Thursday, December 23, 2010

Good Writing and Sad Happenings in "Revolutionary Road"

The first thing I'll think of whenever I think of Richard Yates must necessarily be "Seinfeld" (and NOT the title of Tao Lin's latest novel) -- because he was apparently the inspiration for Elaine's grizzled, aloof father (a celebrated novelist named Alton Benes). Larry David, the well-known co-creator of "Seinfeld" and star of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," used to date Yates' daughter, Monica, which I imagine produced some very "Curb Your Enthusiasm" type moments, as well. I feel like Alton Benes' appearance was very much a precursor to the humor that has informed David's precedent sitcom. I both can and cannot imagine Larry David and Richard Yates seated in the same room alone together. I'm laugh-cringing already.

Here's something a little different, though: I feel like a lot of the time I approach these reviews with an eye more for the logos of the narrative than its pathos. Truth is, Yates' "Revolutionary Road" is nothing if it isn't a tour-de-force of powerful passions, life's life blood, and what results from a failure of things to "work out." Frank and April Wheeler are perhaps two of the most emotionally complex characters I've read in, well, ever. They just throb with every unfulfilled or feigned emotion, which you can imagine is a complex notion in itself, i.e. to be so palpably real in their falseness. I can't say that I enjoyed reading Yates with the same zeal I did Gaddis and Nabokov. "Revolutionary Road" is the kind of novel that demands your discomfort. "Revolutionary Road" gets inside of you. This is perhaps because it cuts to the core so precisely. Maybe you relate too well to the Wheelers, for example. Maybe I do.

Here come certain spoilerifics:

It's not enough to say it's about the stultifying effects of suburban malaise circa 1950, because in so many ways that's the story Frank Wheeler is trying to sell you, because that's the story he's sold to himself. Especially relevant and ironical to this notion is Wheeler's boss Bart Pollock's mantra (page 207 of my edition), acquired by Pollock from a "wiser older man," of which Pollock says, "He said to me, 'Bart, everything is selling.' He said, 'Nothing happens in this world, nothing comes into this world, until somebody makes a sale.'" There isn't much that's terribly unusual about this idea, a tried and true cliche of business speak -- that is, if you don't have the ancillary element of Wheeler imagining how he'll recast the situation to April later, saying to her, "And I kept sitting there getting drunk and thinking 'What the hell does this guy want from me?' . . . Of course I kept thinking none of it matters a damn, but still; he really had me guessing." Frank has sold himself a characteristic: bashful modesty and false ignorance. Plus, he knows he's been taken in by Pollock's own appeal to him, a job offer as head of sales for a new division: electronic computers for the American businessman. Frank's ego is stroked and there's no going back, despite April's plan to finally cast off the "hopeless emptiness" of America for the possibility of something better in Europe as ex-patriots.

Yet the truth of Frank Wheeler's situation is something much more pernicious, and it speaks to anyone who's ever allowed themselves to become just a bit too sure of their own significance and, perhaps, superiority. It's natural for people to want to feel as though they possess skills beyond those of anyone who has ever lived or ever will live. I mean, natural to the extent that we desire feeling unique, as means of demonstrating our purpose and implying a justifiable degree of immortality. We're not Homer of the Odyssey nor Homer of the Simpsons, but hey, we're not unspectacular, either. And given the opportunity, oh, how we might prove this!

You begin to see how Frank and April Wheeler demonstrate another kind of story. Lost in the macro, sociological criticisms -- fictional tellings or otherwise -- of American suburbia of the last half century, is the individualistic myth-making of those of us who seem to think we are above it all, because of our great awareness. "Revolutionary Road" is, among other things, a condemnation of the snobs, but not just any snob, the snob who thinks (s)he can stand apart from the rest of humanity, flippantly wave a hand, and live deliberately. There's also a degree of contempt for those who find they may once have felt differently but now are completely willing to let themselves become ensconced in life's circumstances, taking comfort in the fact that there is no other option. Hoping, praying, lying to oneself and pretending that things will be above and beyond one's control, whether this is true or not (anyone who reads this blog knows I'm an adherent of at least the possibility of determinism; and that I much revile Ayn Rand and her disciples).

