GAN Quest: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

“No-one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

revolutionary roadFrank and April Wheeler have the perfect 1950s lifestyle – the nice house in suburbia, the two children; he with the daily commute to a good job in the city; she, a home-maker, beautiful and decorative – the middle-class, mid-20th century American Dream made real. But strip away the superficial and we find two people who have failed to be the people they expected to be, who are living every day with the disappointment of what they and each other have become. There is a desperation at the heart of this book – the desperation of rats caught in a laboratory maze.

Although Yates takes us into the minds of most of the characters at points, we mainly see the world through the eyes of Frank Wheeler. The book begins as April takes part in an amateur performance of The Petrified Forest – a play with the central theme of artistic and intellectual worth trapped in a loveless and humdrum existence, but where tragedy leads to escape. No coincidence that this should be the play that Yates chose, and no coincidence either that the performance should fail badly, leaving April publicly humiliated. Already in these early pages, Yates has signalled his major themes of intellectual elitism, entrapment and failure.

Long after the time had come for what the director called “really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen,” it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other’s eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might wait for them there.

Frank once aspired to lead the life of an intellectual, perhaps to be a Hemingway, defying convention and rejecting the lifestyle of his parents. He was feted in his student days as one of the coming generation, a brilliant conversationalist who would (in some way that he never quite got around to pinning down) have an intellectual impact on the world. April – beautiful, cool, aloof – aspired to be a serious actress. Each attracted to the other’s projected image rather than to the underlying person, they seemed an ideal glittering match, until the reality of pregnancy forced them down the path of conventionality towards earning a living and making a home.

kate winslet in RR

Now they are trapped – by their children, by society, but mostly by each other. As they fail to be what they anticipated they see their failure reflected back to them from the other’s eyes. It is only when April comes up with a radical plan to allow them to regain their lost glamour as free-wheeling intellectuals that Frank begins to realise he may no longer have the courage to pursue this dream – to risk discovering that he lacks the intellectual wherewithal, the belief in which has been the foundation of his sense of snobbish superiority over his neighbours and colleagues. When April reveals that she is once again pregnant, for Frank it is an excuse to retreat back to the safety of his conventional life. But to April it’s another trap – to keep her in a lifestyle she never wanted and to prevent Frank from becoming the man she thought she was marrying. For April, the coming child is her prison – for Frank, it is his escape.

She cried because she’d had such high, high hopes about the Wheelers tonight and now she was terribly, terribly, terribly disappointed. She cried because she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen and horrible; she cried because none of the girls had liked her at school and none of the boys had liked her later; she cried because Howard Givings was the only man who’d ever asked her to marry him, and because she’d done it, and because her only child was insane.

Yates is brutal to his characters, shining a light so bright there’s nowhere for them to hide. And through them, shining a light on this ’50s society, perhaps the last generation where women were still so irrevocably defined by motherhood and the men they married; and perhaps the first generation where men were beginning to question the role of masculinity in an increasingly white-collar world. Frank’s ambivalence towards his father is based on a mixture of intellectual condescension together with an unacknowledged jealousy of his physical skills, embodied in the recurring image of his father’s powerful hands.

Richard Yates
Richard Yates

Post-war, we see a generation of ordinary men who had access to higher education, often as the first in their family to do so. Where for Gatsby the American Dream was about money, birth and beauty, Yates shows the ’50s as a time of two dreams in conflict – the security of middle-class suburbia and the excitement of intellectual escape – with his characters caught between them. And yet Yates also seems to suggest that neither dream is worthy of pursuit – that somewhere along the way the lofty aspirations of previous generations have narrowed and shrunk down to this.

The place [Paris] had filled him with a sense of wisdom hovering just out of reach, of unspeakable grace prepared and waiting just around the corner, but he’d walked himself weak down its endless blue streets and all the people who knew how to live had kept their tantalizing secret to themselves, and time after time he had ended up drunk and puking over the tailgate of the truck that bore him jolting back into the army.

The ’50s were a time of huge change – the beginning of the decade still reflecting pre-war values and conventions, and the end looking forward to the surge of youth culture, sexual freedom and social upheaval that typified the ’60s. Yates brings the period brilliantly to life in this shortish novel that nevertheless has space to look not just at the characters as individuals but also at the society and culture they inhabit. His depiction of Frank’s workplace as a soulless maze of pointless paper-shuffling is superb, reflecting the growing struggle, for men in particular, to find some sense of fulfilment and worth when there is no physical input and no visible end result.

leo di caprio in rr

“Whaddya do then? Advertising man, or what?”
“ No, I work for Knox Business Machines.”
“Whaddya do there? You design the machines, or make them, or sell them, or repair them, or what?”
“Sort of help sell them, I guess. I don’t really have much to do with the machines themselves; I work in the office. Actually it’s sort of a stupid job. I mean there’s nothing – you know, interesting about it, or anything.”

