Monday, February 9, 2009

Abandon hope

Richard Yates
Revolutionary Road
Vintage Contemporaries, 2008 (original copyright 1961)
Softcover, 355 pages

The back cover of the 2008 edition of Revolutionary Road features a blurb by Kurt Vonnegut, in which he declares the novel to be “The Great Gatsby of [Vonnegut's] time.”

Unfortunately for readers of Yates’s book, the mid-Fifties did not hold a candle to the Roaring Twenties in terms of the pleasures that accrued to the voyeur. At least in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel the excesses and hare-brained escapades of Daisy and Tom Buchanan, not to mention Jay Gatsby himself, gave us some relief from the necessary consideration of the emptiness of their lives.

In Revolutionary Road, by contrast, the lives of the protagonists amount to an unrelieved stretch of monochromatic dullness from the first page to the last. Their story made me wonder (not for the first time) how partners in any marriage ever manage to raise a family, socialize with other couples, remain faithful to one another, stay employed for long enough to secure their pensions, and grow into states of gracious elderhood without flinging themselves from high places in the face of the absolutely devastating boredom that must distinguish at least 90 percent of their waking hours.

Not that this observation is without merit, of course: life can be deadly dull, predictable and mundane, even (or perhaps especially) for the truly gifted and extraordinary. Just as, even for those who expect nothing, it can have moments of high drama, excitement, satisfaction and even joy. In all lives there is a blend, and that Richard Yates chose to present the horrors of ennui nearly undiluted brings me up against the morality not so much of his characters or his novel, but of him.

In brief (as many of you will know from the movie, which I have not yet seen), Revolutionary Road is the story of a young couple—April and Frank Wheeler—who launch their marriage under the delusion that they are vastly superior intellectually and in every other way to their contemporaries. She is an actress in the making, he is languishing almost ironically in a dead-end job with a company that once employed his father—which must mean, by his own definition, that it is far beneath his dignity. The Wheelers view their newlywed circumstances as temporary: when their gifts are recognized by a grateful world, they will soar free of all things mundane and live rich and interesting lives. Never for them the tedium of “the American dream,” which they superciliously envision as a home in the suburbs and a pair of children.

But then April and Frank conceive a child, and before they know it they are beginning to resemble that couple they have always despised. They even have a boy after the girl: how much more American-dreamlike can it get? The inevitable next step in the erosion of their vision is the purchase of a house in Connecticut in which to raise their children. The name of the street encapsulates the desperate bleakness of their lives, and forms the title of the novel.

Frank and April manage to sustain their illusions for a little while longer after moving to Connecticut by attaching themselves to Shep and Milly Campbell, fellow residents of their new neighbourhood—who (for the sake of the friendship, one suspects, and not out of any real conviction) are willing to go along with the conceit that they are all meant for better things. The two couples spend their evenings and weekends drinking together and dissing the other residents in their community. But when they put on a little-theatre play which turns out to be so bad that people start leaving at the intermission, reality begins to insinuate itself—first between the Campbells and the Wheelers, and then between Frank and April.

Once they begin to realize that they are no different (read "better") than any other couple, the only recourse that remains to the Wheelers (aside from facing the truth) is for each of them to believe that as individuals they must be superior to the other. That new conviction seals their fate, causing both of them to start making decisions that have nothing to do with preserving their marriage. (Preserving the larger family seems a non-issue: throughout the novel: the Wheeler children are almost irrelevant. They appear onstage from time to time as needed, but Yates makes no effort to engage our sympathy for them. “From a distance, all children’s voices sound the same,” April observes coolly at one point.)

Before they are through (and when they are through they are truly and utterly done) both Frank and April manage to debase themselves and to betray not only their marriage but their friendships and their pasts.

I cannot think of another book I have read whose setting, characters and plot were so completely, almost terrifyingly, depressing—and that includes Under The Volcano and The Road. At Grand Central Station at the end of his commute one morning, Frank looks around himself , contrasting his life (which has suddenly and temporarily been brightened and energized by an utterly unrealistic and foredoomed plan that he and April have hatched to escape it) to those of the others he sees around him:
How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked, with their gray-flecked crew cuts and their button-down collars and their brisk little hurrying feet. There were endless desperate swarms of them hurrying through the station and the streets, and an hour from now they would all be still. The waiting midtown office buildings would swallow them up and contain them, so that to stand in one tower looking out across the canyon to another would be to inspect a great silent insectarium displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones, acting out their passionate little dumb show under the supreme indifference of the rolling spring clouds.
Many years ago I read On Moral Fiction by John Gardner, in which he argued that the writer has an ethical responsibility to push away the chaos that distinguishes so much of human life. Revolutionary Road fails to meet one basic requirement I have since developed as part of my own literary theory, which is that major characters who are doomed must at least be given a way out—and given at least an option to accept it or decline it. April and Frank have been given none. Their fate is sealed by the world in which they live, and they are not bright or imaginative enough to save themselves from it.

My reaction to Revolutionary Road may sound to some as unaware and witless as telling Phillip Larkin to “cheer up.” They may see this novel as a contribution to the “slice of life” variety of literature, and be satisfied with that. Not me. Yates's writing (unlike Larkin’s) is not of a calibre to lift the story above the mundane world that it describes, nor does the novel provide the reader with any perspective or at least wry wariness that might serve as a tool for addressing his or her own reality.

Long after I finished reading the desperate tale of Frank and April Wheeler, I continued to ask myself whether the stultifying and horrible dilemma in which this couple found itself (which is, keep in mind, no more or less than the reality of many marriages) even merited the attention of a novel. I do not believe it did.


[iCopyright] Copyright 2009 Mary W. Walters

7 comments:

Christopher Tassava said...

Ouch. I've neither read the book nor seen the movie, but honestly, this review makes me want to do both. I want to see if I find the Wheelers as depressing as you do. I have a strong stomach for depressing.

(Beautifully written review, by the way.)

gaepol said...

Fascinating: I agree with Christopher. I'm sure that speaks to your review. YOU have somehow made the book sound intriguing. The author should send you flowers.

gaepol said...

Fascinating... I agree with Christopher. You have somehow, by your well-crafted review, managed to make the book intriguing to me. The author ought to send you flowers.

Mary W. Walters said...

I think that Richard Yates died in 1992, so perhaps I should send him flowers instead of dumping on him.

gaepol said...

Hah!

(Can I hah here?).

But nothing funny about that. Dump as you may have tried, you, did, somehow, make the book seem interesting. I would love to see "your version" in a short story with "morality" added.

How's that for an assignment? ;)

Callista said...

Not my kind of book but you write good reviews. You should come join the Book Blogs ning. IT has over 1000 members and us book bloggers chat about everything! I think you'd like it. I just added a group for Ontario Book Bloggers too if you are interested. http://bookblogs.ning.com

BookWormz said...

You know, I don't think I want to read this book. I'm so glad I read your review, b/c I almost picked it up yesterday. :) Thanks - great review!