Monday, December 29, 2008

Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

Although the film version of this novel looks to be at best competent, I felt compelled to read Revolutionary Road because of its imminence, and am therefore very grateful to Mendes, Winslet, DiCaprio et al. Yates's novel really is an extraordinary feat of writing, a chunk of life in novel form. But I think I have a problem with what it is I keep hearing I should like about him.

Two facets of Yates's work are fastened onto by nearly every critic who now writes about him or about this book: his lack of success and his "bleakness." Stewart O'Nan, discussing the latter point in 1999, ends up sounding a great deal like James Wood ("What Wilson doesn’t understand is that the reason it is impossible to dismiss Yates’s characters–the reason they bother and touch us so much–is his refusal to present them as typically sympathetic and strong. Like us, they’re unheroic, rightfully ashamed of their worst selves and hoping to do better. Their failures are tragic because they’re not unexpected. Like Chekhov, Yates has even more affection for his characters because of their faults, and like Chekhov, he’s willing to admit that life rarely works out the way we planned.")—more so than Wood himself did when covering Yates this year.

These emphases, as O'Nan makes clear, are primarily of great interest to writers or folks who want to think of themselves as writers. "It may be that writers prize Yates because readers haven’t. In a business that often champions shoddy and false work over true and beautiful accomplishments, his fate confirms our worst fears and prods us to demand justice." Yates, it seems, has become a sort of watchword of the pure injustice of the American reading public, a public that refuses to reward the things that writers love—the blend of talent, devotion, and passion that is usually called "craft" and an unflinching commitment to solid truth. Yates's writerly asceticism as a man almost entirely given over to his art—it seems the man only wrote and drank, soaking up the bare minimum of experience to put flesh on his novels—sanctifies his craft and his commitment, making his unpopularity seem that much more a rejection of the writerly style, that much more a fitful and ignorant repudiation of the things writers cherish. 

You know, I understand that a lot of the "serious" reading public now seems to be people who want to write themselves—creative writing program students or applicants or graduates or instructors, or people who just think they've got a novel in them. Sometimes when I'm feeling swell I almost think about joining this fellowship myself. But I feel that a very disproportionate amount of criticism gets written for these folks, uniformly praising a set of qualities which sound a lot like things you're supposed to notice when workshopping your classmate's short-story-in-progress. Sometimes it feels to me (when I'm reading Richard Ford's introduction to the 2000 Vintage edition of the book, for instance) like the critical community has become a workshop. 

I'm not saying that Richard Yates doesn't deserve the plaudits he's gotten from other writers over the years, or that he didn't deserve mainstream success. I'm just saying that his position as a sort of saint or paragon of unacknowledged writers devoted to their craft is a really limiting starting point for approaching his work. To start off, what's ironic about that limitation is that it sometimes overpowers the way we read his depictions of his character's more subtle failures—we look for the big collapses, the life-failures, and miss the small stumbles, the day-failures, which are what really matter in Revolutionary Road.

One of the tremendously profound things I found in Yates's novel was his ability to capture that specific hitch in experience wherein we recognize that a single action can have both practical and more figurative implications and we are unsure which is the more conscious or intentional. "With his free hand he opened his collar, both to cool his neck and to find reassurance in the grown-up, sophisticated feel of the silk tie and Oxford shirt." Yates, at least how I read him, is using a tremendously subtle variety of free indirect discourse where we cannot completely locate the consciousness of the character in the sentence—how much of this reasoning behind the gesture is conscious to the character, how much is produced by the author digging into the character's subconscious? The indeterminateness of this question draws the reader in to resolve it—which would be our conscious motivation?—but, of course, already knowing both sides, we answer both. 

Yates is also a master of leaving things in his characters' minds which they will work out later: "It was because April had left a small pocket of guilt in his mind last night by saying that he'd 'worked like a dog year after year.' He had meant to point out that whatever it was he'd been doing here year after year, it could hardly be called working like a dog—but she hadn't given him a chance. And now, by trying to clear all the papers off his desk in one day, he guessed he was trying to make up for having misled her." 