Yates captures the language of the time so well that I could hear the dialogue being spoken in my head. These words could have been spoken at no other time and in no other place. And yet for all the talking in the book, there’s no sense of communication – each character is ultimately alone, desperately trying to hide behind the image they project. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. And perhaps we empathise most because he makes us fear that we recognise ourselves in there somewhere. A masterpiece.

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagA brilliant depiction of the hiatus between the war and the 60s and of the middle-class trying to work out a new identity in the post-war world – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagSubjective, but yes, I think so – the theme has been revisited since (and to some degree before – as Yates himself makes clear by referencing The Petrified Forest), but the setting, the climax and most of all the language within the dialogue make it innovative and original, so…achieved

Must be superbly written.

us flagMost definitely achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagOh dear…I’m going to change this criterion when I do a GAN Quest update, since I really think it’s unachievable and unreasonable. But meantime, no…this is about a specific group within America – young, white, educated, middle-class, so can’t be said to capture the entire American Experience. I also feel that, dialogue aside, the themes in this novel are not completely specific to the US – Britain and most of Western Europe were struggling with very similar issues of identity and aspiration at much the same period.

* * * * * * * * *

So with great regret, not The Great American Novel, but for achieving 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare Revolutionary Road to be A Great American Novel. And another truly great novel – if all the ones on my list are as good as this, the quest will be a rare treat.

* * * * * * * * *

Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your opinion…

53 thoughts on “GAN Quest: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

  1. FictionFan – Well, whether or not it’s The Great American Novel, it certainly does capture that duality of superficial suburban success and intellectual creativity and exploration. I’m glad you liked the writing style and the depiction of characters too. To me, they are so 1950’s America…

    • I thought he captured a particular style of language to perfection. It reminded me of the films of the late fifties and early TV shows of the era. And the story is pretty shocking today – must have been even more so, I would think, back when it was first published.

  2. FEF, awesome review! Once again, you tempt this professor to read a book!

    One of my favorite parts was this, “Each attracted to the other’s projected image rather than to the underlying person..” I think you’re a professional review writer.

    Is there any thread of hope throughout the book? And does it have a satisfactory ending?

  3. We read this at our September book group meeting some years ago. This is the meeting where we discuss the book in the morning and then see the film in the afternoon and it was one of the few occasions when we’ve actually enjoyed the film as well as the book.

  4. Okay, okay, this HAS been sitting on the TBR pile for a good year and a half following an equally strong recommendation at that time from another quality reviewer exhorting me to read it. So, that’s TWO of you, with fairly different tastes in reading in some ways. I really must reposition it closer to view in the wobbly pile.

    • I think you should definitely shove it up the list – I think this might very well be your kind of thing. So far the GAN Quest is going well – mind you, this is only the second and the first was Gatsby!

  5. Great review. I really will have to consider reading some serious American books, instead of endless SF,fantasy and crime – sometimes all at once.

    • Thanks, BUS. Yes, I think we all tend to be a bit insular when it comes to fiction. I’m even quite insular when it comes to crime though – I really prefer British crime novelists. But so far my limited reading of American fiction has been very impressive.

      • 😆 Traitor!

        No, BUS doesn’t blog – too busy reading – but I agree she should. Her knowledge of sci-fi and fantasy is huge – two areas I really don’t read much of at all.

  6. Another excellent review, to be sure. And thought provoking.

    I will say this novel strikes me as very American, not just in its language but its themes–the buoyant spirit that pervaded the country in the wake of its role in WWII, and the gnawing sense of crashing from those heights when the realities sink in. British novels of the same period, for example, seem more full of the digging out that America never had to do because the conflict was not fought on our soil, and more tempered from the start by a foreboding sense of the vagaries of world politics and the precarious position achieved by any victory of this kind.

