What I’m Reading: Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road

This novel has some of the most unlikable protagonists this side of Flaubert – and Flaubert (the Flaubert of Madame Bovary and L’éducation sentimentale, that is) is obviously Yates’ paradigm as a writer. Yates assumes the same pitiless attitude towards his characters as Flaubert did, watching them like insects under a microscope, observing even their faintest twitchings while he slowly and thoroughly dissects them. But while Flaubert’s subjects was the 19th century French bourgeoisie, Yates analyses 20th century US suburbanites – a well-researched species these days but, I believe, still largely unexplored by the time Revolutionary Road was first published in 1961.Unexplored, that is, in literature, but otherwise apparently already a well-established phenomenon – the novel’s main protagonist Frank Wheeler is throughout the novel very conscious of what a typical resident of Suburbia looks like and how he behaves, and takes great care to be as different as possible. The novel starts with an amateur theatre performance and although it is Frank’s wife April who is playing the leading part in it, it soon becomes obvious that it is actually Frank who is always on stage – always casting  himself in a role, always conscious of how he appears to others. And it does  not take for the reader to notice (although Frank himself remains completely ignorant of this throughout the whole novel) that Frank’s attempts to distance himself from the suburbanite, his self-image of being better and more intelligent and talented than everyone around him stamps him as being part of precisely the crowd he so desperately does not want to be a part of. Revolutionary Road is at its funniest (and for all its dark and bleak tone, there are some very funny moments in the novel) when it shows the Wheelers meet with friends to deride and laugh at the narrow-minded suburbanites to which they are oh so superior  while being blissfully unaware that precisely by this ridiculing they show themselves to be members of the class they are pointing fingers at.

And this is where (depending on your own perspective) Revolutionary Road becomes either brilliant or problematic, depending on your reading experience. It is easy to see that the novel repeats exactly the same gesture it is damning its characters for, by building an identical complicity between narrator and readers that makes them feel superior to despicable and ludicrous Frank Wheeler and his circle. All of which would not be a bad thing at all, if the novel then managed to turn that around and make readers aware that they have lapsed into the same self-satisfied smugness that is seen to be characteristic of Suburbia; and assessment of the novel’s merit will largely depend on whether one thinks that the novels succeeds in instilling that self-awareness in the reader.

Now, I won’t claim to have read Revolutionary Road very closely, and because of that I might very easily have missed out on decisive clues – but as far as I could see, the novel not only does not succeed at reaching any kind of self-reflexiveness but is not even trying. This is largely due to its form (or, if you prefer, its genre), namely that it is a realistic novel, told in a very traditional, 19th century way which has as its underlying assumption that a novel mirrors reality as it is – an assumption that requires the mirror to be pure reflection and completely aloof from what it pictures. Such a model just has no place for a novel (or any medium) that is no longer pure but participates in what it describes and is aware of itself as describing. Revolutionary Road, then, is precisely this kind of pure realism – and unlike Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which is very conscious of how precarious the claim to mirror reality in fiction has become, Yates’ novel is not tinged by any form of modernism, it even has – although he masquerades as close third person perspective most of the time – an omniscient narrator. I’m quite open to the possibility that a more careful reading of the novel than I have undertaken might come up with things that I have overlooked, but for now I’m left with some disappointment at a novel that I think missed out on the chance to become truly engaging in every sense of the word by remaining blind to its own complicity in what it dissects.

Still, even though I think that Revolutionary Road is a highly problematic book, it is by no means a bad one – and a large part of the reason for that is another trait Yates shares with Flaubert, namely the extreme care he is taking with language. The writing here is gorgeous, making sure that every barbed arrow finds his aim, but also time and again blossoming into unexpected beauty when he describes a sunset or a piece of scenery or even some urban landscape. Those moments might be comparatively rare and mostly on the short side, but they are not less impressive for that and likely to linger in the reader’s mind.

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