There are a thousand minute touches like these, but what I find they all have in common is a single insight into the interior life which Yates returns to again and again—that the dissonance of a thought or feeling re-thought or re-felt at a later time can return to us a feeling of duplicitousness or duplicity, a feeling of not being quite the same person as we were the first time. And that the force of will which we must exert to return ourselves to that first state is even more a cause for the feeling of duplicity: "After a while [Frank] found he had to keep reminding himself to be pleased." "He couldn't even tell whether he was angry or contrite, whether it was forgiveness he wanted or the power to forgive." 

The line from Keats which is the epigraph of the novel ("Alas! when passion is both meek and wild!") when applied to the characters of the novel also seems to speak to the same feeling of duplicity, although on a more fundamental level. In its original context, Keats's line is preceded by "Fever’d his high conceit of such a bride, / Yet brought him to the meekness of a child," and the contrast of marriage and childhood is indeed a major theme of the novel. Frank and April's attempts to return their marriage to a state resembling childhood drive the novel forward and bring the characters to their fates. The novel uses the bland simile "like a child" or "like children" numerous times—"as honest and helpless as a child," "weak and happy as a child," "And they fell asleep like children" (which ends Part One), "happy as children." What these similes do is express the longing for the simple, undifferentiated and undifferentiating, dependent blissful state we ascribe to children, knowing even as we ascribe it that it is a thorough alteration of the actual record. Revolutionary Road is not so much a tragedy of suburban alienation as it is a very early example of the arrested development narrative so common in contemporary films and novels. It's a slacker-striver romance without the redemptive conclusion. 

Of course, as we see from the reference to Keats, there is a debt to the Romantics as well, especially to Wordsworth in his Immortality Ode: is there any line in our language that captures the plight of the Wheelers better than "fade into the light of common day?" Another Wordsworth reference might be Book VI of The Prelude, where Wordsworth is stunned to find that he passed the highest point of the Alps without knowing it. That moment I have always found to be the most resonant with the modern condition, though not so much as a metaphor for the Bruce-Springsteen-"Glory-Days" condition as for the simple experience of being unable to mark the significant events of one's life in a way that remains meaningful to us years later. We want to dive back into the past, but we did such a poor job of noticing it, of experiencing it, of feeling it the first time around that it is always not the past we want to remember, never the way we want it to have been.

All this is coupled with the great, mostly male fear of being at the wrong end of a telescoping path of possibilities—a thinning out of options with age as terrifying as the thinning out of one's hair. We can get this sense from Wordsworth sometimes, particularly in the Immortality Ode—the belief that simply aging narrows and constricts your ability for self-expression or self-fulfillment, and that any choices you make exacerbate the narrowing. How strange this would seem to Clym Yeobright, for one, younger than Wordsworth, but never as concerned with the falling-away quality that Wordsworth believes adheres to the process of becoming a man. Yeobright is excited for the most part at the prospect of committing himself to choices which preclude other choices—he is eager to shuck off the relative freedom of Paris for the constrictions of Egdon Heath. Of course, things don't really work out better for him than for Frank Wheeler, but whatever.

The following paragraph seems as if it could end up in a movie released tomorrow, featuring Life-Today-as-a-Twentysomething-Guy, spoken as a voice-over or in one of those expository heart-outpourings, though these are actually Frank Wheeler's words:
He could even be grateful in a sense that he had no particular area of interest: in avoiding specific goals he had avoided specific limitations. For the time being the world, life itself, could be his chosen field. But as college wore on he began to be haunted by numberless small depressions, and these tended to increase in the weeks after college was over...
I think we tend to view Revolutionary Road from the rear-view mirror of bitter nostalgia (one reason why people have been comparing it to Mad Men), but it seems to me to be so fresh, so recent, so concerned with the fears we have today. I don't know if or how the film version will bring that out, but then again, we'll always have the book.

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