    I probably also think of it as American because of all the American novelists who credit Yates and Revolutionary Road with leading the way. My paperback copy from some years back has an introduction by Richard Ford, who says “suffice it to say that among readers of American fiction since the beginning of the 1960’s, Revolutionary Road, published to acclaim in 1961, has become a kind of cultish standard. And especially is this true among writers, who have kept its reputation burnished by praising it, teaching it, sometimes willingly emulating its apparent effortlessness, its complete accessibility, its luminous particularity [and] its deep seriousness toward us human beings–about whom it conjures shocking insights and appraisals.”

    All that said, in regards to the pesky Criterion the Fifth, this novel is American because it is SET in America, not because it is ABOUT America in the way something like Gatsby or Huck Finn is about America. I do think there’s a difference there, and I also think it’s one you’ll see again in some of the other novels on the list.

    • Thanks, Matt!

      Interesting – I think I’ve said before that I tend to avoid post-war (British) fiction, and on thinking about your comments, I suspect that might be to do with the disconnect between the impression those books give about the British aftermath and my own experience. I’m not old enough to remember the 50s or early 60s, but I grew up listening to my parents and their generation, and In general, despite rationing and relative hardship, I feel the overwhelming feeling here was also one of buoyancy and huge pride. It was a long time before I really realised that the war wasn’t quite as simple as ‘we beat the Germans…twice!’ My mother in particular was quite honest about having ‘enjoyed’ the war as it gave women an opportunity to lead a much more liberated life in the services. I think this might be a fairly Scottish perspective – separate from the London attitude of most of the writers. We take a particular pride in our armed forces, and in addition there was a kind of delirium over the rise of the welfare state after the war which made the Scots feel that, unlike after WW1, life was actually going to improve. And for the first time, upper working-class parents (whom the US tend to think of as middle-class) felt their children could go to University and become socially mobile. All of which is a long way of saying that I identified with Yates’ post-war America considerably.

      So yes, set in the US and I can see that it’s very much part of the US ‘tradition’, but the thing that made it most American for me was the brilliantly-captured dialogue and language.

      Huck Finn next!

    • Thanks, Jilanne! I must say I could have burbled on about this book for twice as long – but I thought you’d all suffered enough! 😉

      Do read it – I think you’ll love it…hopefully! In fact, I think this could be one of those books that LF and I might even agree on, if i can persuade her to read it too…

  7. Having finally succumbed to this, and finished it, and in a numbed, bleak and aching daze, I had to pop back to read your review, which is even more stunning when read after reading the book. Well done, very very well done. This is a very perfect, absolutely brilliant analysis. I’m half tempted not to bother writing a review myself. You have said it all, beautifully. If I do, it will be purely to ‘ work it out of my psyche’ and get a little clarity on it from the reflection. Wow, for the book. Wowwow for this magnificent analysis

    • Well, m’dear, I’m so glad you felt the same way about it as me. I think the truly great books is the point where we meet. Maybe in fact that should be the criteria for deciding what is truly great literature – that we both rate it! And thank you very much! I must say these GANs are books that are fascinating to write about – so much to say about them. Sometimes it takes me ages though – like with GOW – just because they’ve harrowed me so deeply I have to wait till I’ve calmed down before I can work out what it is I want to say. Do write your own review! I very much want to read your take on it – we always see things from slightly different angles!

      And have I mentioned that you should read American Pastoral…?

      • I’m possibly going to be harder to shift on Pastoral – images of liver insist on getting in the way whenever i think about Roth. I HAVE done my review, which will appear on Wednesday, – Monday’s was already scheduled – though an abbreviated (but not by much!) is on Amazon

        Of course the problem is now the same as with GOW – stuff seeming thin and paltry. Though I do have Nancy Mitford’s In Pursuit of Love which I remember as frothy and sharp fun, which i picked up in the charity shop yesterday, which might be a good palate cleanser. The non-fiction book I’m reading for the same reason isn’t wonderfully grabbing me because I find the writing style is a bit Reader’s Digest

        • No liver in this one, I promise! I shall look forward to it – I’ll wait for the bloggie version, complete with pictures.

