Fiction: “Revolutionary Road” by Richard Yates

revroad200For those that know me, you know that I consider myself to be a pop culture glutton.  You also know that, while I read a lot (the small number of books I’ve completed thus far in 2009 notwithstanding), I tend to choose my new books by jumping on a bandwagon.  For instance, why did I pick up Tess of the d’Urbervilles earlier this year?  Because Masterpiece Classic was airing an adaptation of it.  Why did I choose to read Twilight last summer?  Because all the young kids were doing it, and I turn 26 in a couple of weeks, and I’d like to still feel slightly relevant.  Why did I pick up Revolutionary Road?  Because it was supposed to be the role that won Kate Winslet her first, much-deserved Oscar.  Also, it was on the buy-one-get-one-half-off table at Borders.

The fact that the role of April Wheeler didn’twin Kate Winslet that golden little man doesn’t really matter at this point; she won for The Reader – which I currently have on loan from the Portland Public Library, so, see?  Bandwagon.

I was going to write a long, explanatory synopsis right now, but I’m … tired.  And honestly, you can look up the plot summary on Wikipedia.  Here — I’ll give you all a minute to go click that link and read what happens to Frank and April Wheeler, because in this particular entry, I don’t want to discuss plot — I want to discuss Other Things.  While you’re at that, you should also check out the plot summary for the film as well.

It’s fine; I’ll wait.

Welcome back!

First things first, the novel is not nearlyas cut and dry as the above Wikipedia sites claim it is – the novel is an astounding work.  It really gets into the nitty-gritty of how horrible a life in Suburbia can be if you let it get to you.  And when you’re April and Frank Wheeler, who never wanted to enter into Suburbia in the first place – the only reason they married is because April got pregnant with their first child, and Frank wouldn’t let her get an abortion then, either – it can kill you from the inside out.

“Oh, yes,” April said [of the house] … “Of course it does have the picture window; I guess there’s no escaping that.”

“I guess not,” Frank said.  “Still, I don’t suppose one picture window is necessarily going to destroy our personalities.”  [31]

The entire novel is about trying to escape from the box that you and Society have put yourself into, although David on had a good point – that Frank and April “are tormented by the idea that they are not living up to their best selves … but [that] they have utterly self-deluding notions about what their best selves are or how to bring them into being” (David, reviewed 11/16/07).

So, I started reading this after watching the film, and I’m struck by a huge difference, and I’m not sure to whom I should attribute the difference.  The novel is told, largely, in Frank’s point of view.  While it is not first-person narration, the novel is completely the story of Frank.  He is constantly attempting to define himself in terms of him, rather than in terms of Society, or in terms of What Is Right. 

Wasn’t it true, then, that everything in his life from that point on had been a succession of things he hadn’t really wanted to do?  Taking a hopelessly dull job to prove he could be as responsible as any other family man, moving to an overpriced, genteel apartment to prove his mature belief in the fundamentals of orderliness and good health, having another child to prove that the first one hadn’t been a mistake, buying a house in the country because that was the next logical step and he had to prove himself capable of taking it.  Proving, proving.  [53]

After a horrific fight with April and during the requisite tap-dancing-around-each-other phase, Frank takes up with a secretary, Maureen.  On their first lunch, Frank tells her his carefully-constructed biography:

Through it all, though, ran a bright and skillfully woven threat that was just for Maureen: a portrait of himself as decent but disillusioned young family man, sadly and bravely at war with his environment. [101]

He wishes he was better than his surroundings; and when he returns home and April gives him her plan of moving to France so he can determine what he wants to do with his life while she supports him, he latches onto the plan like the lifeline he needed.

But life fucks him over – as it tends to do with most people, in my opinion.  In a fit of boredom coupled with feeling pretty good about going to France, Frank riffs off a pamphlet for a computer company, which he calls “Speaking of Inventory Control.”  He expects nothing to come from it, knowing he’s leaving in about four months.  To his surprise, it becomes an instant hit, and now he’s being thought of for a promotion.

And then, of course, April becomes pregnant for a third time.  She wants to abort it so they can continue with their plans of moving to France, but over sixty pages or so, Frank convinces her that it’s a bad idea to get rid of the baby.  Using the raise and promotion and the chances the promotion will give them to forge a new life here in the states eventually wears April down, and she capitulates.

Anyway.  The novel, as I said about forty paragraphs ago (it feels like), is Frank’s.  It’s his struggles, it’s his ennui, it’s his sense of self.  April is there, as his wife and most formidable opponent, but we don’t delve into her psyche at all.  maybe it was the style of the novel, maybe it was the time period, but while April does have a distinct personality, she doesn’t have any distinct thoughts we can hear – because the novel is told about Frank, from Frank, for Frank; and his struggles to define himself as a man.

For Frank, being a man means rising above mediocrity, and rising above what society deems acceptable.  The character of John Givings (for which Michael Shannon was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar) is the truth-teller, the catalyst, the Seer.  In their first meeting, John asks Frank about his job:

“Actually, it’s sort of a stupid job.  I mean there’s nothing – you know, interesting about it, or anything.”

“‘Interesting’?”  John Givings seemed offended by the word.  “You worry about whether a job is ‘interesting’ or not?  I thought only women did that.  Women and boys.  Didn’t have you figured that way.” [197]

And again, about their hopes of moving to France:

The practical side of the Europe plan didn’t seem to interest John Givings, but he was full of persistent questions about their reasons for going; and once, when Frank said something about “the hopeless emptiness of everything in this country,” he came to a stop on the grass and looked thunderstruck.

“Wow,” he said.  “Now you’ve said it. … Maybe it does take a certain amount of guts to see the emptiness, but it takes a hell of a lot more to see the hoplessness.  And I guess when you do see the hopelessness, that’s when there’s nothing to do but take off.  If you can.”  [200]

One aspect that really struck me about this novel was how Yates used Frank’s piece “Speaking of Inventory Control.”  It was introduced in one section, where Frank was nearly giddy about going to France and thoroughly enjoying blowing off work.  Then it became something that elevated his sense of worth, and opened up avenues at work he wasn’t expecting.  When Frank won the fight with April – when he had finally convinced her to keep the baby (or, at best, delayed her enough until it was no longer safe to do otherwise), Yates used the piece in a way that punched me in the face:

Only very gradually, there at the table, was he able to sort out and identify what it was that had haunted him on waking, that had threatened to make him gag on his orange juice and now prevented his enjoyment of the brilliant grass and trees and sky beyond the window.

It was that he was going to have another child, and he wasn’t at all sure that he wanted one.

“Knowing what you’ve got, comma,” said the living human voice in the playback of the Dictaphone, “knowing what you need, comma, knowing what you can do without, dash.  That’s inventory control.

“Paragraph…” [258]

It overwhelmed me; almost broke me, right in the break room at lunchtime.

While the novel belongs to Frank, the film belongs to April.  It’s her struggle to get Frank to France so she can blossom as well.  It’s her reluctance to carry a baby, because again, she’ll be tied down to one spot and she won’t be able to grow.  It’s her ennui, it’s her side of the fight.  And I’m not sure who’s at fault for that difference in POV – Kate Winslet, for latching onto the character of April so fully; Justin Haythe, who wrote the screenplay; or Sam Mendes, for directing Kate, his wife.  Or, conversely, Leonardo DiCaprio, for fading into the woodwork, as he tends to do.

The novel is heartbreaking.  It’s devastating, depressing, and bleak.  It’s amazing, and I don’t think I can recommend it enough.

Grade for Revolutionary Road: 4 stars


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