March 2, 2009

Tales from the Completist: "Revolutionary Road," by Richard Yates

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
Revolutionary Road (1961)
By Richard Yates

As any lover of the arts knows, an artist's reputation depends not only on what society thinks of their work, but also what they think of it over the passage of time, with many creative professionals' careers dipping up and down over the decades based on changing trends and tastes. Take American author Richard Yates for an excellent example; celebrated by the academic community when he first started writing in the early 1960s, he was considered in the vanguard of the nascent "postmodern" movement, mentioned in the same breath back then as such eventual masters as John Updike and Norman Mailer. (And by the way, I'm defining postmodernism here as developing at the same time and rate as the Vietnam War; so in other words, something only intellectuals were aware of when Kennedy first took office, but that had taken over the mainstream by the time Nixon was wearing wide lapels.) But unlike his peers, Yates' career ended up sputtering out about halfway through, with him eventually dying in the '90s on the cusp of obscurity, known if at all only by academes who specifically study the subject of postmodern literature; it wasn't until a series of such scholars started making a case for him in the 2000s that most of his work even went back into print, capped this year with an extremely high-profile Oscar-bait film adaptation of his very first novel, 1961's National Book Award nominated Revolutionary Road.

I just read it myself for the first time this week, in fact; and now that I have, I can easily see not only why Yates was once considered on the forefront of very challenging highbrow lit in the early '60s, but why his work never broke out of the academic gutter while he was alive, and why it's so ripe to revisit at this particular moment in history. Because as many of us now know because of the details behind its film adaptation (it was directed by Sam Mendes, creator of the similarly themed American Beauty), Revolutionary Road turns out to be one of the very first artistic projects in history to have taken on the subject of the Big Bad Suburbs, a topic that eventually became a veritable hallmark of postmodernism and prone to hacky excess by the end of the movement. (That's also something to point out for those who don't know, that I consider postmodernism to have ended on September 11th, and that for the last decade we've actually been living through the beginning of a brand-new artistic age yet to be defined. The Age of Sincerity? The Earnest Era? Literature 2.0? The Obamian Age?)

And indeed, it was important for the postmodernists to take on the subject of the crumbling suburbs, and of the utter sham they considered the entire concept of the "nuclear family" (a paradigm that was in fact to fall apart precisely during the postmodern years), exactly because it was the paradigm that their parents' generation embraced so whole-heartedly themselves, the sharp lines and unruffled feathers and black-and-white morality of Mid-Century Modernism. And ironically, even that was mostly a reaction to the mainstream paradigm of the generation before them, in this case the moral relativists of the Lost Generation and Great Depression of the 1920s and '30s, the gloomy sex-obsessed nihilists who brought about the ethical murkiness of World War Two and the Holocaust; the entire creation of the "nuclear family" paradigm after the war in the first place was as a direct reaction to those pulp-fiction years, an attempt by an entire society to say that there really is a series of black-and-white ethical values out there that really do apply to every person, not the world of infinite grays presented to us by the artists of the Weimar Era, the screenwriters of film-noir Hollywood and more. Of course, the tropes of Mid-Century Modernism too were found not to work, because humanity is simply more complex than this; and that's what this first wave of "post-Modernist" writers expressly became known for, for pointing out the growing cracks in this shiny plastic Eisenhower facade that most of America had voluntarily slapped on itself in the '50s and early '60s. And that's what led to the counterculture, which led to Watergate, which led to the second age of murky moral relativism that the '70s brought us; and society's reaction to that was once again the good-guy/bad-guy cowboy mentality of the Reagan years. And thus does the great wave of artistic history keep ebbing and flowing, ebbing and flowing.

But, well, okay, you say, that covers half the mystery, of why Yates was so fawned over at the beginning of his career; but what about the other half, of why his work never caught on with the public in the same way as Updike or Mailer (or Vidal or Pynchon or DeLillo for that matter)? And after reading just one book of his now, I'm already starting to see the answer; because when all is said and done, Revolutionary Road is not necessarily a condemnation of the bland soul-killing suburbs themselves (although partly it is -- more on that in a bit), but rather is absolutely for sure a profound and overwhelming criticism of whiny, overeducated, self-declared intellectuals who feel they're "above" such pedestrian environments. It is in fact a big shock about the book, given traditional expectations that the ensuing Postmodern Age has created for such tales about the Big Bad Suburbs, and also given the glee in which movie stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio threw themselves into these roles for the film version; that Frank and Alice Wheeler, the poetry-reading Connecticut couple at the heart of our tale, are far from heroes in the traditional sense of the word, with Alice coming off more like a misguided dupe by the end and Frank more like an out-and-out despicable villain.