          I’m sure it’s reading the GANs that has added to my underwhelmedness with current lit-fic. The more classics I read the less patience I have for the pretentious or the mediocre. Even when I don’t love a classic, I can usually see what there is in it that other people admire. As for non-fiction, I feel as if I’ve been reading Nixon for as long as the Watergate hearings… and still just over halfway through! Not going to be the book of the year I feel…

          • The ease of publishing and particularly self-publishing really seems to have resulted in a lot of derivative sliced white bread Chorleywood process fiction. I assume that cost factors, amongst other matters, meant far fewer books made it to publication in yon times, so possibly more of the ones which were published had merits. When I think of some of those Penguin classics of the mid twentieth century which I’ve been reading, stuff which wasn’t regarded as being of the highest, lasting literary quality, but just, I suppose, ‘middle-brow literature, telling a good story’ – I’m a bit gobsmacked at how fine they are. I do also think that when books really became seen as commodities and all that ridiculous bidding war stuff for first time authors started – it’s all clearly driven by movie or TV possibilities, and I certainly get the sense that there are writers who are utterly atrocious, churning out stuff which is same old same old sex-and-violence-with-a-bit-of-grisly-spookiness. Plots which are laughable, characters which are less than one dimensional and no pleasure or craft in language itself.

            It’s happened FF, I think officially we are Grumpy Old Readers!

            • Ha! Yes! But – and I’m going to get the award for Intellectual Snob of the Year now – I also think it’s to do with the democratisation of writing. In ye olden days, most authors had had a good, mostly private, education and as a result used grammar and vocabularly effortlessly and correctly, so all thy needed was a good story and they were sorted. Now everyone who can sign their own name thinks they can write great novels – and in this land of constant praise, no-one ever tells them that their stuff is badly-written tosh. I blame the schools – but I also blame the reviewers. I abandoned a book a few days ago because it read as if it had been written by a foul-mouthed eight year old who hadn’t grasped the concept of sentence construction, but reviewers (most of whom had been given the book free either through NG or worse, directly from the author) were praising it to the heights. Frankly, I think there’s a dishonesty creeping in to the whole revieiwing thing – not direct shills but people wanting to be chums with authors. I am finding I place less and less value on rave reviews… I blasted the publishers over that one – I’m pretty sure for every rave review there’ll be another ten disillusioned purchasers who decide never to read another crime novel, ‘cos who do you trust to know which are the good ones?

            • I do wonder o fellow ISOTY – let’s form a society, ISOTYsoc has a nice ring about it – whether the inevitable textspeak and the desire for everyone to try an ‘get down wiv da kids’ by a patronising dumbing down – witness Wimbledon2day (snarls, spits, gnashes teeth clackingly) isn’t also driving this. Rude to say, but I wonder if the praisers of the book are a little less long in the tooth/barely out of milk teeth?

              It’s rather frightening how ubiquitous poor spelling and grammar has become. I recently reviewed a rather good skin care product. Didn’t put this on the review, but did email the company to let them know that their box and bottle was awash with spelling mistakes on the contents – now this was idiotic misspelling of botanical names – all it needed was careful copying. As I know my botanicals I knew what the ingredients were supposed to be.

              My current steam out of nostrils is would of instead of would’ve – it’s how people speak, getting translated into writing, and is becomiing more and more common. Give it ten years or so and I’m sure the correct version will be featuring as the archaic version!

            • I’d feel happier about it if all the reviewers were young but some of them were more my age. It seems to be a ‘don’t speak ill of the living’ type thing – but if that’s the case, why review? I can see why people don’t want to write negative reviews – I sometimes opt out myself if it’s a new young author – but it’s the writing of glowing ‘this is brilliant’ reviews of stuff that wouldn’t get someone through a GCSE that annoys me. So misleading to potential purchasers, just so an author will send a thank you tweet or something? I shall grump off to my afternoon moaning classes now – I think I’m just about ready for graduation…

            • Oh dear (rave reviews when they are undeserved) I can see that things could get hard if you ended up in communication with a writer because of your genuine championing of what you thought was wonderful writing, and then a later work disappointed.

              As you know, I prefer not to review books that disappoint – generally because I’ll abandon them early – except of course for Vine, where you have to post a review, so it’s a mixture of post a damning review saying I couldn’t finish it because it was dreadful, or an even more damning review because you made yourself finish and laid out all the evidence for its dreadfulness!

              Anyway, I’m slowly feeling a bit more cheerful as Nancy Mitford’s frothy The Pursuit of Love is a wonderful antidote to those two American Gan heavyweights.

              It’s champagne, chocolate and strawberries, but of very fine quality, and beautifully presented, so I’m snickering at every line.

            • I’m being more brutal about abandoning early at the moment, and generally I have a rule that I won’t review a book I haven’t read at least half of, but I break it from time to time for special cases! I hardly ever get offered books from Vine now – I think it was about February that I last had one. But I seem to be on the cat toy list now – poor T&T! Bet they didn’t know they were going to spend their lives impersonating guinea pigs…

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