The hopeless emptiness

Revolutionary Road is the first novel by American writer Richard Yates. Published in 1962, it is an unsparing analysis both of the failure of a particular marriage and more generally of the human desire to create myths so as to impose order on the chaos of existence, and of what happens when those myths fail us.

I was inspired to read Revolutionary Road, and indeed introduced to Richard Yates, through a review on Trevor Barret’s blog The Mookse and the Gripes. Trevor introduced me to Richard Yates as a writer, and in doing so did me a great kindness. I recommend his review, and that of John Self over at The Asylum unreservedly.

The novel opens with the first performance of a play by the Laurel Players, a new amateur dramatic society in which April Wheeler has a leading role. Frank and April Wheeler are a young married couple, with two young children and a fine house in a decent neighbourhood in the suburbs. The performance is a disaster, April’s participation in it an excruciating embarassment despite her pre-marriage ambitions as an actress. Afterwards, Frank has little idea how to comfort her, and on the drive home they fall into a blazing and bitter row which culminates in her leaping from the briefly paused car and running off in anger:

She was out of the car and running away in the headlights, quick and graceful, a little too wide in the hips.

Note the utter lack of sentimentality there, even in the pitch of argument Yates (and Frank) takes the time to observe April’s small imperfections. Frank goes after her, approaching from behind:

His arms flapped and fell; then, as the sound and the lights of an approaching car came up behind them, he put one hand in his pocket and assumed a conversational slouch for the sake of appearances.

Already then we have the feel for the novel, it is unpitying, closely observed, every failing of the characters is held up to merciless light and no room for ambiguity of interpretation of their failings is permitted. Frank, even in the midst of his wife’s humiliating failure and the terrible argument that it has produced, is concerned for the opinions of strangers driving past. His concern for appearances, for cutting the right figure, is greater than his concern for April herself.

As the novel progresses, we learn that Frank and April were originally a pair of New York sophisticates, Frank praised by all as a coming young man of great ability, with the two marrying when April became pregnant and Frank refused to allow her an abortion. Frank took a job he hates, they moved to the suburbs, but though they have joined that dream of American conformity both of them prize themselves as superior to their neighbours in perception and taste (even to their friends the Campbells, whom they faintly look down upon). Both consider themselves outposts of civilisation among the banality of America’s corporate classes.

Frank and April then have a sustaining myth, that they alone (with the Campbells as willing acolytes) care about culture, that of those living in their suburb only they truly appreciate the importance of art and independent thought and life beyond the office and the increasingly perfect consumer home. This myth is destroyed for them when their neighbours one and all dutifully turn up for the play, show themselves willing to engage with it, and the Laurel Players (behind whom the Wheelers and the Campbells are a driving force) wholly fails to deliver. The play fails, and in doing so punctures the Wheelers’ myth of specialness, and sets in motion the disintegration of their marriage.

Yates explores the slow unravelling of the Wheelers’ marriage in the aftermath of the theatrical production with surgical precision. As matters worsen, April realises that the only way to save them is to move to Europe, to opt out of their life of suburban comfort, to take a great risk and to give themselves and most importantly Frank the opportunity to be the people they always wanted to be. For Frank, it is a terrifying prospect, the appalling possibility of being able to live in accordance with his carefully constructed myth of self and to test it against reality.

For the bulk of the novel we have two perspectives on events. That of Frank Wheeler, and that of an unsympathetic and unsparing authorial voice, often directly commenting on the characters, their feelings and their actions. Zola once spoke of his desire to write fiction as a form of scientific experiment, to examine without turning away the consequences of the interaction of his characters. Yates does something similar here, we observe these characters under a microscope and Yates is keen that we understand them fully.

At times, Yates is content to allow Frank to condemn himself, in his own words. Frank’s concept of himself as a gifted man forced by circumstance to live in mundanity is plainly a myth of self, a created identity which Frank tells himself to make his life bearable. In truth, Frank is greatly concerned with appearances, shows little desire to leave his tedious job and often thinks of himself in terms of an idealised vision of how others see him.

