Thursday, February 19, 2009

Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

There have been so many novels and movies about the vacuous nature of suburban life, the biting angst that dooms just about anyone who wears Dockers and lives in a subdivision or at the end of a cul-de-sac and, gosh, God forbid, works hard to earn a living for the family, that it’s perhaps the most tired and clichéd storyline of our times.

At the same time, this pernicious confrontation between the urgent need for individual expression in the vicious swarms of conventionality is a peculiarly gripping storyline that’s uniquely American.

Revolutionary Road might be the grandfather of this genre, despite the fact that Rabbit Run was published one year earlier, in 1960; it’s influenced everything from The Ice Storm to American Beauty and the television series Weeds.

But Revolutionary Road doesn’t have any freaky moms selling dope in order to keep up appearances as Weeds does. In fact, while reading it, I wondered how a novelist could pitch such a story today. Everything about it drips with the sort of ordinariness that agents and publishers shy away from. There’s not a gimmick to be had in this novel—no alchemists, time travelers, or circus freaks. Its hook is existential angst, straight up, no chaser. Who wants to read such stuff?

And yet the novel is refreshing—still, nearly 50 years later—in unexpected and stunning ways. I don’t think I’ve read any domestic drama that is quite so disturbing—not because of any extreme actions or events that take place, but simply because of many small yet tragic pivots that life and love turn on.

It’s the mundane that is the most disturbing thing of all in this life.

Yes, there’s a big whopping tragedy at the end that’s plenty disturbing, but it’s the quotidian arguments, the daily tussles with the self that truly haunt me. These people try, no matter how ineptly or awkwardly, to make it all work—and that’s the key to the tragedy, they do try—but they fail in a way that probably isn’t too far from the way most of us fail or nearly fail or could fail. Life is a horrid summation of all of their small missteps and downfalls, the small traps that they fall into—traps they unfortunately often set for themselves.

The novel begins fittingly with a wide-angle group shot, as if Yates is on a hillside describing a herd of sheep, except he’s describing the dress rehearsal of the Laurel Players, a theatre group that some of the more imaginative and perhaps more daring members of the community put together. No one is singled out for description; the director addresses “them” as if they are a team, all wearing the same jerseys and masks.

Yates gives this herd of sheep, these gutsy artists, the same hopes and fears—both of which sabotage their happiness and success. “The trouble was that from the very beginning they had been afraid they would end by making fools of themselves, and they had compounded that fear by being afraid to admit it.”

Fear debilitates the best of efforts of the characters in this story. Their fear causes them to mangle their lines, and the performance turns embarrassing, perhaps most noticeably for April Wheeler, who plays the lead role and pins the most hopes on the theatre group.

Afterward, Frank Wheeler goes backstage to console his wife. “It simply wasn’t worth feeling bad about,” Frank thinks. “Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were.”

Remembering who you are turns out to be a difficult and ghastly thing.

Frank and April are smart, perceptive people—and therein lies the tragedy: Their sensibilities don’t guide them out the traps they find themselves in, yet they’re smart enough to realize that life should hold more. How…how…how?

When April and Frank first met, the unencumbered possibilities of youthful dreams made them look and feel brave and smart. Frank could spout his caustic, spirited, grand theories of life like a college undergraduate, and April admired his wit and intelligence because there was no reason to think that they wouldn’t lead exotic, heroic lives, that they would become bohemians, artists, even if they didn’t have an art to practice. They didn’t know that living such a life goes far beyond words and theories and requires a genuine and undeniable passion—the recklessness of fervid pursuit.

April becomes pregnant before their fanciful conceptions are put to the test, and their life quickly shifts into the deep furrows of conventionality, even though they don’t desire such a life. Frank takes a job with Knox Business Machines and becomes a “man in a grey suit,” even if he conceives of himself above it all.

Frank later thinks: “Wasn’t it true, then, that everything in his life from that point on had been a succession of things he hadn’t really wanted to do? Taking a hopelessly dull job to prove he could be as responsible as any other family man, moving to an overpriced, genteel apartment to prove his mature belief in the fundamentals of orderliness and good health, having another child to prove that the first one hadn’t been a mistake, buying a house in the country because that was the next logical step and he had to prove himself capable of taking it.”

