Review Of Revolutionary Road
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/30/09
I finally got around to reading Richard Yates’ much lauded first novel, Revolutionary Road, and, despite all the hype and blurbery, it was a huge disappointment. No, it was not the sort of patent PoMo garbage that is pushed by the David Foster Wallace or Dave Eggers sort, nor is it the deliterate crap foisted upon readers by T.C. Boyle nor Joyce Carol Oates. In fact, despite stylistic differences and thematic concerns that do not mix, the writer Yates’ book most brought to my mind was the vastly overrated Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison- specifically her unfortunately overpraised novel Beloved. Like that book, Revolutionary Road could have used a good editor to weed through the structural flaws and the melodramatic characters. Perhaps the biggest connection that hit me with both books is that the main characters and story that both novels focused on were not the best characters and stories in either book. Beloved’s silliness could have been redeemed had the novel focused on the character that was imprisoned in Andersonville, but after creating this great character, Morrison did nothing with him, and dropped him to continue on with the banal and tearjerking tale of mother and ghost. One of the first rules a great artist learns and follows is to be willing to recognize and drop something that is not working in favor of something that is, because one can always return to the original failed premise later, and retry. But, sometimes there is only one opportunity to go with something that can lead to greatness. Similarly, Yates failed the same test as Morrison, opting for the cartoon cutout caricatures of the novel’s main couple, Frank and April Wheeler, instead of exploring the vastly more well sketched interior life of the supporting character, Shep Campbell.
This failure to seize the moment, or as Yates and his generation might have melodramatically cheered, ‘Carpe diem!,’ lies at the heart of Yates’ fatal flaw as a writer, in general. When I reviewed Yates’ Selected Stories, I noticed this tendency, too. I wrote, ‘Yates is a very good writer, at his best, which is much better than many short stories from far bigger name writers like Fitzgerald, O’Connor, Faulkner, Salinger, and the like. Yet, he never quite breaches greatness in any of the stories. They lack an X Factor- be it a great end, a tale that works on multiple levels, or a sustained lyric impulse to his descriptions and metaphors. Some critics have cited him as an influence on Raymond Carver, and there is certainly a linkage in the tales, but Carver achieves greatness in quite a sizable number of his tales, because he is daring, and risky. Yates, for all his skill at portraying the yearning nobodies of life, is a safe and steady writer, yet his best lines and tales seep inward like the best of writing does. He has no abominable tales, like Carver does, but his best pales to Carver’s….’ As an addendum I should note that the longer that Yates’ tales went on the worse they got. He was a writer for whom concision was an ally, and this novel shows that length worked against him, for he tends to ramble, allow his characters’ conversations to go on a bit too long.
But, the initial problem (a major structural flaw) occurs in the first few pages of the book wherein the reader is thrust into a play recital, only to then pull back into a full blown argument by the novel’s lead characters- a pair of hollow ex-Bohemians with no real insight nor depth in regards to themselves nor their lives. Thus, the reader does not have time to empathize with the lead characters, nor to invest themselves in those characters- as surrogates, doppelgangers, nor heroes. And, although I usually detail the plot of most books and films I review, I will not this time, for many of the plot details are simply so pointless and soap operatic that they pull the novel down even further in my estimation every time I think of how Yates could have possibly thought he was saying something of complexity or even necessity of the human condition. Granted, one might argue that he was in a vanguard of ‘realistic’ portrayers of the ‘Suburbia is hell’ meme that has been with us for half a century. Except that reality does not support that. John O’Hara and John Cheever, not to mention Irwin Shaw, covered much of this territory, earlier and better, than Yates does. About a third of the way into the novel, the Wheelers are arguing over April’s pregnancy, and instead of actually contemplating how a third child would affect their lives, mortgage, the two children they already have, etc., the conversation descends into a poseur argument and false dichotomy over whether or not the family’s move into suburbia was a resignation from life. Now, I won’t even get in to the shallowness and callowness of such a puerile claim, much less its dialectic value within the narrative. But, it’s a vivid example of Yates trying to shoehorn in and hammer home his rather trite and heavyhanded thesis that the suburbs stink. The problem is that this demonization of the exteriors of their characters lives is never really explored, much less the interiors of these characters. They remain as hollow as their claimed exteriors, and the scene reeks of artifice, for these characters would never have been able to make such an observation, much less use claims and counterclaims, in this vein, as weapons.
