Thursday, July 05, 2007

Richard Yates – ‘Revolutionary Road’

She was calm and quiet now with knowing what she had always known, what neither her parents nor Aunt Claire nor Frank nor anyone else had ever had to teach her: that if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone. (p. 311)

This is a book about impossibility. How it’s impossible to live either with other people or without them, how personal integrity is impossible to maintain under almost all circumstances, how compromise will get you in the end. The lives it describes are a mess, taken together or taken alone. The opening chapters describe a play (The Petrified Forest) put on by a group of culturally aspirational inhabitants of a middle class suburb which keenly feels its inferiority to neighbouring New York, and which attempts (impossibly) to create an oasis of intellectual interest in the midst of its own mediocrity. Of course it over-reaches itself, even as it performs this bad play (at least, the narrator insinuates that it is bad – the film version, with Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart, is actually pretty great). Only one of the group – April Wheeler – can act, and although this is enough to pull the others through a creditable dress rehearsal, it all falls apart in front of an audience. All through the run-up to the performance, April’s husband Frank has been imagining the congratulations he will modestly shrug off on her behalf, backstage afterwards. He doesn’t know how to cope with such an obvious failure, and neither does she. False smiles become a grim fixture as they wish themselves elsewhere, and once they are alone, they have a huge fight. At this point I was thinking: OK, beautiful descriptions, I’m genuinely embarrassed on behalf of these people, but there is nothing positive here at all. Every novel needs its ray of hope, surely? If these are just awful people, why am I reading about them?

Things, as they pan out, aren’t quite that simple. But it’s a close thing. The happiest character here is Mrs Givings, more or less the epitome of the drab suburbia by which the others feel trapped. She is a freelance real estate agent, and a disinterested wife. She is interested, like a one-woman lifestyle TV show, in appearances: of houses and gardens first, because people are so difficult; but where social interaction is necessary, she would have it free of interest in order to have it free of tension. Her husband frequently switches off his hearing aid when she gets talking, because what she says is of no consequence: she talks not to communicate the content of what she is saying, but instead a sense that all is well because all is normal. Her false smile is habitual, not just an emergency device as it is with the Wheelers – and yet her busy life, filled with selling houses and DIY, does make her happy.

John, Mrs Givings’ son, is perhaps the reason for her blandness: he is mentally ill, spending most of his time in hospital, but allowed out on Sunday afternoons to visit the Wheelers, to act as their conscience. Yates combines this didactic purpose with his customary striking realism:

Most of the tables were occupied, but there was very little sound of conversation. At the table nearest the door a young Negro couple sat holding hands, and it wasn’t easy to identify the man as the patient until you noticed that his other hand was holding the chromium leg of the table in a yellow-knuckled grip of desperation, as if it were the rail of a heaving ship. Farther away, and old woman was combing the tangled hair of her son, whose age could have been anything between twenty-five and forty. (p.282)

The didactic part reminded me a little of Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge: Barnaby being also a few shillings short, and likewise used to go to places that saner characters wouldn’t. It’s useful to have a someone take characters to task about the motives for their actions, especially when they’re as convoluted and volatile as those behind the Wheelers’ intention to go to Paris to live. It takes somebody with no inhibitions to get inside the heads of such slight acquaintances, to so wholeheartedly concur with their rejection of the known for the unknown, and, when their unrealistic fantasy is brought down by April’s pregnancy, to say to them: ‘Money’s always a good reason […]. But it’s hardly ever the real reason.’ (p. 286). Yates is even more like Dickens when he spells out the real reason, at the beginning of part three, in a two-page direct address which starts off: ‘Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort.’ (p. 213). While the Wheelers are able to live in a not-too-distant, glamorous future, they can be happy, but when they are in the present tense it just doesn’t happen for them. Frank is beset by the materialistic and arrogant belief that he should have been someone important, without really having had to try (the closer the opportunity to try comes, the more he shies away from it); April, whom one might have expected to harbour similar retrospective ambitions about her failed career as an actress, is just lost, an empty shell. The way her love for Frank drops away when he begins to be shown up for the emotional coward he is, is devastating. They’re OK for the dress rehearsal, but it all falls apart at the performance.

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