Thursday, August 06, 2009

You've GOT to Read This III: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2008. (This book was originally published in 1961.)

When I first started this mini-series of "You've GOT to Read This," I promise you, I did not expect to be bombarding you with titles every other week. I still don't expect to do so, but who knows? I also didn't expect that two out of the first three books I featured would both be recommended to me by the same person. (Maybe I need to start having a few expectations?) Here I am, though, with the second book that Bob (whose post on same you can read here) has recommended to me. Here's what his email that inspired me to read the book sooner rather than later said:

"Get thee to a book store for a copy of Revolutionary Road, post haste. This you will want to keep, so no foolin' around with library copies. Sensed it was a good book when I first read it, but never really realized how good until rereading. Should be required reading for all aspiring writers because it is crafted so well."

Here was my reply, after I obediently did as he said:

"Damn you, yet again...I went to pick up Revolutionary Road, a book I did not intend to read just yet, because I'm in the midst of about four other books that need to be finished. I was hooked, hooked (as in line, sinker, and all) by page two. I'm now on page 30, and it looks like all other books will have to wait. Man, this one is good (and will be good for my own writing, too, I can tell). I suppose I really ought to be thanking you...Nah!"

After spending a good deal of my summer with fantasies and mysteries and the supernatural, it was definitely time for some realism. Real this book most certainly is, especially for someone who spent 20 years living in Fairfield County, CT where the book is set. Granted, it was Fairfield County 1955, but no matter. 1955 or 2005, this is Fairfield County,

Anyone could see they were a better than average crowd, in terms of education and employment and health... (p. 7)

So is this,

...a part of Western Connecticut where three swollen villages had lately been merged by a wide and clamorous highway called Route 12 (p. 4)...she might have to breathe the exhaust fumes and absorb the desoluation of Route 12, with its supermarkets and pizza joints and frozen custard stands...(p. 162)

(Granted, in 2005, those custard stands are Starbuckses, but still.) So real is the book that I could reach out and touch these characters. They sat around my parents' Thanksgiving table when I was fifteen. They sat around the Thanksgiving tables at houses to which I was invited when I was 25. They sit around, elderly now, at the Thanksgiving tables to which Bob and I are invited these days.

This is a book about marriage. Specifically, it is a book about marriage and my parents' generation. This couple is a little older than my parents. It's 1955, and they already have a six-year-old and a four-year-old. In 1955, my father was still married to his first wife, who would not die until 1957. My mother and he would marry in 1959, she practically an "old maid" for that era, being (gasp!) 27 years old. My parents were a little bit different. They'd both lived quite a bit before they got married. Still, they were engaged a mere three months after they started dating and married a mere three months after that.

Bob's parents were even more similar to the couples in this book. His father (as had the men in this book) had fought in WWII (a subject, maybe, for another blog post. I am convinced that all WWII vets suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression, unacknowledged, because they were all "heroes" in a "just war"). They met and married in the 1950s, too. Stories vary, but it seems they were married within three months of having met each other.

Those of us who grew up in an era in which we discussed with our friends such things as "date at least a year [some of my friends had a "three-year rule"] before even considering marriage" or even "live with each other for at least a year before even considering marriage" find these "instant marriages" almost impossible to believe. (Okay, maybe no one else does, but I certainly do.) These days, I would lean more towards the three-year marker, if you are under the age of 25. No wonder once divorce became more acceptable in society (the 1960s and 1970s) it became prevalent enough that I was actually a minority on my hall in my dorm in college because my parents were still married to each other.

None of the marriages in this book is a "good" one. The characters certainly try, but males and females seem to be unable to communicate on a level at which they could ever hope to understand each other. They fantasize about how their conversations are going to go, how they're going to do the right thing, but time and again, they screw it up. A huge contributing factor to the problem is that they do not know or understand themselves. Occasionally, they have brief glimpses -- snapshots -- of who and what they really are. But they don't tend to stare, to linger over them. They quickly flip through the scrapbook to judge the photos of others, to note who is standing awkwardly and why or how that person never smiles.