But, let me pull back. So, sans details, here is the novel: it charts the end of the Wheelers’ marriage via April’s suicide through a home abortion. Both of the principals cheat on each other- Frank with a young secretary in the corporate job his father expected for him, and April with Shep, the clueless neighbor of the Wheelers, who has a boner for April throughout the book, despite the fact that she finds him unworthier of her than her husband. We see co-workers, neighbors, and hangers-on, who are of no real import, for the novel so quickly delves into the Wheelers that the reader never gets a chance to lax out and enjoy any of the ambience the rest of the book could have provided. We are so quickly tossed into the shallow maelstrom of the Wheeler marriage that there is no chance to even empathize, much less sympathize, with the characters. In contrast, Shep’s character is shown in drips and drabs for a good portion of the book, until he gets a full chapter devoted to himself. And because we have been teased with who and what Shep is, from others’ perspectives, once we get Shep as the star of his chapter, we like him- even though he is no deeper- albeit less pretentious- than the Wheelers. We have all known and worked with Sheps of both sexes. So, the tossing of the reader into the Wheeler tsunami before we even get a chance to see the individual characters as people- contemplative, vain, rude, happy, humorous, scornful- is Yates’ first huge structural flaw in the novel. The opening simply is ill-wrought in design, and ill-crafted in execution. Ironically, the book’s ending is its strongest suit, for it is well-designed and crafted- at least after we get April’s death, for the novel than pulls away from the Wheelers (we find out Frank is zomboid and that the couple’s children- characters that are so underused- when in reality they would be central to the couple’s problems in a realistic portrayal of marriage- are now with Frank’s brother), and shows us Shep and his wife Milly discussing the Wheelers to the new couple that bought their house, then an even further pan out to an older couple who bicker throughout the book until, as he does throughout the novel, the old man turns off his hearing aide to literally tune out his wife.
The second major structural flaw in the novel, and it is one that lingers throughout the work, not just the opening, is the use of an omniscient narrator- or, at least a semi-omniscient one. Perhaps Yates ‘needed’ to write the book in this way, initially, but this is where revision comes in, and in subsequent drafts it should have become apparent that the book should have been told from either April’s or Frank’s point of view. Given their immanent unlikeability as characters (even their unrelatability) the first person perspective would have been the better move. Think of Holden Caulfield, from Yates’ rival, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye. A detestable character, but the reader empathizes with him because he is the narrator. Also, as he is unreliable, and predictably so, both what Caulfield relates to the reader, and how he relates it, take on added significance, and add a parallax to even mundane events, that is lost in an omniscient narration (i.e.- the old less can be more notion). Readers simply do not care about the psyches of omniscient narrators who look down upon their subjects as if under a bell jar, or in a petri dish. But, to return to the question as to who should have been the narrator, even telling the tale from Shep’s point of view (and in reflection) would have worked, and, in fact, given the function he plays in the book- dramatically, that of observer and yearner- his would have been the best choice for narrator. As it is, Revolutionary Road reads like an interesting first draft that a good editor could have made into a good book, possibly a great one. Job One, however, would have to have been choosing a first person narrator. With that, especially with Shep as the narrator, one could have worked through the structural problems of tossing the Wheelers’ marital strife directly into the readers’ laps. It also would have left more gaps in the tale- unimportant ones, but ones that each reader could gave imbued on their own, thus emotionally drawing the reader in to the tale as an ‘investor.’ In short, Revolutionary Road reads like a Paleozoic forerunner of the modern need, taught in MFA Creative Writing mills, to describe everything possible. While Yates refrained from physical details, his desire to try to detail every loathing, lust, disgust, and excess of the Wheelers- narcissistic Frank and delusional April, wears thin, and amounts to padding. One of the truisms of writing fiction, that helps detail character, and in far fewer words than description, is observation. This is done not by describing what the characters observe, in detail, but just noting what things are important to them. At his best moments, Yates does this in the book, such as when Frank lusts for his co-worker. What makes the moment good is not that Frank lusts for her, nor that he describes her in detail, but the small, offhand recognitions of certain aspects of her. That this could be done, if Frank were the narrator, would have made many of the scenes of him displaying his seamier side dramatically unnecessary, for we would have been in his head and ‘felt’ what he did. The need to explicate it via an omniscient would be superfluous, and the 337 page book could have been trimmed to under 200 with virtually no loss of narrative essence.
A good example of this comes early on in the book, and I will detail that in a moment. But, I want to acknowledge that Yates does have several dozen moments in the book that show his skill as a writer, and that he is not a hack in the Eggers/Oates vein. Let me do that by quoting from a review my wife, Jessica Schneider wrote:
Here is an example when Frank and April get into a fight:
Then the fight went out of control. It quivered their arms and legs and
wrenched their faces into shapes of hatred, it urged them harder and deeper into
each other’s weakest points, showing them cunning ways around each other’s
strongholds and quick chances to switch tactics, feint, and strike again.
Notice how the narrative trick Yates uses by referring to the fight as “it”. They did not quiver their arms and legs, but it did, almost as though he is referring to the “fight” as something outside themselves—something that is controlling them, wrenching their faces into “shapes of hatred” rather than mere “hatred” which would have been more cliché.
I also cannot stress the excellent dialogue throughout this book enough, for the intensity and realism of it reminded me of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night as well as The Iceman Cometh.
There is also another effective scene where Frank is confronting a woman he had an affair with, and with the intention of telling her he wants to break it off, he lets her know they need to “have a talk.” Actually, what Frank tells her is, “Look Maureen. I think we ought to have a talk.”
