December 20, 2008

Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road

Posted in Yates Richard at 8:00 am by John Self

It’s rare enough that I have time to re-read books these days, so for Revolutionary Road to earn the rarest accolade – a third read! – it must be pretty special, right? With Yates’s star so firmly in the ascendant, it’s hard to believe that less than ten years ago, he was forgotten and out of print on both sides of the Atlantic. Novelist Stewart O’Nan’s 1999 essay ‘The Lost World of Richard Yates’ helped sow the seeds for the Yates revival, which in the UK began in 2001 with the reissue of Revolutionary Road. An Amazon review I posted suggests I read it about a year later, by which time (according to my copy) it was already in its fourth printing: clearly the Yates resurrection was already gathering pace. I loved the book, thought it a blinding wonder, and was encouraged to read all his other books – which I’d just finished doing when I began this blog. I re-read it in 2006, and found it somewhat diminished. I was inspired to make a third visit because the Yates revival is itself enjoying a revival, and nothing succeeds like success; plus, I wanted one final chance to fix Frank and April Wheeler in my mind before they are forever rendered into Winslet and DiCaprio.

Revolutionary Road (1961) was Yates’s first novel and is widely considered to be his best. I’m not so sure of that, though it does have a unity of direction and quality of invention that many of his later novels lacked. In particular, here there is a compelling storyline where his other novels tend to comprise scenes from a (rotten) life; and, uniquely I think among his novels, there is no character very obviously based on Yates’s drunken mother. In other respects it has the flaws of a first novel: Yates seems unable to keep his thumb off the scale, with an insistence on telling us everything his characters think and feel, and on explaining all. I would like sometimes to work it out for myself – or, even better, to remain puzzled. And the relentless belittling of the characters and places in the book looks a lot less fresh as a Yates stalwart than when reading him new.

What Yates does have, however, is significant. The word most often used in praise of his writing is “honesty” – and he has that, of the most brutal kind, in spades. He is clear-eyed and unsentimental with all his characters – though at times I sensed a reverse sentimentality in his willingness to do them down so readily – and in particular with the runts of his litter, Frank and April Wheeler. Even the aforesaid tendency never to be silent about what his characters are thinking is often to good effect; when April and Frank have an argument at the beginning of the book – a sign of underlying tensions which will break out devastatingly as the story progresses – Frank’s observes April “out of the car and running away in the headlights, quick and graceful, a little too wide in the hips.” His accounts of domestic bust-ups are painfully true. “He couldn’t even tell whether he was angry or contrite, whether it was forgiveness he wanted or the power to forgive.” He never turns away to avoid the characters’ – or the reader’s – blushes.

Indeed, if honesty is Yates’s best policy, it is April and Frank’s unwillingness to accommodate one another’s feelings with the everyday compromises of marriage which contains the roots of their downfall. They are so worried about ending up “face to face, in total darkness, with the knowledge that you didn’t know who you were” that they are determined to direct their own lives. It’s the 1950s, and they live comfortably on the suburban east coast of America, but April in particular is set on moving to Europe. She tells Frank:

You’ll be finding yourself. You’ll be reading and studying and taking long walks and thinking. You’ll have time. For the first time in your life you’ll have time to find out what it is you want to do.

Frank is “instantly frightened” by the plan – what if it turns out that there’s nothing he’s good at? April assures him: “It’s got nothing to do with definite, measurable talents – it’s your very essence that’s being stifled here.” So their lives are frozen in a classic stasis: unable to stay, unwilling to leave. Equally trapped are their neighbours, the Campbells and the Givings, on whom Yates wastes no sympathy:

[Mrs Givings] 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.

The territory here is the existential horror of stable prosperity, of the working life, and in particular of post-war malaise. (See also Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (1974), or even Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922; different war) – all of which I highly recommend). For Frank, his happiest time was during and the aftermath of the war, where he fought in Germany. “For the first time in his life he was admired, and the fact that girls could actually want to go to bed with him was only slightly more remarkable than his other concurrent discovery – that men, and intelligent men at that, could actually want to listen to him talk.” Now that life has stopped rising and has reached a plateau, Frank struggles to cope. It happens to everyone (if they’re lucky), but few would react so self-destructively as Frank and April do, talking themselves into circles, through bad decisions and out the other side. Their hope that moving to Europe means that “they would be new and better people from now on” is futile, as wherever they go, they bring themselves along.

What a reread of Revolutionary Road reveals, as well as a relentless negativity in the (solipsistic) authorial voice that is much less bracing second and third time around, are some clever details such a foreshadowing in literary terms near the beginning – which cannot be mentioned for fear of spoiling it. If the book is about the ups and downs of honesty with others and with ourselves, and the terrifying compulsion for change (Annie Proulx’s “if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it” might not have been bad advice to the Wheelers), it is also about the ups and downs of Yates’s commitment to honesty, and how it can be irritating in one paragraph and heartbreaking in the next. To me, Revolutionary Road is best judged as a gateway drug to the world of Yates, which contains work no less great such as Cold Spring Harbor, The Easter Parade and Young Hearts Crying – and indeed many of his stories – rather than as a stand-alone masterpiece without equal or sequel.