As he digs a rock path, and thinks while doing so of what a manly act digging such a path is, he considers his life and how he came to his present suburban idyll:

And I didn’t even want a baby, he thought to the rhyhm of his digging. Isn’t that the damndest thing? I didn’t want a baby any more than she did. 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 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.

Frank is constantly concerned with proving himself, and comforts himself that his failures are not of his doing but are the result of his need to provide for his family, to comply with the needs of others.

Frank’s is not the only perspective we share, we dip briefly into the internal worlds of others too, among them his friend Shep Campbell, the Wheeler’s acquaintance Mrs Givings and a local band leader named Steve Kovick. In each case we again see a myth of self, a constructed personal reality by which each individual lives, and the tragic gap between that personal myth and the truth of who they really are.

Of Shep Campbell, as a child:

For years, boy and man, he had yearned above all else to be insensitive and ill-bred, to hold his own among the sullen boys and men whose real or imagined jeers had haunted his childhood, to deny by an effort of will what for a long time had been the most shameful facts of his life: that he’d been raised in a succession of brownstone and penthouse apartments in the vicinity of Sutton Place, schooled by private tutors, and allowed to play with other children only under the smiling eye of his English nanny or his French ma’mselle, and that his wealthily divorced mother had insisted, until he was eleven years old, on dressing him every Sunday in “adorable” tartan kilts that came from Bergdorf Goodman.

Of Mrs Givings, following a difficult afternoon in which she introduced her institutionalised son to the Wheelers, shortly after the pretends to herself she is still the girl of her youth only to take off her stockings and be reminded that she is nothing of the kind:

She cried because she’d had such high, high hopes about the Wheelers tonight and now she was terribly, terribly terribly disappointed. She cried because she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen and horrible; she cried because none of the girls had liked her at school and none of the boys had liked her later; she cried because Howard Givings was the only man who’d ever asked her to marry him, and because she’d done it, and because her only child was insane.

And of Steve Kovick and his band:

They could play anything, in any style you wanted to name, and to judge from the delight that swam in their eyes they had no idea of what inferior musicians they were.

Each of them has an idea of their own life, Shep after a childhood pretending to be rough now pretends to be cultured, though not so much as the Wheelers. Mrs Givings lives her days in a flurry of makework, filling every moment with activity and comforting herself with a perfect home which she shares with a husband who turns off his hearing aid when she talks. Steve is convinced he is a talented band leader, unable to “lose his frantic grip on the conviction that he was great and getting better all the time”. Each of them lives a comforting lie, and Yates is at pains to ensure none of these lies pass unexposed.

As well as experiencing the inner life of these characters, we also see Frank at work, learn of his childhood and of April’s, we see late night dinner parties and uncomfortable afternoons, all of it brought to life in Richard Yates’ remarkable prose (and he is, without doubt, a hugely gifted prose stylist). Characters have affairs, dodge work assignments, get drunk and generally live their lives – at all times with the gap between desire and fulfilment, between dream and reality, painfully exposed by Yates’ authorial eye.

Indeed, one criticism of the novel is that Yates leaves little to the reader, although there are times a character’s thoughts or actions are uncommented on he is a good enough writer that their real (if often unrealised even to them) motives are quite apparent. He is not, however, shy of simply telling us directly and there is therefore an element of telling rather than showing. Show not tell though is a rule which, with the right author, is eminently breakable and although Yates is open to a charge of unambiguity I think that is a direct result of his desire to set out an authorial vision of human reality and to refuse us any possibility of hope or redemption.

Yates speaks most directly to us at the beginning of the third section of the novel, in a lengthy authorial interjection about the human desire to impose meaning on the chaos of existence:

Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort.
“Synchronise watches at oh six hundred,” says the infantry captain, and each of his huddled lieutenants finds a respite from fear in the act of bringing two tiny pointers into jeweled alignment while tons of heavy artillery go fluttering overhead; the prosaic, civilian looking dial of the watch has restored, however briefly, an illusion of personal control. Good, it counsels, looking tidily up from the hairs and veins of each terribly vulnerable wrist; fine: so far, everything’s happening right on time.

