Richard Yates is one of those authors who I have heard a great deal about, but had never actually read. For example, I read Richard Yates by Tao Lin. I probably missed out on a few things in reading that, because Lin was likely commenting on the vision of America embodied by Yates and I was not yet personally familiar with Yates. In any event, I was excited to get a chance to read Revolutionary Road.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Kate Atkinson, no relation to me that I’m aware of, and 8th for Judy Budnitz.)
Now, I had always heard that Revolutionary Road was a scathing indictment of suburban America penned at the early onset of such. To be honest, I’m not sure I agree with that.
I’d also heard that the book was about a pair of characters who are on the verge of uprooting their lives so that they can move to Paris and let the husband realize his potential as a writer, painter, or otherwise great thinker, but that alcohol and infidelity destroy them first. I’m not so sure I agree with that either. Perhaps I’m just feeling disagreeable.
However, presuming that I’m not just being contrary, maybe I should talk about the book a bit. We have Frank and April Wheeler, people who always talked big about Frank’s ideas and how much they hated the “hopeless emptiness” in which most suburban people lived their lives. However, because April becomes pregnant, they put dreams on hold, move to the suburbs, and Frank gets a job that he doesn’t take seriously. Still, they hold on in the midst of this, Frank being of the opinion that “the important thing was to keep from being contaminated…to remember who you were.”
Of course, they don’t. Eventually April realizes that they are becoming all the things that they both despise:
“I was bored. That’s part of what I’m trying to say. I don’t think I’ve ever been more bored and depressed and fed up in my life than I was last night. All that business about Helen Giving’s son on top of everything else, and the way we all grabbed at it like dogs after meat; I remember looking at you and thinking ‘God, if only he’d stop talking.’ Because everything you said was based on this great premise of ours that we’re somehow very special and superior to the whole thing, and I wanted to say ‘But we’re not! Look at us! We’re just like the people you’re talking about! We are the people you’re talking about!’
So, she offers Frank a plan where they will sell their house and move to Paris. He will be free to finally find himself and she will work to support the family.
But, does Frank go for it? Well, he does at first. However, his hated job starts becoming important to him, though he won’t admit it. Soon he finds a way (greatly assisted) to avoid having to live the dream because, really (though again, he won’t admit it), they never had any promise that they weren’t fulfilling. Eventually, April realizes all this (or most of it anyway) and actually says it out loud.
So, is this an indictment of suburbia? I don’t see how it really could be. The rot inside the relationship between Frank and April is present long before they move to suburbia. Suburbia exemplifies many of the things they rail against, and it is indeed the setting for their meltdown, but the problems represented by Frank and April seem to me to be much, much larger than just the modern suburban phenomenon in America.
The next question, then, is whether or not alcohol and infidelity destroy Frank and April’s chance at fulfilling their dreams. Again, I don’t think this is the case. Sure, there is some excessive drinking and some sleeping around. Sure, this would have been a major problem only if things had been fine otherwise. But, things had not been fine otherwise.
Frank’s conception of his own identity has always been of a gifted man who only needed the freedom to find himself and had to live out his life burdened by the fact that he’d never get the chance. Only, as Frank discovers when the chance is presented (though he may not admit it to himself)…this is just a pose. April discovers she is posing too and has been since she started posing that she was in love with Frank and believed in his potential. Frank and April are not actually destroyed by alcohol and infidelity, at least as I saw it. To the contrary, the alcohol and infidelity just seem like incidental aspects of their posing and their eventual realization that they are just posing. Frankly, an inherent flaw that they have carried with them from their beginning is what destroys Frank and April.
Having decided that I don’t completely agree with the views on Revolutionary Road which I have heard, I suppose we are left with what I do think this book is about. Rather than an indictment of suburbia, Revolutionary Road seems to me to be an indictment of fallibility humanity. We live our lives telling others and ourselves lies in order to get through the day. We sometimes try to be good to one another, but we rarely end up being what others need (and they might not deserve us to be anyway). Frank and April have their specific scenario which isn’t the life everyone lives, but it is just the example.
Come to think of it, indictment might not even be the right word. We just hope for things and life never quite meets up with our hopes. The rest is just a part of that. It’s sad, but it’s just part of being alive as a human being in the world.
At least, that’s my take on it. Regardless, I found Revolutionary Road to be a beautiful, if sad, book.