Still, Frank hides from the reality of his life by propping up what turns out to be a chimera: that he is saving himself for an invisible “creative” life. What will make it creative, no one, especially Frank, knows.

Frank is anything but frank, after all. He moves through life trying to pull its strings like a novelist, in the hope that nothing will get ruffled, least of all his self-conception.

Frank and April’s marriage follows a pattern of connection and disconnection, as most relationships do, but the whipsaws of their arguments become increasingly familiar territory. They’re adversaries who need each other. Adversaries, who can, but seldom, comfort each other. Adversaries who love each other, except they don’t know what love is, and they wonder if they ever did. Everything, it seems, is a fateful, disturbing contradiction.

Frank’s lost and found manhood and his misplaced attempts to stave off the emasculating forces of the world—and in himself—form a dangerous undercurrent to their lives. Life in the suburbs, it seems, inherently strips a man of some fundamental and necessary aspect of manhood.

He returns to his truer nature only when swilling martinis and having an affair, or in the glimmers of moments while doing something mundane and unheroic like yard work.

“Even so, once the first puffing and dizziness was over, he began to like the muscular pull and the sea of it, and the smell of the earth. At least it was a man’s work. At least, squatting to rest on the wooded slope, he could look down and see his house the way a house ought to look on a fine spring day, safe of its carpet of green, the frail white sanctuary of a man’s love, a man’s wife and children.”

The repetition of “at least” is like a drum beat in the novel. Life is a series of rationalizations that begin with “at least.”

But then a moment emerges to break free from the “at leasts” of their lives. April proposes that they move to Paris--the last moment of springtime renewal she offers in a life devoid of more Aprils. “You’ll be doing what you should’ve been allowed to do seven years ago. You’ll be finding yourself. You’ll be reading and studying and taking long walks and thinking. You’ll have time.”

Nothing terrifies Frank more; he senses that there’s no self to find, no creativity to express. And he’d have to accept April as a breadwinner to his lethargic, empty self.

“Alas! When passion is both meek and wild!” Yates quotes John Keats to begin the novel. Such a battle ensues in the passions of Revolutionary Road, but Frank and April fail to pick up the figurative musket of their revolution to take a single shot at the enemy.

What a definition of the tragic—Keats’s meek and wild passions dueling. Does the person who complains about not having enough time for his or her true self have the courage to seize the time when it becomes available? It’s easier to complain—and therefore imagine that that better self, that better life exists—than put it all to the test.

Ah, what I could be if I only lived in Paris…

Frank can’t express his fear, for that would make him a failure, in April’s eyes and his. He goes along with things, tries to learn French, tells his co-workers and his friends that they’re leaving, and is even energized by the timidity of their reactions—finally, he can live in contrast. But when April accidently becomes pregnant, he’s saved. He doesn’t want the baby, but at least it shields him from any attempt to find—and confront—himself.

“The pressure was off; life had come mercifully back to normal,” Yates writes.

A life of fear—and security—is preferable to a life of bravery—and insecurity. What a nettlesome and devastating existential situation.

James Wood accurately described Yates’s prose as “richly restrained” and “luxuriously lined but plain to the touch” in his essay in the New Yorker. Yates’s talent was such that he easily could have succeeded in the over-the-top lyricism that commands such attention these days, but he chooses to restrain himself for mimetic reasons, it seems—to convey the simple, devastating truth that runs through his story. He’s the definition of an honest writer.

He’s so honest that he can appear cruel at times, especially because he doesn’t shy away from piercing displays of life’s cruelties. Take the scene when Frank breaks up with Norma, the secretary he’s been having an affair with, just when she surprises him with a nude dance, the wafts of a carefully cooked dinner coming from the kitchen, her naïve love about to be shattered forever. But her love wasn’t a part of his “level” breakup plans.

And nothing ends up being “level” in this novel. The suburbs, it turns out, are again full of singeing drama. Why would we ever think such a place was safe?

For more, Emily Gumport wrote a thought provoking essay on Richard Yates in Bookslut.

Read more reviews at Lit Matters.