“Oh, let me see now,” says the ancient man, tilting his withered head to wince and blink at the sun in bewildered reminiscence, “my first wife passed ayain the spring of -” and for a moment he is touched with terror. The spring of what? Past? Future? What is any spring but a mindless rearrangement of cells in the crust of the spinning earth as it floats in endless circuit of its sun? What is the sun itself but one of a billion insensible stars forever going nowhere into nothingness? Infinity! But soon the mercifucl valves and switches of his brain begin to do their tired work, and “The spring of Nineteen-Ought-Six,” he is able to say. “Or no, wait-” and his blood runs cold again as the galaxies revolve.

“Yes sir,” he can say with authority, “nineteen-Ought-Four,” and the stars tonight will please him as tokens of his ultimate heavenly rest. He has brought order out of chaos.

Yates has a masterly eye for character, incident, detail and description. He marries this to a wholly unsentimental examination of both the Wheelers’ own marriage and to the fictions people create to smooth their days. In Yates’ vision, only John Givings sees unvarnished truth and he is committed to an insane asylum (a note which, for me, was slightly cliched actually, thankfully Yates is a good enough writer to just about pull that off). To live with reality leads only to madness or death. To live in an illusion of one’s own creation leads to disillusion and despair. The only people who come across as other than miserable, are those few with no imagination or desire. The Wheelers consider themselves alone in having a spark of the ideal still within them, but as their neighbours’ attendance at the theatre performance shows, the reality may be much worse in that everyone has some such spark and in each it is unrealised.

Ultimately, this is a tragic and relentless novel, marvellously written but lacking all hope other than briefly raised hope which makes its loss all the worse. The ultimate horror comes with April’s inevitable realisation that Frank in the end is happiest as he is, living in the suburbs, working in a large and faceless corporation, that his dreams and frustrations are a lie. The dream of the suburbs, of the perfectible family, is also a lie, but this novel is not simply a novel of suburban frustration but more an examination of human frustration and the tragedy of the individual human life.

Other visions are of course possible, Yates’ bleak narrative indeed permits of others within his fictional world. Perhaps people in New York are living happy and fulfilled lives, but perhaps also that thought is merely another illusion which Yates as narrator would hold up to the light and expose as nothing but more wishful thinking.

The Book Depository – Note, this link takes you to the Vintage edition, with a rather Mad Men-esque cover. I’d suggest that rather than the version with the film cover, because I’m a snob and struggle to read books with film covers. With reference to Mad Men, Kevinfromcanada rightly notes that the series is plainly heavily inspired by this novel, and although there is no overlap of character or incident I think it’s fair to say Mad Men is in many ways Revolutionary Road the tv series.

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13 Comments

Filed under US fiction, Yates, Richard

13 responses to “The hopeless emptiness

  1. Between this and Slumdog Millionaire I detect a pattern. Is your next review going to be of The Reader? don’t you know that you’re supposed to see the film so that you don’t have to read the book?

    Interestingly, in his review of the film, Kermode effectively described the subject matter as dull on the grounds that Mad Men got there first. A touch unfair given that the book predates Mad Men but it might explain why the film got made…

    I’ll be interested to see whether the film features the scene with the theatre as I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere and I think it puts a different spin on things. If there’s no theatre scene then the story is just of middle class angst, but if there is a theatre scene (and the character is shown to be talentless) then the story takes on the far more interesting theme of self-delusion that you pick up on.

  2. I had no doubt you’d love the book, Max. Since reading Seven Kinds of Loneliness I haven’t read more Yates, but I look forward to reading all of his works.

  3. That should be Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (he wrote seven books, which John Self once called Seven Kinds of Loneliness).

