Yesterday, I settled down with Revolutionary Road and once I got started I just kept on going. What a rich, and complex book. I’m curious whether my experience reading this novel is also affected by my status as an expat. Revolutionary Road does a lot of picking and scraping at American society, at the myth of the American Dream, at that truly American style “selling” of psychological stability and me-centered philosophy. What is it about America that produces this angsty, hyperactive self-consciousness? Don’t misunderstand me, it happens elsewhere and, of course, not all Americans suffer from this special breed of narcissism but despite my need to moderate what might be interpreted as hyperbolic statements, there’s no denying that Yates makes some astute observations about many fundamental paradoxes of American culture.
Frank Wheeler is so self-conscious, so worried about his persona – interpreting it to himself, presenting it to others and refining it for both audiences – that he can’t get through a single conversation without play-acting. He imagines the things he will say, practices expressions and gestures when no one is looking, interprets each encounter in terms of its reflection on his own self-definition. Living inside his mind would be frightfully exhausting.
This makes it sound like I had no sympathy for him. Which wasn’t the case. If I ever met someone like Frank Wheeler face to face I think I’d scream and run in the other direction, but letting him function as a stand-in for “the American male” with a neurotic need to prove himself was really interesting. The same goes for April, his wife. As a specific individual, she’s nearly unbearable. But as a symbol of repression, of indecision, she’s quite powerful.
Revolutionary Road was published in 1961 and I was expecting the text and some of its ideas to be somewhat dated. But they weren’t at all. Frank and April’s constant anxiety about getting trapped into their suburban nothingness, filled with people riding high on complacency and stale conversation, is a theme we still have room to move around in. In many ways, it felt like reading a male-oriented version of Rachel Cusk’s The Lucky Ones or Arlington Park – a population of people trapped inside a painful understanding of their own mediocrity.
What I’m curious about is what creates this tension. What is generating the disconnect between what we think we will be and this sudden, horrifying understanding that we have no idea who we really are? I can’t help contrasting the emotional current of Revolutionary Road against my recent read of The Fountainhead – a novel which glorifies the antithesis (or the conquest) of the anxiety Yates so carefully explores. Take these two novels out of the time period in which they were written and it’s evident both “stories” still exist inside American culture. Rand’s vision of the self-made man who knows from day one exactly what his Purpose is and how to get there vs. Yates’s idealistic but insecure weakling.
I’m fascinated by the kind of destructive interpersonal interaction Yates is getting at in Revolutionary Road. Maybe that’s because I now live in a society which works very hard to avoid anything emotionally grandiose or self-promoting. But it wasn’t just that difference that kept me reading the novel, it was also how lovingly Yates gave us his dysfunctional characters. Not to mention his amazingly skilled use of an omniscient third person POV – something we don’t see very often anymore. And just the overall mood of the book. Ennui. The ins and outs and horrors of ennui.
Both Frank and April embody several contradictions – shallow and sensitive, self-important and insecure, intelligent and paralyzed – which is what, I suspect, keeps the reader attached to them. And their constant attempts to get the better of these contradictions created an explosive form of neurosis. It also left no room for anything beyond their selves and their couple. One of the book’s tragedies is an awfully quiet one – the legacy the Wheeler parents will bequeath their children. Again, lots to ponder when you think about it in terms of generational symbols.
Thank you to Zhiv for putting this book on my radar and for mentioning that there is a film version coming out in December. I will be very interested to see how well the director and the cast might render the complicated inner lives of the Wheelers. Something to look forward to!