Friday, April 25, 2014

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates

Where do we to to to find authenticity in our lives? Artistic expression; meaningful work; love and marriage; family; children ... And what do we do if what we find there seems little more than cheap artifice or a momentarily shared delusion?

The opening of the novel largely concerns the unsuccessful staging of an amateur production of The Petrified Forest*. The play actually pre-empts much of the storyline of the novel, with dreams of escaping to France and artistic creation clashing against drear mundanity.
The failure of the play seems to be hard for April Wheeler, who starred and had once been a drama student. But there is a shared, communal sense of failure, and a sense that life is about reaching a compromise with your various failures: "time and again they read the promise of failure in each other's eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might lie in wait for them there."

This latest failure drives a wedge between April and her husband Frank, irritation soon growing into aggression and lurching towards hatred: "Then the fight went out of control. It quivered their arms and legs and wrenched their faces into shapes of hatred, it urged them harder and deeper into each other's weakest points, showing them cunning ways around each others strongholds and quick chances to switch tactics, feint, and strike again." It will take time to make up after this fight, long enough for Frank to sleep with a fellow office worker in order to shore up his faltering manhood.

Frank spent time in Europe during World War Two and went to college afterwards, during which time he managed to convince himself how interesting he was. He strikes poses in order to get noticed and when impending fatherhood drives him to find a proper job he deliberately finds one that will not tax him in any way, nor distract him from LIFE. "All I want is enough dough coming in to keep us solvent for the next year or so, till I can figure things out; meanwhile I want to retain my own identity. Therefore the thing I'm most anxious to avoid is any kind of work that can be considered "interesting" in its own right. I want something that can't possibly touch me. I want some big, swollen old corporation that's been bumbling along making money in its sleep for a hundred years, where they have to hire eight guys for one job because none of them can be expected to care about whatever boring thing it is they're supposed to be doing."  However there is a sense from the start that when he gets to realising what this "identity" is he will be facing the same dillema Mother Hubbard faced when she tried to feed the dog.

The writing about the corporation Frank finds himself in is grimly funny, and also fascinating as archeology of the recent past. Who has "multigraphed" a document? And we also get the early days of the computer revolution, with some things that haven't changed. Here is a description of the demonstration models at the Knox corporation, where Frank works, the same company his Dad Earl had been a salesman for. "Some of them, the simpler ones, were much like the machines that had kindled his father's enthusiasm twenty years before, though the angular black designs of those days had all been modified to fit the globular "sculpted forms" of their new casings, which were the colour of oyster meat; but there were others equipped to deal with the facts of business at speeds more lickety-split than anything Earl Wheeler could have dreamed of. These, ready to purr and blink with electronic mystery, grew more and more imposing across the floor until they culminated in the ig inscrutable components of the Knox "500" Electronic Computer, a machine which, according to the museum card displayed at its base, could "perform the lifetime work of a man with a desk calculator in thirty minutes.""

He was attracted to April because he thought she was the type of "first-rate girl" who was too good for him.  She found him interesting, thinking him indifferent to the usual trappings of success and a non-conformist. They will live interesting lives. But there is an undertow drawing them deeper in to the suburbs, deeper into commuter / housewife conformity, even if their house has a bit more character than their neighbours, even if they rail against being "painfully alive in a drugged and dying culture."

But both Frank and April have poor relationships with their own families and are ambivalent about the fact of having a child. They are happier having "interesting" lives and feel that the compromises they have made have driven them into a life that is untrue to their real selves. In order to escape this apparently inevitable fate April comes up with a plan to move to Paris. She will work and Frank can think. This detente brings the couple back together and they start to pull away from their few friends in their locality. Could this be their own actual Revolutionary Road? "It's like coming out of a Cellophane bag. It's like having been encased in some kind of Cellophane for years without knowing it, and suddenly breaking out."

The other major characters are the Campbells, a couple who they meet up with for drinks and who are also involved in The Petrified Forest. Shep is 'in love' with April. There is also the Givings, an older couple. Mrs Givings is a real estate agent who buries her dissatisfaction in workaholism and as for her husband Howard -  "in retirement it seemed that the years of office tedium had marked him as vividly as old seafaring man are marked by the wind and sun." He escapes from his wife's constant talk by turning down his hearing aid. Their son John has had a number of breakdowns and is in a local asylum. Mrs Givings thinks that the Wheeler's are a couple he might get on with and brings him to visit when taking him on a day out. He has no sense of propriety and speaks his mind, playing the role that The Fool is often said to play for the king who hears nothing else but what people think he wants to hear.

There is a lot more in this book, which works both as a topical and realistic story of the times, much of which remains topical today. It also works as a mythic telling of lives in a consumer society that has come adrift from meaning, trying to find it in things, or places, but unable to simply be. These are characters who do not know themselves, and often don't wish to look too closely for fear of what they might find. It is easy to understand how this book has come to be considered a modern classic. If you haven't read it already you should.

