Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bag O' Books: 'Revolutionary Road'

Try as I might -- and I've tried -- I just can't get into John Updike. I know that he was one of the literary masters of the second half of the 20th century. It's just that he's so boring. Other readers, readers I like and respect, disagree with me, so I give a run at an Updike novel now and again. A few weeks ago I tried my hand at Rabbit, Run, and I didn't make it nearly as far as I should've. The pace was glacial, the dense layers of description and internal monologue acting more as an obstacle than as illumination. I couldn't go on.

For whatever reason, though, I thought I'd at least kick the tires of postwar middle-class ennui with Richard Yates' 1962 novel Revolutionary Road. Turns out I made a good choice: Yates turns out -- in this book at least -- to be closer in spirit to the wit of Philip Roth than to Updike. There's entertainment going on here, though it's the kind that'll make you wince every few pages.

Like a lot of people my age, my first awareness of Revolutionary Road came not in a bookstore or literature class, but in a movie advertisement: I've never seen the 2008 film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, but the trailers seemed to promise a been-there-done-that portrayal of the crushing soul-lessness of suburbia. I've not the seen the movie; I can tell you that the book reads more like a satire than an actual tragedy, despite some grizzliness in the last act.

And the satire is not of the suburbs, really, or the people who live in them -- but of the kind of people who live in the suburbs and think they're too good for them, folks who harbor fantasies of urban bohemia even as they go about the day-to-day drudgery of raising kids and earning money at boring jobs. Today, we call people like this "yuppies," but the term didn't really exist in 1962 -- and Yates was well ahead of his time in chronicling not just the rise of suburbia, but also the backlash.

Here's the synopsis of the book:
Frank is mired in a well-paying but boring office job and April is a housewife still mourning the demise of her hoped-for acting career. Determined to identify themselves as superior to the mediocre sprawl of suburbanites who surround them, they decide to move to France where they will be better able to develop their true artistic sensibilities, free of the consumerist demands of capitalist America. As their relationship deteriorates into an endless cycle of squabbling, jealousy and recriminations, their trip and their dreams of self-fulfillment are thrown into jeopardy.
What the synopsis doesn't tell you is how thoroughly and neatly Yates depicts the pretentions of his characters. April isn't actually a good actress; Frank literally talks a good talk, but it usually amounts to a jargon-filled rant against bourgeois life that was probably articulated better in some of the books he read during a brief stint at Columbia. Yates depicts a typical dinner gathering given by the Wheelers:
And even after politics had palled there had still been the elusive but enlessly absorbing subject of Conformity, or The Suburbs, or Madison Avenue, American Society Today. "Oh Jesus," Shep might begin, "you know this character next door to us? Donaldson? The one that's always out fooling with his power mower and talking about the rat race and the soft sell? Well, listen: did I tell you what he said about his barbecue pit?" And there would follow an anecdote of extreme suburban smugness that left them weak with laughter.
"Oh, I don't believe it," April would insist. "Do they really talk that way?"
And Frank would develop the theme. "The point is it wouldn't be so bad if it weren't so typical. It isn't only the Donaldsons--it's the Cramers too, and the whaddyacallits, the Wingates, and a million others. It's all the idiots I ride with on the train every day. It's a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity."
The book follows the Wheelers as they select and decorate their suburban Connecticut home in ways they hope will show themselves to be above suburbia. And when tragedy does occur, it's only because the our main characters contemplate making good on all their snooty talk. As a pretentious, city-loving wannabe urbanite who has done his fair share of suburb-dissing, I can tell you I had a rare experience with this novel: I felt indicted. Repeatedly, and at times painfully, and at a distance of a half-century.

Yates can't quite sustain the indictment; the last act of the book feels like a movie that -- having run out of things to say and do -- ends with a run-of-the-mill car chase. Until then, though, Revolutionary Road is a splendid book, well-drawn but efficiently paced. It's the kind of book I wish John Updike had written.

Bag O' Books features my thoughts about whatever I've read recently, even if I'm decades late to the table.

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