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Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates

12/04/2011

Published on launch of new guardian.co.uk/books site, April 2011 (and mentioned by the Guardian Books Editor on Radio 4’s Start the Week. My 15 sec of fame comes about 13 minutes in, if you’re interested…)


Like the novel’s chief protagonist Frank Wheeler, I recently turned thirty, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that many of the questions haunting him and his wife April should resonate so strongly. It’s a bit disconcerting, though, this being a story that revolves around the lies the characters tell each other and themselves: lies about their relationships, careers, aspirations, and status as men and women.

Tellingly, the novel opens with a flawed performance of a play, and theatricality recurs as a motif throughout the text. When Frank, attempting to seduce a young colleague, paints “a portrait of himself as a decent but disillusioned young family man, sadly and bravely at war with his environment,” it’s abundantly clear that Yates’ true subject is something deeper than the crushing sentimentality of the suburbs in 1950s America. The deftly ironic narrative voice swiftly exposes as cherished self-deception Frank and April’s conviction that they’re somehow more “interesting” than their surroundings permit. Darker issues of manliness, childhood and insanity loom in the background, ominous and ever-present as the woods behind the Wheelers’ house.

In many ways, Frank is a boy constantly trying to prove himself a man. Shaped by his relationship with a physically capable but emotionally distant father, he’s part of a post-Depression, post-war generation of men destined to be replaced by computers able to “perform the lifetime work of a man with a desk calculator in thirty minutes”. Starting an affair; laying a stone path across his lawn; keeping his jaw muscles painfully clenched in a “conscious display” of masculinity: these desperate acts are depicted in a way that allows space for both censure and pity.

April’s womanliness is also challenged, largely by Frank himself. Questioning her adequacy as a wife and mother, even her ability to love, in the light of her own childhood neglect, he finds her so deficient he accuses her of madness. It’s easy to vilify such self-protective insensitivity but, although we get less access to what’s going on in her head, April’s culpability in the tragedy of their marriage is also made clear.

By the end of the novel, the reader’s sympathies lie unquestionably with the children. In a final twist of fate, Jennifer and Michael are bundled off to live with Frank’s older brother and his wife, doomed to repeat the dysfunctional childhoods of their parents. But Frank and April are children too (they’re frequently described as “children” or “kids” by other characters) and therefore both the product and catalyst of familial suffering. And thus the cycle continues.

All rather bleak, then. Yet the emotional landscape is rendered so subtly and realistically, reading Revolutionary Road is a joyful experience. Its genius lies partly in its plotting: an intricate yet apparently artless pattern of foreshadowed and postshadowed scenes. Frank re-enacts his father’s anger at his getting in the way in the toolshed when, a few pages later, he shouts at his own children getting in the way of his path-laying. Later, he’s silenced by his daughter’s fears of moving home, and later still this is thrown into relief by the revelation that Frank’s own childhood was marked by endless uprootings. The novel is full of such doublings, allowing Yates to dip in and out of the various backstories, but the frequent transitions are so embedded in character they feel as natural and unforced as life itself.

The writing is beautifully nuanced too. The word “revolutionary”, for example, is loaded with meanings beyond its function as setting and historical backdrop: it’s applied (ironically) to the Wheelers themselves, and even the computer equipment sold by Frank’s company. “Home” is somewhere April is “imprisoned”, a sanctuary from chaos for Mrs Givings, a “protective shell” for Frank. Slippages in the language of the novel are key to the psychological truth of its events. Is it a “courtship” or a “sales campaign”? “Family planning” or “inventory control”?

Although much of the language and imagery roots Revolutionary Road in a specific time and place, it makes a strikingly modern read. It’s more than the continued growth of IT and office jobs that ensures the novel’s twenty-first century relevance. The yearning for that other place “where people know how to live” is universal and timeless, a sad reflection of the sad fact Yates acknowledged as his central theme: that “most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy”. You don’t have to be thirty to identify with Frank and April Wheeler, to be disconcerted by their story in a way that wakes you up to life. Their romantic, professional and cultural aspirations are as recognisable today as ever. Let’s face it, they’d probably read The Guardian.

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