’t entirely hide from it. That internal state, central to tube travel, is very hard to put on TV.

When it comes to literature, there are some interesting moments of commuting (I have a dissertation rattling around an old laptop that testifies to that) but not many, if any, extended novel-length (heck, chapter-length) engagements with it. For film it is much the same. But must the focus be on commuting for it to exercise itself on our brains? Part of what makes the commute for deadening is its sameness – the same route every day, at the same time. While that could work, it’s too ritualized (both narratively and formally); and ritual is another trait prayer and sex share.

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