This is a bleak, bleak book -- a tragedy in the making from the opening scene. By today's standards, every character is an alcoholic (those depressed WWII vets and the women who lived with them had to self-medicate somehow), and it's no wonder. I can't imagine anyone living with such misery without feeling the need to numb themselves.

However, despite its sadness, this book is an extraordinarily compelling read. Yates may have painted an extremely depressing portrait, but he did it oh-so-beautifully. You want to know, "How did he manage that shade of blue?" I found myself wanting to mark up almost every single page of the book, but that would have gotten monotonous after a while with merely one "brilliant!" after another.

What's interesting to me about Yates is that he could serve up such tragedy with no comic relief (and, really, I found none), and I could handle it. That's not like me. I typically want a little humor a la Richard Russo to soften the blows in my realistic fiction. I'll even take a little absurd surrealism with that humor a la John Irving to pad my falls. This book gave me none of that, and yet I am still compelled to sing its praises, to read more Yates, to learn from him as I write my own novel, despite the fact that I'm the complete opposite. Humor is the name of my game.

And learn from him, I most certainly can. For instance, I want to be able to include this sort of detail to bring a scene to life: man kept telling his wife, who chewed her lips and nodded, seeing what he meant... (p. 7)

I want to remember how effective it can be to frame a scene. That just before a couple has a horrific fight, an author might note:

On their right, in a black marsh, the spring peepers were in full and desperate song. (p. 27)

And then draw that fight to an end with:

When he was finished, the shrill, liquid chant of the peepers was the only sound for miles. (p. 29)

And I want to remind myself, being a huge fan of simile, that this is what good, workable simile is:

[Frank, the main character is reading the funnies to his two young children.] He felt as if he were sinking helplessly into the cushions and the papers and the bodies of his children like a man in quicksand. (p. 59)

Reading Yates is reminiscent of reading Sinclair Lewis, except that Yates's characters (at least in this book) seem to have done a better job of convincing themselves that they are, somehow, above it all. Yes, here they are, living in the suburbs, drinking cocktails, raising their children, keeping their lawns mowed...yet, that isn't really what they are. They engage in intellectual debate; they are "strangers in a strange land"; the "American Dream" with its nice homes and lawn ornaments is not theirs.

But, oh, look what happens to those who conform without conforming. The only one who seems honestly to be able to tell them what they are doing, who they really are, is the one they've all labeled "insane." That one, who's had all his shock treatments, is frightening, yes, and he needs to be hushed up.

If they hadn't hushed him up and locked him away, he could have told them, though. What would he have had to say? That when tragedy finally hits, within six short months, everything goes back to the way it was. Well, it's the way it was except that they all have this interesting new "gossipy" tale to tell at their cocktail parties, with a hindsight-enriched spin on how everyone really did see it coming given the couple in question. Meanwhile, the newest "Bright, Young Things" are embraced to embark on their own journey down suburbia's road.

Brilliant stuff. I'm passing on the command: "get thee to a bookstore posthaste."


Bob said...

Emily, I loved reading your “review” as I almost felt as if I was rereading the book again! Some of your observations are especially prescient, the one about WW II vets, the special baggage that generation had to tote around. My Dad was a vet and virtually never spoke about the War but he smoked and drank until the day he died and his face had those deep lines, the same I’ve seen in the photos of Yates’ before he died. And, indeed, the bleakness of the book, not like the occasional smile that Russo will evoke, and, as you say, even John Irving. But it is a depiction of a reality that reminds me a little of Emily Dickinson’s line, “There is a certain slant of light,/ On winter afternoons,/ That oppresses, like the weight/ Of cathedral tunes.” It is what it is and it IS Fairfield County!

Australian Online Bookshop said...

What a great review. Thank you.

I loved this book and recently seen the movie (which I probably shouln't have done.) Such a wonderful piece of writing.

litlove said...

I'm convinced! I've even got a copy. It's on the list for a few books down the line. Great review, Emily.

Emily Barton said...

Bob, thanks! I'm still so happy you recommended the book to me and that I actually read it right away. It most definitely IS Fairfield County! Kind of makes me interested to hear what those who don't know the county think of it.

AOB, thanks for stopping by. I plan to see the movie soon, too.

Litlove, glad to have convinced you. I don't think you'll be disappointed.