  4. Already read The Reader ages back Jonathan, it’s quite good, though for me at least it’s not persisted in memory as much as I might have hoped. Let down slightly by everyone knowing up front she’s an ex-concentration camp guard, that’s supposed to be a big reveal. Gomorrah’s on my list though, in the film tie in category…

    Slumdog Millionaire (Q & A) was actually coincidence, it got recommended with three other Indian novels and just happened to be the one I took first. Revolutionary Road I read now to avoid being spoilered by reviews of the film, though actually having read it it’s not really the sort of work can get spoilered.

    On the theatre scene, it’s April who’s humiliated, but it’s Frank’s lack of talent that’s critical. April recognises her limitations (including as an actress) in the course of the novel, Frank doesn’t really and it’s his self-delusion which drives the tragedy. The theatre scene also though shows that neither of them is really superior to their neighbours and that they’re not delivering culture to the uncultured, like Olympians to mortals. That is critical, without that it’s just another tale of how ghastly suburbia is and that I’d have little patience for.

  5. Trevor, it was genuinely your review put me on to him, so thanks for that. Tremendous stuff.

  6. Great analysis. I’ve been longing to read this book for years now, but they don’t have it at the local library and so far it hasn’t turned up in used book shops. I left it too long and now the movie has come out and just the trailer went a long way to spoil the book for me. It looked as if Mendes, in his simplistic manner, has reduced it to a “suburbia is bad” theme. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get the image of the two constantly screaming couples out of my head when reading the book. Has any of your commenters seen the movie? I’d be curious if my assumptions are correct (I loathed American Beauty and I see now that he is going to get his hands on Middlemarch; ugh).

    Fortunately, your review has reminded me that there is depth in the novel and reinspired me to check it out again. It will almost for sure be at the library now, though there will be a wait.

    I wrote a brief review of Yates’ A Good School here:
    http://olmansfifty.blogspot.com/2007/04/20-good-school-by-richard-yates.html

  7. Hi Walker,

    There’s certainly no shortage of constantly screaming couples (well, couple) in the novel, but there’s much more too and the screaming is described in beautiful prose.

    The hell of suburbia is part of it, but as I said above if that’s all there was I wouldn’t be interested, indeed the cheap contempt for suburbia shown by the Wheelers is not treated kindly. I haven’t read The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, which is the most obvious comparator, but I think the novels of this period were engaging more with the themes of their day which included the emptiness of suburban life, but that was just part of a broader theme about the conflicts between a seeming consumerist utopia and the imperfect people trying to live within it. Utopias are always unforgiving on the imperfect, which at the end of the day is all of us.

    Oddly enough, I enjoyed American Beauty when it came out, then hated it in memory. Which is the truer reaction, I don’t know, but for me it was one of those films which seemed better on viewing than it did on reflection. With hindsight, I thought it showed condescension rather than compassion, whether that’s true or not though I can’t now say.

  8. Ah… interesting.

    The trailers don’t mention the talentlessness of the central characters at all. Going by the trailers you could be forgiven for thinking it’s the story of two artistic and talented people being stifled by a corporate culture.

  9. Then I hope the trailers lie, or the film has quite missed the point.

    Go see it Jonathan, take one for the team!

  10. Yes, condescension and the general air of superiority was the foundation of my complaint with American Beauty.

  11. Excellent review, Max. I too was put onto Yates by Trevor’s review and it has been a most satisfying discovery. He isn’t perfect, by an means, but he is very good. I’ll admit to liking the short stories almost as much as Revolutionary Road — some of the other novels are a bit hard to take but are important as parts of the whole. He is one of those authors whom I think you need to consider the whole body of work to truly appreciate.

  12. Pingback: it’s supposed to be a good school | Pechorin’s Journal

  13. Love your analysis of this novel, Max, especially your commentary on the creation and destruction of myths surrounding the Wheelers’ lives. That nails it. I must have read this around the same time as you, back in 2009 just before the film came out, and your review makes me want to pick it up again.

    P.S. These Vintage covers are absolutely wonderful, aren’t they? Just perfect for Yates’ work.

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