Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Revolutionary Road: You're Only Kidding Yourself...

My 2011 reading trip round the decay of American family structures and consumer capitalism concluded with this book - Richard Yates' first novel from 1962. My appetite has obviously been whetted with John Cheever but as explained below although the subject matter is in the same ball park it's a slightly different game that Yates is playing.

One of the limited benefits of a movie being made from a novel is that it reinvigorates interest in the work. This was the case for this as Sam Mendes 2008 version led to a reprint and increase in sales of the work; Yates himself died in 1992. I've not seen the film as was waiting to finish the book but as adaptations go it is very good apparently and pretty faithful to the work. But as ever the internal monologue of a good writer, use of phrase and metaphor only enhances itself in prose for me and this is particularly true here.

Split into three the novel is ostensibly an examination of a young suburban couple living on the eponymous street in the mid 1950s. Young as in their 30s with the requisite two children (of which more later) - in 2012 you could probably add 10 years to their age for the same stage of life.

Cars, new televisions, tentative attempts at creating a suburban community, cocktails after work, train journeys home - so far so Cheeverian 1950s America and I would argue many modern developed captialist societies in 2012. But there is a distinction this couple : Frank and April see themselves as apart and removed from their literal lifestyle. More of the avant garde than the golf club/swimming pool set. When they meet 10 years before Frank fresh from the war lives in Greenwich Village and frequents jazz clubs. Even his job in a proto- computer company in the City (which he commutes to) is taken as a post-modern prank or so he would have people believe.

This deceit although buried eventually sprouts up into loathing between the couple which comes to a head after a disastrous (and hilariously written) am-dram production of a mainstream American play which had been a big success in 1950s tv. April is the lead (she trained vaguely as an actress in the 40s) but the show almost literally falls about around them. The fight between the couple is bitter and quite painful to read.

Warring couples are also a Cheever trait but I think the route of the unhappiness is different. This is not simple alienation creating a consumer lifestyle to fill the emptiness of modern capitalist work in a place removed from your geographical being. This is a couple who are pretending to play the game but hold it in disdain but as they play the game becomes more important than the disdain.

The Cheever novels I have read actually only deal with the suburban lifestyle in passing - they have a broader historical sweep ( as this work does slightly with the examination of the couples' parents' lifestyles). It is his short fiction where he forensically dissects it so it is a change to read it in the context of a novel.

An escape is offered - an emigration to Paris where April will work to sustain Frank in "finding out what he wants to do". This is unclear as although Frank tries to be aloof he never really exhibits any particular desire or interest in any other direction - he even refuses to audition for the terrible play. Thus his emptiness or fear of it is exposed by this possibility. It is not a mere fantasy the plan gains legs and serious moves are made to turn it into reality but ultimately Frank baulks using the excuse of April's pregnancy to hide his growing reliance on the lifestyle he despises.

This hesitation exposes April and Frank and their relationship for what they really are with truly sad consequences. Adultery is almost inevitable on both sides. But it culminates in the banal setting of a suburban hospital with a poster advertising a staff dance and Life magazines on the table.

You could make a case that Yates is making broader points about American capitalism - a country born on Revoulutionary Road remember. The book is set almost mid way through the twentieth century in the richest society ever created on the planet but that point but the desire not to be part of it and the unhappiness that seeps into the protagonists bones is palpable. But this is no obviously didactic piece it is in the minutiae of personal relationships that Yates is brilliant at , and a big influence on other writers I think.

He also preempts one of the defining issues of American society in the late 20th Century : abortion. Unusually this is dealt with in an open, honest and contextual way. This divides the couple though they both have ambiguous views on it - again parallels with the broader USA.

The use of minor characters - the realtor Mrs Givings who provides the passage into suburbia for the Wheelers, her son an asylum inmate who is the mirror that reveals the deep truths that the young couple don't really want to see, Shep and Milly a sort of distorted mirror image of the Wheelers with some similar disdain but ultimately I think Shep deals with it in a more honourable way - particularly at the climax.

I enjoyed Yates style of narrative which provides sort of mute and multiple witnesses - he sweeps into scenes and takes different perspectives: Frank, April,Shep, even briefly and memorably Frank and April's children. Yates speaks of the curtainless massive windows in all the houses in Revolutionary Road and the adjoining estate and in a sense he invites us the readers to look through them.

The closing image of Frank as described by Shep is an image that will stay with me for a long time. An important and beautifully written work.