The first thing that comes to mind after reading Richard Yates’s 1961 debut novel is that it hasn’t aged well.
April and Frank Wheeler are a young married couple in their thirties, with a nice house in the suburbs, two children, and an insatiable appetite for self-delusion. While attempting to depict the shortcomings of suburban life in the 50s, Richard Yates ends up creating two incredibly unsympathetic characters whose level of immaturity would look bad on anyone past 25. After a somewhat fickle courtship, Frank decides to marry April when she gets pregnant with the couple’s first child, Jennifer, followed by another child whose main purpose is to prove the first one was not a mistake. They move to suburban Connecticut where they navigate a series of neurosis while their ill-fated love affair with each other and their illusion of superiority unfolds undisturbed in the background.
The main motivation of these characters, in spite of appearances, is neither the search for self, nor a desire to create meaning in their lives beyond their role as a couple, parents to their children, or middle-class Americans. The main motivator for both of them seems to be above anything else the idea of entitlement.
Frank and April Wheeler believe they are special and subsequently entitled to an exceptional life. Special people, of course, do not anonymously fade away in the seductive but unfulfilling middle-class comfort of suburbia. As time goes by and none of their projections materialize, they start to grow bitter and resentful. While April throws grown-up tantrums every other page, Frank internalizes his misery and unsurprisingly finds solace in the comfortable Washington Square apartment of his co-worker Maureen Grube. What else would make someone like Frank Wheeler feel like a man? Yates runs after clichés like a relay racer after relay batons. And he never misses any.
Equally irritating is that neither of the characters has the slightest idea of what exactly is it that they want and deserve. They just know they don’t have it, that it’s somewhere far away, and that they’d better start looking for it soon. This adolescent psychology transferred to an adult couple makes it very difficult to take this book seriously and Yates’s lobby for Frank and April’s misfit status is too obvious. They are both character types rather than individualized characters. See the last sentences of the previous paragraph.
Society and convention play a much smaller role than one might think in the drama of these characters. Their main conflict remains an internal one caused by heir inability to take responsibility for their own choices and the unwillingness to accept reality as it is, a consequence of their actions. Society did not force them to leave the city, to have children or to give up on their own lives while doing so, nor dit it forbid them to identify their issues and work through them, it didn’t even forbid them to get a divorce. Society and its implacable ways, the eternal scapegoat in literature, plays a pretty minor part in this novel unable to properly antagonize the characters who, in their self-centredness, cast a shadow over every other potential contender for your attention.
Feeling trapped and wallowing in self-pity in a neat, pretty little house in suburbia, April dreams of moving to Paris where people miraculously know how to live. What Yates may not have realized is that April’s desire to move to France does not automatically make her Emma Bovary, nor a tragic heroine. Her story of ending up with an incompatible partner which leads to a series of unsatisfying results is as banal as the trope of suburban boredom – the fragile foundation Yates hopes to erect his American tragedy upon. April is determined to get what is rightfully hers in order to escape the life that happened to her while she was busy feeling better than everybody else yet acting exactly the same. A tissue, please.
On the other hand, Frank Wheeler seems more willing to compromise on his mediocre desk job, the standard picket fence, and the occasional tryst. He does not have April’s drive to fulfill an unspecified true destiny, which makes him much more inclined to settle for the average life plus, ideally, a little validation from his wife. At this point he almost seems human.
I do get Yates’s irony, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that at the same time he seems to have written this novel with an agenda in mind. I truly believe he deeply disliked his characters and, in my opinion, it shows. More often than not, his irony flows over into contempt for these hollow characters – which, as a reader, makes me wonder why he bothered with them to begin with. He tries as hard as he possibly can to bring unlikable personalities into a dysfunctional environment, throws in a whiff of social convention, some ennui and overflowing egos and ends up asking: ain’t it all just a big mess. If anything, this novel is a perfectly rounded self-fulfilling prophecy.
The one good thing about it is that it works really well as a cautionary tale. Don’t commit your life to someone before you can stand on your own two feet, don’t blame society for your own choices, and for Christ’s sake learn a thing or two about protection. I know it was the 50s, but still.
It cost me a great deal of effort to power through this book: its subtle, but notable sexist implications, the annoyingly superficial inner ordeals of the characters, and additionally the author’s irritating style made me feel like flinging it across the room. Which, of course, I didn’t. I finished it so I could argue with it.
Yates’s novel did not age well, but maybe that’s not right. Maybe it’s simply a bad novel and has always been one. Revolutionary Road, packaged as the existential tragedy of man against society, reads rather like a farce.
For grown-up stories turn to Jonathan Franzen, Nadine Gordimer, or Peter Stamm. You’re welcome.