The story's catalyst comes in the form of a man named John Givings, the unstable and institutionalized but rather brilliant son of the Wheelers' realtor and neighbor, Helen Givings. John is like a character plucked from Nurse Ratched's domain in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," with special reference to Chief Bromden's "The Combine," and set down into the unhappy middle class vista of Revolutionary Road, off of which lays the Wheelers' home, set just apart from the unpleasant cookie-cutter housing of "the dreadful new development" Revolutionary Hill Estates, which is symbolism that I don't think minces too many symbols.

John Givings is not one to mince anything, either. He likes what you're doing or he doesn't. It's to him that Frank Wheeler first uses the term "hopeless emptiness" to describe what they think of the contemporary American landscape. Givings himself commends them, saying on page 200, "Now you've said it. The hopeless emptiness. Hell, plenty of people are on to the emptiness part; out where I used to work, on the [West] Coast, that's all we ever talked about." Which is why John's reaction amounts to nothing less than disgust when he later is told Frank has found a useful reason for canceling the Wheeler's European exodus, to wit: April has become pregnant with their third child. John sees the sham of it all, sees more than anyone, that Frank is full of it. The Wheeler's happy marriage is anything but, which is why his final pronouncement on page 303 packs an especially powerful punch: ". . . he extended a long yellow-stained index finger and pointed it at the slight mound of April's pregnancy. 'You know what I'm glad of? I'm glad I'm not gonna be that kid.'"

The narrative descends to what I'd define as tragedy, but a powerful and worthy tragedy, one that I've yet to shake and one that I'd just as soon not describe here, because I feel there's such a thing as too much spoiling. My advice? Read "Revolutionary Road." (I can't vouch for the movie yet, as I haven't seen it.)


  1. I haven't read the book (thanks for the great review), but I have seen the movie. I was totally taken in by the idealism and romanticism of moving to Europe and the wonderful promise of a new life for the young family. When it all falls apart, I felt very shattered too. It was like being shown how false your own idealism may just be. The ending was very emotional and draining, it took me a few days afterwards to move out of that world and stop reflecting on how the narrative had unrolled; and what, if anything, they could have done differently... The film is worth seeing however, but not a first-date kind of film, more of a rainy day or cold night film.

  2. You wrote the review I would have wanted to write on this book, if I had written one (or could have). I saw the film before the book, and the film is good but you have to kind of forget the book and how good it was, first. It can't match up, of course. And somehow, to watch that sort of snobbery playing out on screen is more painful than I remember reading it as being.

    love that "hopeless emptiness" bit you quoted. And I had forgotten Yates was the model for Elaine's father. Shit, now I want to reread "revolutionary road" and rewatch all the seinfeld episodes featuring the benes family.

  3. @ A F-M: Sounds like the movie does not deviate too pronouncedly from the undergirding philosophy of the novel, which -- in general -- I like it when that's the case. I like it when that's the case with respect to other things, too, like for instance (this may sound weird) video games adapted to movies. Usually the video game is used in name only, and I think filmmakers would be doing themselves a service to follow the guiding ethos/logos/pathos et al of the source material more closely, rather than take the easy, expeditiously salable way out (filmmakers might just be rewarded with an even better financial return! Imagine!). But yes, as for "Revolutionary Road" in specific, it sounds to me the movie has well prepared you for the substance of the novel, which just digs in and festers and is not very rife with holiday cheer.

    @ Ellen: See that's another thing. There's this strange disassociation I think you can build with novels and fiction without pictures that is simply too hard to put upon the train crash of a particularly unpleasant scene unfurling in a film or play. This disassociation doesn't make the scene any less powerful but it does give you the clarity of focus that's muddied by the various body language and tone-of-voice inherent to awkward social interaction. That's what I think, anyway.