Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Revolutionary Road

Richard Yates (1926-1992), the author of Revolutionary Road, knows the hopeless emptiness of suburban life. He knows the commuters who hate their 9-5 jobs and the claustrophobic housewives whose pregnancies cut them off radically from past achievements and friends. Revolutionary Road, a cult classic, is passed on by word of mouth, or, according to Richard Ford in his introduction to the 2000 Vintage edition, taught by maverick professors who specialize in Kesey, Kerouac, and Paula Fox (the latter’s work is especially pertinent).

The protagonists, a couple named Frank and April Wheeler, never intended to live average lives. They enjoyed their slight rebelliousness in Greenwich Village until April became pregnant, the contingency on which their lives hinge. Frank talks her out of an abortion (which was a perilous and horrifying prospect, since she intended to perform it on herself with a syringe), but the pregnancy in fact ruins both their lives. April has no life outside the suburb; Frank, who prides himself on doing nothing at his job and not even knowing what it is, rebels at work, hilariously shuffling files from his in-box to his desk drawers to the secretary’s files and back to his own in-box, writing brochures and letters as seldom as possible. April, however, stuck at home, has lost confidence. She encourages him to quit his job and move to France, where she can support the family.

it is a, ironically, a madman who understands their philosophy. John, a schizophrenic mathematic, articulates their loathing of suburbia:

“You want to play house, you got to have a nice job. You want to play very NICE house, very SWEET house, then you got to have a job you don’t like. Great. This is the way ninety-eight-point-nine percent of the people work things out, so believe me buddy you’ve got nothing to apologize for. Anybody comes along and says “Whaddya do it for?’ you can be pretty sure he’s on a four-hour pass from the State funny farm...”

It takes a madman to speak the truth. And possibly a housewife (April has less to lose than Frank). But the reader also sympathizes with Frank’s point of view. He may be unlikable and arrogant, but is believable as a guy in a gray flannel suit who is tempted by success at a job he doesn’t respect.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

I was too tired to comment properly last night so sent off a personal memory and reaction (as I recall), but this morning I'm fresh and impressed by what a good critic of modern fiction you are.