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22 Comments »

  1. Oh dear this looks good. Happy Holidays to you John. May you get lots of books.

  2. kimbofo said,

    I’ve not read “Revolutionary Road” before but as I read through your review I kept thinking of Sloan Wilson’s “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”, so was delighted to see you’d name-checked that exact novel. Funnily enough, before I logged onto your blog this morning, I read this post at The Neglected Books Page: http://neglectedbooks.com/?p=242

    I think someone is telling me I need to read Richard Yates.

  3. Sam said,

    Great review of a great book, John.

    I think I had the same reaction compressed into one reading that you’ve had over three. I began the book and was goggle-eyed with delight; halfway through doubts crept in that maybe it was all just surface over surface; and by the end I thought the book was all lost of minor notes being struck very loudly and beautifully.

    The scene in the bar between April and Shep Campbell was my favourite; Shep’s doubt and pain and despair and love for April is so well controlled. There’s two or so consecutive pages of writing when they’re sat at the bar that I think I’ve re-read at least ten times. Some of the most sincere writing I’ve read.

    Your point about reverse sentimentality is something James Wood has consistently criticised the ‘dirty realists’ for, particularly Hemingway and Yates, and it’s something he mentions in his recent review of ‘Revolutionary Road’ in ‘The New Yorker’.

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/12/15/081215crbo_books_wood

    I read Theo Tait’s review of Yates’ oeuvre recently, and thought it excellent. Well worth a read.

    http://www.tbns.net/elevenkinds/tait.html

    I like Proulx’s no-nonsense advice! But didn’t Rushdie get their first in ‘Midnight’s Children’, when Saleem Sinai keeps on reminding us that, ‘What cannot be cured, must be endured!’?

  4. John Self said,

    Your point about reverse sentimentality is something James Wood … mentions in his recent review of ‘Revolutionary Road’ in ‘The New Yorker’.

    Yes, I looked at Wood’s piece yesterday after I’d finished writing the above, and did consider that people might think I had cribbed from him. (I know you’re not saying that. …Are you?) If only I’d put my review up before the 15th!

    Rushdie probably did get there first, and old wives before him, but I like the way Proulx puts it – those are the last words of her best known story ‘Brokeback Mountain’.

    kimbofo, extraordinary synchronicity! And yes, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is terrific too.

    Thanks Candy, and the same to you. Personally I’m hoping I don’t get any books…

  5. Sam said,

    No, John, I’m not. It didn’t even occur to me that you might interpret my comment in that (slightly paranoid) way. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with cribbing from James Wood: I do it all the time.

  6. John Self said,

    No, I know Sam, really it was an extension of my a comment I myself had made on Trevor Berrett’s blog yesterday after I read the Wood piece. The fact that you raised the coincidence entirely neutrally just enabled me to make that rather desperate pre-emptive strike.

  7. KevinfromCanada said,

    While I still have three Yates’ novels to read, the key to me for his work is captured in the last sentence of your review. I think he is one of those authors who needs to be looked at in the sense of his entire work, not just a particular book. The short stories — which I like very much — contain many of the initial ideas which later sprout into novels. Revolutionary Road would seem to be his most ambitious book in terms of scope but, as your review correctly notes, it also does have some “first novel” issues. The other novels that I have read look at a much smaller slice of Yates’ world, albeit in much more detail. He certainly isn’t a cheery kind of guy and neither are his characters — but he is a most perceptive observor in bringing the world as he sees it to life.

  8. Sam said,

    Chillax, dude!

  9. Steerforth said,

    The greatness of Yates lies in his ability to depict mediocrity. Yates’s characters are not remarkable in any way, but in their youth they suffer from the conceit that they are destined for greater things.

    I think most readers can empathise with the plight of the Wheelers, but how many novels give voice to such a universal phenomenon? There is a relentless negativity in ‘Revolutionary Road’, but for all of us who have the dreams without the talent, Yates’s compassionate voice is a source of solace.

  10. John Self said,

    Well put, Steerforth, but I don’t see much solace in the book, just from the acknowledgement of a universal phenomenon: nor compassion, particularly. Indeed, here and in other Yates, it seems too clear to me that Yates is allowing his own views to infect the characters too much, and in particular the narrative description of them, such as this paragraph depicting the character of Gloria Drake in Cold Spring Harbor:

    Here she gave a little laughing shudder that was probably meant to be girlish and disarming, but all it did was call attention to how loose and ill-defined her lips were. When she laughed and shuddered that way, holding her shoulders high for emphasis, she looked like a shuddering clown. … She may not have been more than fifty, but there wasn’t much left of whatever she’d had in the way in the way of looks. Her hair was a blend of faded yellow and light gray, as if dyed by many years of drifting cigarette smoke, and although you could say she’d kept her figure, it was such a frail, slack little figure that you couldn’t picture it doing anything but sitting right here, on this coffee-stained sofa.

    This is just plain mean. That may be because the character, as is so often the case in his books, Yates’s mother, for whom he had little sympathy in real life. But it seems to me that this (uncompassionate) viewpoint is coming not from a character but direct from the author. That’s why I call him solipsistic above.

    Bleakness and negativity in themselves are not turn-offs for me, and Something Happened, for example, is at least as bleak as anything Yates wrote; but Heller had other registers too, which Yates doesn’t seem to.

    All this makes it sound as though I don’t like Yates or RR, which I do, very much indeed.

  11. Kirsty said,

    This is sitting waiting for me. I have no idea when I’ll get around to it. Damn degree.

    I loved The Easter Parade, and can see what Steerforth up there says about his ability to depict mediocrity. I’m looking forward to Revoltionary Road, whenever I get around to it. And I have to say, I actually really like the Vintage classic cover.

  12. Lee Monks said,

    Yeah, it’s strange. I rate Yates massively yet recognise that he is, if ever compassionate, seemingly so in spite of his overall empathy shorn sentiment. There is black recognition and a kind of weary identification, an omniscient finger pointing stance, an incredulous cataloguing of unfolding disaster. He was, apparently, a total curmudgeon of a man at the best of times, and it does seem he was terribly unimpressed with the world, and himself.

    So I suppose the question is, why can’t such a writer be enjoyed enormously? I know some that turn their nose up at his misanthropy. I think that is nonsensical; his insight and eye are rare. Do we want Thom Yorke, for example, to get happy? Yates was a magnificent writer.

  13. brad said,

    While I love this novel very much, many of Yates’ other novels are overshadowed by Revolutionary Road. James Wood I believe said none of his other novels are half as good. I tend to disagree. As you mention above, John, Cold Spring Harbor and Young Hearts Crying–both rather late novels–are fantastic in my book. Nice to see the review of RR here. Will you be going to see the film?

  14. John Self said,

    I might do, brad, though it isn’t released in the UK until the end of January, and I have other pressing plans then…

  15. KevinfromCanada said,

    I think you can wait for it to come out on DVD. In fact, I would definitely advise that.

  16. [...] and in doing so did me a great kindness. I recommend his review, and that of John Self over at The Asylum [...]

  17. Fiona said,

    I just raced to read this book before the film fixed it in my head, and was a little staggered. At first I wondered when April Wheeler would speak – it seemed everyone, even the children, got a perspective except for April, until suddenly, emphatically, she did, a moment that only served to increase her mystery.There were perfectly observed details however: Shep’s realisation that he was carrying coffee at a particular moment, Frank’s pride in backing out of a driveway. I rather rushed it, so will have to re-read with more time and care, but am looking forward to more of Yates in the future. I’ve been told to begin with Easter Parade . . .

  18. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comments Fiona. I’d agree that The Easter Parade is one of Yates’ best books, and I’d add Cold Spring Harbor and Young Hearts Crying to the list of the books of his you really should read (as well as his Collected Stories). The other novels – A Good School, Disturbing the Peace and A Special Providence – I think can be filed under ‘other work’, though by then you’ll probably be so keen on his stuff that you’ll want to read them all anyway.

  19. [...] (It was the am dram that made me think of comparison with Yates: his most famous novel Revolutionary Road opens with a symbolic production of The Petrified Forest, where April Wheeler is no better than [...]

  20. Demob Happy said,

    Great review John. I’ve just read Revolutionary Road and if it proves for me to be the “gateway drug to the world of Yates” then I wonder what the hard stuff will be like. I’m surprised you picked up on Yates’ “insistence on telling us everything his characters think and feel”. I thought this was economical enough not to disturb the balance of the story, and brutally insighful enough not to seem contrived. I would say it was a little excessively cynical at times, but he gets to the heart of his characters’ insecurities and pretentions with unfussy clarity. This was refreshing after Richard Ford’s insight (top-) heavy ‘Independence Day’, which spends so much longer labouring over its observations.

  21. [...] loves his kitchen.  And then one day he stands up and walks out on all of it.”  So far so Revolutionary Road, so ‘Poetry of Departures’.  But the conceit in fact is a lot more interesting – [...]

  22. […] cites as influences for it – including those by Jean Rhys, Denis Johnson, Robert Walser and Richard Yates – is pretty thrilling […]


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