And that's because Yates has a different message to convey about the suburbs than you might expect, a much more cynical message than that they're simply bland and soul-killing; he seems to argue that they're not only that, but that this is what most people deserve, and that such plebes can actually have a legitimately decent and happy life within such circumstances as long as they're willing to accept their plebian fate. For example, Yates goes out of his way to show that the young Frank isn't actually an intellectual, not from the stance of being academically trained for the subject, or even naturally talented enough to contribute something legitimately useful to the national conversation of deep thoughts; he's simply the most clever one out of the couple's circle of mostly brain-dead suburban friends, the guy who always seems to be in the center of the spotlight at every Friday-night neighborhood cocktail party. Place most men in such circumstances, Yates seems to argue, men with tiny little dreams and tiny little life expectations, and they will undoubtedly make a nice tiny little life for themselves with such material, undoubtedly become the guy in the neighborhood who always makes the most elaborate Halloween costumes, the guy always asked to head up school-play set designs and workplace book-discussion clubs.

No no, Yates argues, the problem isn't with the people who are simply looking for such a life and not much more, nor the ones who definitively know that such a life simply isn't for them, and quietly decide to live different ones in inner cities without much fuss; no, the problem is with the whiny little "clever" ones, the ones exactly like Frank and Alice, who endlessly bitch and moan about their mouth-breather surroundings but then do nothing about it, who sanctimoniously pass judgment on their ranch-duplex-owning neighbors even while peering at them through the plate-glass windows of their own ranch duplex. That's how the book opens, in fact, with a disastrous premiere by the new neighborhood community theatre company, which wouldn't have been nearly as bad if celebrated as a simple act of creativity, instead of the failed experiment in bringing a highbrow sensibility to the meatsacks that the Wheelers had first pictured it as. It's a debacle for the young family, exacerbated by them being exactly snarky enough to laugh bitterly at the idea of it "at least being a fun experience anyway," and it leads the couple to realizing that something is truly wrong in their relationship, truly and seriously skewed from the unfocused bohemian vision the once Greenwich-Village-living couple had for themselves. (In fact, this is a running joke throughout the manuscript, how the couple wishes to live a creative lifestyle but can't think of anything creative to actually do. "Why is it only painters and writers who are allowed to find themselves?" they're constantly asking in a witty way during cocktail parties, yet another sign of the murky counterculture right around the historical corner.)

But see, this is where the book gets truly interesting, and is the question that consumes most of its very quickly paced 450 pages; because is this unfocused bohemian vision the right one for the couple to have? Just what do the Wheelers want out of life, anyway? For example, it becomes obvious over the course of the novel that Frank doesn't actually mind the minutiae of Corporate America that terribly much, certainly not as much as he complains about, and that his problem is a much more universal one faced by most office workers in their late twenties, to simply have their ideas taken seriously and sometimes implemented, to slowly gain a bit of authority and respect among their co-workers for what they do. And in fact this is a big reason that I consider Frank so despicable to begin with, because he's a moral waffler who doesn't know exactly what he wants, who is too weak to simply sit down and make priorities and then consistently stick to them, even if that means occasional sacrifices. Just take the subject of whether the couple will ever have another child beyond the three that already exist, a running topic throughout the entire manuscript that becomes more and more important as it continues; notice how Frank's opinion on any given day is usually defined in relative opposition to whatever it is that the people around him want, how he will unthinkingly take on contradictory positions sometimes simply so that he can continue to have an excuse to argue with his wife, to feel like he's always "winning" in this hazy competition he sees them having.