By the way, I haven't seen the film. Should I?

* The Petrified Forest was made into a film with Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart. Bogart had been in the Broadway cast and it was his first major film role.

It was also broadcast live on TV in 1955, the year in which Revolutionary Road is set.


  1. Suberb commentary on this one.

    Both the book and the film have been on my radar for years but I have neither seen or read. I like thoughtful and incisive character studies especially when they center upon relationships.

    I have heard that the film was good.

    1. Thanks Brian. This had slipped under my radar until a few years back but I'm glad I became aware of it. Well worth reading.

  2. Spot on with this Seamus. I came to Yates through his short stories, 'Easter Parade' and the usual connections with those other writers who fix on the minutiae of disappointment and tired lives; Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. I always found those two to be keen eyed but empathetic; their writing a recognition of 'All of Us'. Yates seemed different; a crueler, dispassionate disinterest; an Ethologist's detached focus, 'the 'spastic haste', 'the 'cunning' the 'shapes of hatred' the 'tactics' that deflect the disappointments. This made for a compelling but uncomfortable read. There was no relief from the recognitions. And Paris as a refuge was close to home for me; Corsica had become a kind of 'Sidcup' to Di and I; the place where everything would pan out… It took two solo albums and a lot of belly button gazing to work that one out…
    That post war period when folk had time to stand and stare, to consider their own lives; have thoughts of controlling that brakeless cart…the idea that identity, ambition and destiny were somehow controllable after the uncontrollable horrors of two great wars… These were big subjects laid bare in small lives. Folk had time to indulge themselves, to look too closely at lives that were probably better unexamined; hence the inevitable unravellings. Look then stare, then look away from the recognitions. If you can control everything you end up with Michael Jackson's face… The moral for me? The need to trust in hazard and not look too closely at your nose or your ears; the harder you stare the uglier they get.
    I liked the film; Winslet is fabulous, always keen to reveal all; an emotional honest actress, it deconstructed DiCaprio's chutzpa and vanity; he seemed spot on as as the balloon about to be pricked. No BANG, just a slow farting sound as he deflated...

    1. Great comment Trevor - more prescient than the original post, I think! Yes, there is soothing cold, but disconcertingly truthful, at the centre of this book. I must chase down his short stories if they bear comparison with Ford and Carver. Indeed just realised I have one in Ford's brilliant Granta Book of the American Short Story.

    2. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/feb/17/biography.fiction

      On the above link there's a great piece on Yates from The Guardian where the writer talks about his focus: "'My characters all rush around trying to do their best, trying to live well within their known and unknown limitations,' Yates explains. 'Doing what they can't help doing, ultimately and inevitably failing because they can't help being the people they are.'
      'If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.'
      Not a lot of laughs then…

      The Collected Stories of Richard Yates brings together '11 Kinds of Loneliness' and 'Liars in Love' plus a couple of rogue tales. Do not read in one sitting or in the vicinity of Beachy Head…


  3. A friend (Thanks Brendan) sent me this link which concerns Richard Yates' phantom appearance in an episode of Seinfield - http://www.theawl.com/2011/12/larry-davids-rough-night-out-with-the-aging-literary-lion

  4. "And where are the windows? Where does the light come in?" pretty much sums up his outlook.
    There's a song to two in there.

  5. I really struggled with this. One of those that I read realising it was a great piece of writing but not really enjoying the experience. The empathy that Trev mentioned is exactly why I will keep going back to Ford and Carver but found RR just left me too cold and I think the book suffers a bit for me because of it. It is a cruel unrelenting eye, and because of that there was something that doesn't ring quite true I realise that this is a personal truth and a need for a bit of warmth nnd fuzziness round the edges of the fiction I read. I ended up feeling closest to the character who retreats into his own world by turning down his hearing aid.!
    The film left me feeling the same way ,the performances were spot on , it was beautifully shot etc but it still felt like there was something missing

    1. There doesn't really seem to be an author surrogate in the book, or at least not the one who actually wrote, perhaps one who didn't quite get around to it. That gives the book a certain distancing effect. However as a very definite "half-empty" person when it comes to our species I guess I feel a certain empathy with Yates' viewpoint.

  6. What's missing is heart David. And his heartlessness is heartbreaking. Yates's vision was unerring; he keeps prodding mercilessly at the wounds. Makes his writing true and clinical. I imagine that he wasn't the best of huggers…
    "No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying."

    1. He doesn't go in for the comforting lie alright Trevor.

  7. I wasn't that keen on the film to be honest, but I've been meaning to pull the book off the shelf.

    1. It's worth reading Guy, as long as you're not looking to be convinced of the wonders of modern civilisation.