On my fling-o-meter scale, Revolutionary Road
is a well-traveled book, having been flung (why does this past participle sound so ungainly?) across the room several times. The initial trip occurred when Richard Yates gratuitously threw in this bit of over-writing in the first chapter:
At first their rehearsals had been held on Saturdays—always it seemed, on the kind of windless February or March afternoon when the sky is white , the trees are black, and the brown fields and hummocks of the earth lie naked and tender between curds of shriveled snow” (4)
It was the “hummocks of the earth” lying “naked and tender” among the “curds of shriveled snow” that made me yell fuck, and send the book airborne. During these outbursts, my golden retriever always gets up and heads toward a corner in the room, nose to the wall, like one of those doomed characters in the Blair Witch Project
The book fails on many levels.
Characterization - It takes some doing to make Franzen's characters in the Corrections
look warm and fuzzy by comparison. In RR, the protagonist, Frank Wheeler, offers no redeeming qualities. Our inability to identify with Frank or give a rat's ass what happens to him prevents the book from achieving its touted status as an American tragedy. It's a tragedy all right, but one of bad writing and poorly-executed characters, rather than pathos. Frank Wheeler may be the most self-absorbed, premeditated character ever created. This man could not pick his nose without first deciding what angle might best favor the nose picking and if it could be done in an off-hand, manly sort of way.
Throughout, these brittle, self-absorbed, snotty, angst-ridden (for no particular reason) characters drink and smoke copious amounts. Their aimless path, similar to the circular journey of characters in The Sun Also Rises
or The Great Gatsby
is about the only aspect Yates has in common with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, to whom he is equated, by David Hare, one of the gushing, drunken critics quoted on the book's back cover. However, I cared about Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby, Jake Barnes, and possibly even Brett Ashley. Yates' characters do not arouse my sympathy. Frank's obsessive fascination with his own psyche, April's confused and curiously unexplained actions, Shep's doglike devotion, and Milly's blankness work against what is, ostensibly, a character-driven novel.
Theme - As far as I could tell the only "characteristically American theme"--a carefully vague phrase used by another critic quoted on the book's back cover--exemplified is something like when "manhood was in flower." Frank and April's planned relocation to Paris is proposed by April, who in a crescendo of wifely devotion and guilt, declares herself a selfish bitch who's never given Frank the time he's needed to find himself and bring his genius to fruition. Their intended escape from suburbia brings Frank and April closer, ramping up their love life and uniting them with a sense of superiority as they gleefully break the “news” to their less enlightened friends.
The book’s lack of any sort of moral compass contributes to its failure. The manhood in flower theme is embarrassing, rather than noble. Consider the following, which the reader should somehow take seriously (!?). Here Frank picks through the women in his life, dissects their physical attributes, and declares them lacking—none of them worthy enough to lift him to manly triumph:
But as college wore on he began to be haunted by numberless small depressions….It nagged him, in particular, that none of the girls he’d known so far had given him the sense of unalloyed triumph. One had been very pretty except for unpardonably thick ankles, and one had been intelligent, though possessed of an annoying attempt to mother him, but he had to admit that none had been first-rate. Nor was he ever in doubt of what he meant by a first-rate girl, though he’d never come close enough to one to touch her hand. There had been two or three of them in the various high schools he’d attended, disdainfully unaware of him in their concern with college boys from out of town; what few he’d seen in the army had most often been seen in flickering miniature, on strains of dance music, through the distant golden windows of an officers’ club…” (23, emphasis mine).
But enough. The book took another trip across the room, and I felt like Dorothy Parker when she wrote, “at this point Tonstant Weader throwed up.”
Like Shakespeare’s fools, who often penetrate the layers of deceit and spout words of wisdom, John Givings, the crazy son of Helen Givings, theoretically serves to offer up moments of Truth. Helen Givings and her husband have put their son in a mental health facility, and Helen thinks it would be “good” for their son, John, to talk to other young people. Thus, the ill-fated Sunday visits at the Wheeler’s home. But John’s truths are less than dependable. At one point, John channels Ayn Rand. After first mocking April, John is impressed by her frank response and provides this Randean pronouncement:
[John:] stared at her for a long time, and nodded with approval. “I like your girl, Wheeler,” he announced at last. “I get the feeling she’s female. You know what the difference between female and feminine is? Huh? [No. But sadly we find out.:] Well, here’s a hint: a feminine woman never laughs out loud and always shave her armpits. Old Helen in there is feminine as hell. I’ve only met about a half dozen females in my life, and I think you got one of them here. Course, come to think of it, that figures. I get the feeling you’re male. There are aren’t too many males around, either” (201).
I picked up the just-airborne book and finished this sucker, but there isn’t much more to write. The book is a muddled, mawkish, maudlin tribute to some time and place I’d like to think never existed.
In sum, just picture a more existential martini-laden white collar version of the theme song to Archie Bunker
Boy, the way Glen Miller played.
Songs that made the Hit Parade.
Guys like us, we had it made.
Those were the days!
Didn't need no welfare state.
Everybody pulled his weight
Gee, our old LaSalle ran great.
Those were the days!
And you knew where you were then!
Girls were girls and men were men.