In this, then, as mentioned, Alice herself comes off less as a deliberate villain and more like an unfortunate victim; because despite her willingness to revel in the closed-door smugness over their neighbors that Frank so naturally loves, it's obvious that she's at least more ethically consistent over her unhappiness, that their half-baked scheme at the beginning of the book to "move to Paris in the fall" was something she at least took very seriously, not the excuse Frank sees it as to put off real introspection of his life for yet another three months. You can at least feel sympathetic for Alice throughout the course of Revolutionary Road, at least see her as the simple bohemian girl she sees herself as (itself a reaction to her own Scott-and-Zelda out-of-control Jazz-Age parents); it's Frank who's the grand, complex, maddening tragedy-in-waiting, and it's no coincidence that we follow his inner-brain thoughts more than anyone else's throughout.

It's Frank who professes to despise his 9-to-5 job, yet loves that it can afford him a discreet marital affair played out in air-conditioned Manhattan hotel rooms; it's Frank who convinces his wife and their urbane best friends to start hanging out at the local crappy roadhouse for ironic enjoyment (yet another calling card of postmodernism, the act of enjoying crappy things for ironic reasons), yet is the first one to eventually start enjoying the place in a non-ironic way, and to become a legitimate regular there. Or in other words, he's one of those smug, holier-than-thou 29-year-old white-collar 'creative class' weasels you always want to smack when you're around them, the kind who's a major contributor to the problems of that world but claims that he isn't, just because he has a subscription to MAKE magazine and contributes snotty parodies of his day job to AdBusters. Yeah, one of THOSE weasels, like I said, the kind who happily accept all the little perks of the bourgeois lifestyle while still feeling themselves ethically superior to the little acts of banal monstrosity such bourgeois commit on a daily basis, in order to maintain their bourgeois lifestyle.

This is not an easy lesson for most middle-class book lovers to embrace -- that they're either too stupid to understand all the problems their vapid, culture-free lives are creating for society, or are smart enough and simply don't care -- and it makes it easy to see why books like these would be embraced by a doom-and-gloom '60s academic community even while being mostly rejected by the book-buying public. But on the other hand, what Yates warns about here in 1961 is exactly what happened during the Postmodern Age, and it's exactly this clueless vapidity in the '70s, '80s and '90s suburbs that led to the grand post-Bush messes we're facing right this second; and that's why right now might be the best time of all to revisit Yates' work, and to understand the lessons that he was trying to tell us now that we're a generation removed from the activities, now that we don't take his damnations quite so personally. Revolutionary Road turned out to be a better book than I was expecting, albeit a much darker one as well, and one much more critical of its exact target audience than you'd think an award-winner could get away with. It explains much about how America eventually became the trainwreck we now know it as, of how we could so profoundly lose touch with such concepts as personal accountability, personal responsibility; it's a shame that it took most of us nearly 50 years to realize this about Yates' remarkable book, but how great that we finally now have.

(And P.S., a thought I didn't have until after writing this review [and is lightly spoilerish, so skip if you haven't read the book yourself yet], that I love how Yates foretells the rise of the creative class in the first place, even here in his 196-freaking-1 debut novel; I love how in a moment of scream-inducing annoyance at all his brain-dead co-workers, Frank dashes off a no-nonsense brochure about one of the business machines his traditional boring company sells; how this just happens to be the thing to bring him to the legitimately positive attention of one of the high-powered visionaries in the company; how this visionary ends up spinning off a whole new division for himself at the end of act two full of cherry-picked arrogant mavericks, specifically to sell the half-million-dollar supercomputers the company has recently started making; how by the end of the novel, the spinoff division has become so successful that the maverick executive has quit the company and taken it private, and that they now selling cutting-edge tech to the public for a whole variety of clients besides the IBM-like suit-and-tie corporation Frank starts the novel at. In effect it turns Frank into one of those middle-aged successful tech-industry executives in the '70s who were the first to invest in companies like Apple and Microsoft, the ones who became trillionaires because of it, but who you can always tell by looking into their eyes that at some point they went through a tremendous amount of pain to arrive where they are now. In many ways, I think you could see Revolutionary Road as a portrait of one of these people, one of these tight-lipped Xerox PARC people with a mysterious past who profoundly "got" a guy like Apple's Steve Jobs when he first came along in the '70s. This novel tells you what a guy like that had to go through in the '60s to get to where he was by the '70s.)

Read even more about Revolutionary Road: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:14 PM, March 2, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |