Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

revolutionary

It seems that ever since suburbia was born, people have been anxious to get out of it. The main characters of this novel (which is set in 1955, during the period of accelerating suburbanization) feel the same: Frank Wheeler, a young husband commuting from a small Connecticut town to his job in New York, and his wife, April, a dissatisfied woman playing mother and housewife with not a whole lot of talent feel out of place in their surroundings, and they are secretly convinced that they were destined for something grander than spending their lives on surreal green grass, among pastel-colored lovely little houses.

So once, when April comes up with the idea to leave everything behind and move to Paris, Frank – after a bit of grumbling – concedes. According to their plans, April will find a job and while she’s supporting the family, Frank will have time to finally figure out what’s his great talent and start working on realizing his potential. This is important, as one of the great common fictions/lies of the Wheelers is that Frank is in possession of a great special talent, and the only reason he couldn’t do anything with it is that their first child was born too early in their lives, so the ever so responsible Frank was forced to take a mind-numbingly boring job to be able to support his family. But then the Paris plans don’t work out the way the couple (or mainly April, who’s in the stage of “I must do something, right now, otherwise I’ll just rot here”) planned.

This is a horribly depressing novel. Not so much because of the individual events and turns (even though there are plenty of depressing events and turns here) but because it’s frightfully, disturbingly true. I know no other novel that depicts marriage games so authentically, and describes so ruthlessly the ways a couple can delude themselves and each other. The Wheelers do nothing else than play power games and fool each other. During their fights, Frank and April both know what to say to hurt the other in the most painful fashion; April knows just how to please Frank by playing the perfect housewife so that after a few hours of indulgence, when Frank already has his guards down, she can introduce her big ideas; and Frank can twist words so fantastically when he talks about his job and himself that he manages to paint a picture of himself as a confident, strong man, attractively contemptuous about his mindless job, because he feels this is how April wants to perceive him.

It’s simultaneously heart-wrenching and pitiful to see how Frank is constantly manufacturing explanations and excuses, and while he’s having a conversation with someone he already pictures how he’ll relate it to his wife in a way that flatters him. And the way he insists on having the final say in certain matters even if deep down he himself would like to agree with April is infuriating. The most prominent example of this is, of course, the question of having children – Frank convinces April to bear her unwanted child, during more than one pregnancies, even though he’d also be happier without children, only he can’t admit this due to a vague, mistaken feeling of needing to fulfill society’s expectations. (April plays similar games, by the way, only we don’t get so many precise details about her thoughts and about the way she plays her games.)

The most interesting aspect of this for me is that this isn’t a case of a relationship going sour over time. As it becomes clear from the reminiscences of the characters, their relationship was built on lies from the very first moment. For example, April only uttered the great compliment that’s still cherished by Frank (“you are the most interesting person I’ve ever met”) because she knew that’s what Frank wanted to hear. The question arises: is this a lie? Or is it simply a nice, harmless, weightless compliment, something new lovers always say to each other? I think it’s a lie, and an ugly, cynical and self-deluding one at that – as we also learn from the story, it isn’t such a great idea to build a relationship on delusion – neither for the one who’s doing the deluding, nor for the deluded.

But the novel isn’t only about April and Frank destroying each other and about their plan to change their lives (which inevitably goes astray) – it’s also about other people. About Mrs. Givings, the local real estate agent, who spends 12 hours a day brightly chatting about the wonderful weather, the amazing color of the grass, the greatness of suburbia, and the stunning view from the Wheelers’ living room – and then goes home, puts on her old clothes, and when she remains alone with herself for a minute, bursts into tears because she’s grown old and led a useless, meaningless life.

About the couple next door, the Campbells, who were not as promising as the Wheelers (but what do the Wheelers promise, anyway?), and who seem to be perfectly content, untouched by the desire for a more meaningful, more real life – and then it turns out that they are tormented by this desire, too, and that they are not necessarily dumber or more shallow than the Wheelers (at least the husband definitely isn’t).

