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revolutionary road

9 april 2009

I still haven't seen the Sam Mendes film Revolutionary Road; it looked like a rough two hours in the theater. Oddly enough, I had no problem devoting parts of five days to reading the 1961 novel by Richard Yates that the film is based on. I just prefer reading to watching. When I read, I can skim, skip, retrace my steps, or peek ahead. Not so in the movie theater. And even when I am watching a DVD, I don't often reach for the remote to perform any of those operations. My formative TV years did not include a remote, so I sometimes forget it exists.

TV is frequently invoked in Yates's novel. The story is set in the Connecticut suburbs in the 1950s, and one of its climactic scenes finds protagonist Frank Wheeler racing through a subdivision toward his home on the title street:

It was so quiet that he could hear the sound of television in the dozing rooms behind the leaves—a blurred comedian's shout followed by dim, spastic waves of laughter and applause, and then the striking-up of a band. (443)

Revolutionary Road is a novel full of remarkable moments of observation like that one, which simply nail a quotidian feature of a very specific American era and place. Perhaps the best of them is a long description of mindless office routine c.1955:

This morning's batch of papers was waiting in his IN basket, on top of last Friday's, and so his first action was to turn the whole stack upside down on the desk and start from the bottom. As he did each day (or rather on the days when he bothered with the IN basket, for there were many days when he left it alone) he tried first to see how many papers he could get rid of without actually reading their contents. . . . . A safer course was to mark a thing "File" for Mrs. Jorgensen and the girls, after the briefest possible glance had established that it wasn't of urgent importance; if it was, he might mark it "File & Follow 1 wk." (116-117)
Frank follows this algorithm for several pages, deepening the absurdity of office work at every step. Perhaps most trenchant about the passage is the way that it can be translated directly into the operations any mid-level office worker (like me, in my role as academic advisor) carries out in their e-mail client on most mornings in 2009.

The plot of Revolutionary Road tracks Frank's decaying marriage to April. Frank has climbed the American social ladder, vaulting past his Willy-Loman-like father to Columbia College and a white-collar position in the Home Office. April is traveling the other way, orphaned by her patrician parents ("the Playboy and the Flapper" 50). Together, they desperately want touches of class to appear in their enervated community. Despite community theatre and Books of the Month, it ain't going to happen for them.

Yates's narrator, and several of his characters, speak of the angst of Frank and April in terms drawn from the work of D.H. Lawrence. Over and over, we are told that the couple is unhappy because they cannot be truly male and female in their sterilized domestic world. Frank wants to be a man, but marriage to April emasculates him. An important minor character named John Givings agrees, telling April: "You must give him a pretty bad time, if making babies is the only way he can prove he's got a pair of balls" (393).

Of course, John Givings is a certifiable mental patient, which makes one wonder whether he is really meant to be an authoritative voice in Yates's discourse. Even as Frank home-diagnoses April's problem as penis envy and seeks to put her through a course of palliative psychoanalysis, readers wonder whether Yates himself means them to buy into this pop-psychology nonsense.

Revolutionary Road is a novel that keeps gesturing outward, especially to a largely fantastic Europe where all problems are solved and all days are aesthetically beautiful. But its own aesthetics are those of a keen savoring of the ironies of the American suburb. Frank Wheeler is paralyzed emotionally because he can't get away from his subdivision. But the novel's more aloof main voice tells us that it's only in drinking deep of the subdivision that we can attain aesthetic bliss.

John Givings's mother Helen is the impossibly chipper, relentlessly conformist real-estate agent who has sold the Wheelers their place on Revolutionary Road. When April dies after a self-administered abortion, the news "had filled her with a self-reproach so deep and pure it was almost pleasurable" (457). That sentence might serve as a note for the method of the entire novel. Revolutionary Road looks full into a kind of horror, but draws great energy and pleasure from imagining that horror in every detail.

Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road. 1961. New York: Vintage, 2009.