Monday, November 09, 2015

the last book I read

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

It's 1955, and Frank and April Wheeler have established themselves in a little suburban community in Connecticut, as mid-1950s stereotype demands that they should, this being the acme of what an intelligent young professional couple with a couple of kids should aspire to.

Frank and April like to think of themselves as a bit out of the normal run of bovine company men and their compliant stay-at-home wives, though, able to recognise and laugh at the sterility and conformity of suburban life and think back fondly on the bohemian days of their courtship in Frank's New York apartment, impromptu afternoon delight and all.

Frank has a pretty decent job, which he affects a lofty sardonic disdain for, and April was in a previous life an aspiring and moderately talented amateur actress. April's pretensions are mercilessly skewered in the novel's opening scene as the local amateur dramatic company mount an excruciatingly disastrous adaptation of Robert E Sherwood's The Petrified Forest. Frank's fatal flaws take longer to be revealed, but are exposed when April decides to act on their boredom with suburban life and proposes uprooting the whole family to Paris to start a new life. Frank is hereby presented with a dilemma: he can't openly object to the scheme, since it's the logical consequence of all his talk about how dreadful suburban life is, but actually he's quite attached to his job, the associated salary, the clandestine affair he's having with one of the secretaries at the office, and is fundamentally a bit too comfortable and a bit too much of a coward to just throw it all in and jet off into the unknown.

Frank's job is made somewhat easier when April unexpectedly falls pregnant with their third child, and he's able to persuade her a) to keep it (her first instinct being to abort it) and b) that it would be better to stay in the USA until after it arrives. This proves a brief respite, though, as the aftermath of their decision to stay brings various built-up frustrations to a head, Frank and April have a climactic row, and, after an interlude of eerie calm the following morning as Frank gets ready to head off to work, April attempts an amateur home abortion on herself, and, after the inevitable botchery and emergency trip to hospital, bleeds to death.

Here, in a nutshell, is the antidote to the warm fuzzy Daily Mail idea that the 1950s were some sort of golden era of law-abiding respect and tranquility that we should in some way aspire to ape the values of: the reality is a ghastly facade of picket fences, gleaming chrome bumpers and gabardine slacks concealing the underlying brutal sexism, racism, phenomenally heavy drinking, stagnation, boredom, sexual repression and general inability to communicate on even the most basic level that could find a couple of otherwise intelligent young people waking up one morning in their sterile little suburban box and realising that they don't know each other at all.

It's exceptionally bleak, brutal and unsparing in its tracking of the Wheelers' downfall, and their inability to break free of the prevailing culture in which they find themselves. Obviously the novel's real target is 1950s suburban society and its unbearable sterility and hypocrisy, but it doesn't spare the Wheelers for their cowardice and inability to break free of conformity. Clearly the general arc of the story is a massive downer, but it's a mark of how good the book is that that doesn't matter. There is also a whiff of schadenfreude about seeing Frank and April and their highball glasses and their shagpile carpets brought low by nothing more than not having had a meaningful conversation with each other for a decade or so. The only slightly grating note is struck by having near-neighbours Mr. & Mrs. Givings bring their son John over to the Wheelers' for occasional visits from the mental hospital where he spends most of his time, and having him act as a sort of straight-talking plot MacGuffin: is he insane? or is he SO SANE HE JUST BLEW YOUR MIND? We could probably have got through most of the plot without him having to spell out big chunks of it for us.

Revolutionary Road was filmed in 2008 by Sam Mendes, starring his then wife Kate Winslet as April and Leo DiCaprio as Frank. It also features in Time magazine's list of 100 best 20th-century novels as featured here multiple times before. Here's an interesting long-ish New York Times essay about it by another great 20th-century American novelist (and former featuree here), Richard Ford.