About the single girl living in New York, who’s happy to have fleeting affairs with married men because she thinks that this is a must for a 20-year-old young woman living in the bustling city before getting married and moving to the suburbs to settle down – where she’ll spend her life fantasizing about the liveliness of her New York life, now gone.

And about Mrs. Givings’ mentally unstable son, John, who also started out a great promise, but failed to fulfill the expectations of others – but he’s equally unable to accept the hopeless emptiness of life in toy town.

And these stories of the minor characters serve to reinforce what’s obvious from the main story of the Wheelers: life in toy town, this simulacrum life suffocates and destroys everyone who thinks too much, and only those can live such a life peacefully who grow a plastic skin for themselves so that it’s not possible anymore to decide whether there’s still anything human, anything living under the skin (for example, I can’t decide whether Mrs. Givings still has anything human in her), or who voluntarily give up the dangerous habit of thinking in order to keep their sanity (for example, the Campbells – even though the husband still tends to think too much for his health).

All this is terrible and extremely disturbing, and after reading or watching this novel or a couple of other American works painting a dark picture of suburbia, probably no one has any desire for it. But the question remains: is life more real elsewhere?

A Good School by Richard Yates

a good schoolThe novel is set at Dorset Academy, a supposedly elite, but in fact rather second-rate private prep school for boys, at the beginning of the 1940s. Some claim that it’s a good school, some claim it’s merely unusual – I would say that it’s unusual to the extent all private preps are unusual – at least in literature. The school is situated at an idyllic spot somewhere in Connecticut, far from the noise and calamities of „reality”. All the passions, emotions and sexual drives of the students and teachers are confined within a relatively small space, and since there are no „outsiders” and no proper outlets for their passions, everyone’s forced to settle for the people who are right there, and content himself with (sickly) amusements and more or less sadistic games. For instance, the wife of the crippled chemistry teacher spends her afternoons with the French teacher, the number one badass in a ten-mile radius; the older students amuse themselves with bullying those who seem to be weak; and the gym teacher likes to exhaust all his students to death – of course, only in order to make sure that they are in good physical condition when they go to fight in World War II after graduation.

The novel is of a rather fragmented structure, and it’s made up of a series of loosely connected episodes. And in fact, nothing really unusual happens in the story: a couple of school-years pass, and the regular course of events is only slightly disturbed by the fact that some graduates die in World War II – actually, this provides the editor of the school paper with the wonderful opportunity to publish some warm, patriotic pieces in the paper. Apart from these distant connections with what’s going on „out there”, Dorset Academy is indeed a very closed community, and the successes and failures of the characters only matter within the boundaries of the school: no-one out there is interested in who cheats on whom within the gates of Dorset, and it’s of no real importance whatsoever that one of the characters, William Grove, who starts out as an often-bullied loser, slowly sheds his loser role and emerges as an important person as the editor-in-chief of the school paper.

We get glimpses of the lives of a whole lot of characters, but the unsettling, detailed emotional analysis which is characteristic of, for instance, Revolutionary Road is missing from this novel – here Yates doesn’t dig deep into the psyche of his characters. If I really want to, I can claim that the protagonist of this novel is the already mentioned William Grove, and I may consider the book his coming-of-age story (especially since the novel is framed by his prologue and epilogue, written in the first person singular, in which he summarizes his expectations of and experiences at Dorset Academy), but I’d rather say that there’s no main character in this novel – simply no-one is that important and interesting here. But anyway, why would anyone be more important than all the others? Nothing really significant happens to anyone in this novel, or at least nothing that couldn’t happen to any of the others.

All this may not sound mind-blowingly exciting, and indeed, when I first finished the novel I felt I was missing something – I would have been glad to read more details about the characters, and I would have liked to get more „drama”, more action, more digging into lives. But as time passed, I came to the conclusion that this novel is good exactly the way it is – and the fragmentary, muddled way Yates depicts the lives of these less-than-exciting, ordinary characters is true to life (life as it usually is).