Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Revolutionary Road


Sometime in March, I posted about Richard Ford and his trilogy of novels about Frank Bascombe. Often, Ford is categorized as belonging to the "dirty realism" genre, an unfortunately named subgenre of realism that relates to the sadnesses and losses of ordinary people. One of Ford's inspirations is the forgotten Richard Yates, author of the 1961 masterpiece
Revolutionary Road, which I finished today.

Revolutionary Road is the simple quiet story of Frank and April Wheeler, a suburbanite couple who are slowing breaking under the pressures of their marriage, of their jobs, of their children, of their neighbours and their neighbourhood. The America of 1955 is one of crushing development ambition, but they want only to move to Europe, where they can find themselves. The novel slowly traces their dissolution and their mistakes until the final moments of their marriage.

Yates uses numerous techniques to effortlessly convey the sadness and tragedy of it all. The prominent and most clever techniques is the bookending of the Laurel Players, a group of suburbanites who have made themselves an amateur theatre community. The first play they put up is The Petrified Forest, starring April Wheeler, but it goes poorly. All of the suburbanites turn out to be poor actors. From there, Yates intersperses that motif of poor acting throughout the novel, especially with Frank, an archetypal dreamer, who acts continually and without guilt. They're all just pretending to be happy, Yates implies.

For a novel written in 1961 and set in 1955, this is an extremely fresh feeling novel, as if I could have pretended it was set in the nineties or eighties (the lack of cellphones and computers being too big to pretend otherwise). The problems and issues that the novel talks about and that the characters talk about are still so very relevant today. It's so forward-thinking in terms of the prevalence of technology (Frank signs away the European freedom - sorta - for a job selling vacuum-tube computers) and the emptiness of suburbia and commuting and offices and seas upon seas of cubicles. It just goes on.

But when I say that the novel is an indictment of suburbia, you're probably thinking that it features two dumb suburbanites and we the audience laugh at their inanity and their stupidity. Instead, Yates uses the two main characters to comment on the inanity of suburbia for him. Frank and April Wheeler think they're above the common life; they're from Greenwich Village and college-educated. They ridicule the people and make their snide comments while we the audience can see their foolishness. We know that they will be ultimately defeated by Revolutionary Hill, the housing complex in which they live.

Yates' narrator (who may or may not be Yates) lets Frank Wheeler do much of the telling. We get inside of Frank's head while he perceives every injustice, every slight, every insult he receives and gives. Even his own wife gets short shrift in terms of physical appearance, but we know thanks to the narrator that she's actually quite pretty. Frank is the kind of man who thinks that life owes him; instead, life owns him. He thinks he can have an affair with a sort-of pretty office girl. He thinks he can talk his way out of and into anything. Every fight with his wife, he perceives as a battle that he vigorously plans and maps out. He tries to think of everything to make April see his side. He talks her out of an abortion, even though he doesn't want a child nor is ready for one. He's a despicable man, but thanks to the seemingly effortless narration, it's more sad than anger-inducing. I sympathize for the ordinary man, even if he doesn't think he's ordinary or thinks he deserves sympathy.

Another thing that pleased me about this novel was the high quality of dialogue. In my experience, dialogue wasn't terribly realistic in novels written in the first half of the twentieth century and before. It always came off stilted and plain. But Yates' dialogue is fresh sounding and realistic and I can hear their voices. This is the same quality as William Gaddis, in my opinion, the undisputed master of American dialogue.

I am absolutely in love with this novel and this subgenre currently. I've been reading Ford and some Raymond Carver and some Andre Dubus and other stuff currently, and I've got a bit ying for the sadnesses and losses of ordinary people. There's a dignity to Frank Wheeler and the blue-collar joes that Carver talks about. I strongly recommend this novel for any fans of American fiction, because this is American fiction in the definition that it doesn't just come from America but it's specifically about America. No other country or culture could have written this, and it's still very relevant.

So relevant actually, that famed director Sam Mendes, teamed with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, are bringing this novel to the screen in December. I hadn't known this until yesterday when I was Wikipedia-ing the book. Mendes seems a capable director, but I wonder if he can restrain himself from the garish or overly dramatic visuals. Yates' novel is quiet and psychological, rather than teeming with visual metaphors.

Look for my review of the film, for sure. I'm definitely seeing it.

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