What immediately follows is this:
What happened after that, even while it was happening, was less like a reality than a dream. Only part of his consciousness was involved; the rest of him was a detached observer of the scene, embarrassed and helpless but relatively confident that he soon would wake up. The way her face clouded over when he began to talk, the way she sprang off his lap and fled for her dressing gown, which she clutched around her throat as tightly as a raincoat in a downpour she paced the carpet—“Well; in that case there really isn’t anything more to say, is there? There really wasn’t any point in your coming over today, was there?” –these seemed to exist as rankling memories even before they were events: so did the way he followed her around the room, abjectly twisting one hand in the other as he apologized and apologized.
I would just like readers to notice how this breaks every little clichéd rule writers are told in workshop 101 writing: show don’t tell. Here Yates is merely telling us what happened, rather than showing it because going through the dialogue isn’t necessary since we already know what the characters would say anyway. Yates fills Revolutionary Road with effective dialogue and yet he omits those parts that are not needed, such as in this scene, where the readers are just as much a “detached observer” as is he. That is the sign of great narrative ability, and Yates has that. Sometimes it is what a writer doesn’t say or reveal that can make a scene….
Jessica makes excellent points about Yates’ ability to provide interesting descriptions of things like hate, and telling things well instead of showing. But, I have to disagree with both her implicit claim that Yates consistently tells the tale well, rather than shows it, for melodrama simply is not ‘telling’ a thing well, but telling it cheaply, and her description of the book’s dialogue scenes as ‘excellent dialogue throughout this book.’ There were a dozen or so examples of excellent dialogue, but there were also several dozen more examples of banal dialogue that could have used one of Yates’ interesting descriptions (as of hate) instead, to summarize the moment that the ordinary and delusive individuals shared. In short, both claims, while having specific examples to display them, are not consistent throughout the book, and this schizophrenic quality exerts a severe drag on the reader’s ability to plod on.
Now, let me get negative on the writing in the book, and an example of Yates’ overdescription killing observation. This is from early in the book, when we read the omniscient narrator describing Frank’s observation of his wife’s reactions to him- just note the extraneous levels immanent in my description of the scene!:
[Frank] started toward her with the corners of his mouth stretched tight
in a look that he hoped would be full of love and humor and compassion; what he
planned to do was bend down and kiss her and say ‘Listen: you were
wonderful.’ But an almost imperceptible recoil of her shoulders told him she
didn’t want to be touched, which left him uncertain what to with his hands,
and that was when it occurred to him that ‘You were wonderful’ might be
exactly the wrong thing to say- condescending, or at the very least naïve and
sentimental, and much too serious.
The observation of Frank’s mouth is a good one, but the very tightness suggests his real feelings at that moment. Does the reader really need to know what he hoped his look would be? Given the context of a performance that was not so good- as described by Yates- what else would a look like Frank’s be hiding? Here is a good example of a writer needing to pound home the obvious and not trust his readers. We then get the recoil of April, a recoil which, in the moment of the narrative, can only mean she realizes she had not given a good performance, and thus makes superfluous Frank’s described thoughts.
Given the milieu of a suburban amateur play production that has gone awry, if not bombed, and given we are seeing/reading of a husband’s approach to console his wife, would not an intelligent reader get from this-
[Frank] started toward her with the corners of his mouth stretched tight. But an almost imperceptible recoil of her shoulders told him she didn’t want to be touched.
-everything implied the longer version overtly states? I know I do. And while I may be a more astute critic than most, this moment is one of many such in the book, so many that, in fact, even a pedestrian reader, after the, say, 17th such moment in the book, would likely be feeling a bit condescended to. And, as writer who appreciates taking the intelligence of my readership into account, I would actually have written the second sentence as: But an almost imperceptible recoil of her shoulders told him to say nothing. The silence would imply the lack of physical contact as well.
But, let me return to the poor opening of the book, that I mentioned earlier, and quote from it, bolding the clichés, modifiers, phrases, and incidental words that, even from the start, show a writer trying much to hard to affect a style (mostly melodrama), rather than tell a story, and letting a natural poesy emerge from the contrast of scenes and dialogue and characters described sparely, not in filigrees. I am not arguing that filigreed writing cannot be good- at his best, Marcel Proust and others proved this could be so. My point is that Yates’ writing, in general, in this novel, and, specific to many scenes and descriptions, is florid overkill (verging on puerility)- and I’m being generous. It’s also not an example of good observation that enhances narrative nor characterization, especially from the first poor paragraph:
The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel
Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking
out over the footlights of an empty auditorium. They hardly dared to
breathe as the short, solemn figure of their director emerged from the naked seats
to join them on stage, as he pulled a stepladder raspingly from the wings
and climbed halfway up its rungs to turn and tell them, with several clearings
of his throat, that they were a damned talented group of people and a wonderful
group of people to work with.
‘It hasn't been an easy job,’ he said, his glasses glinting soberly
around the stage. ‘We’ve had a lot of problems here, and quite frankly I'd
more or less resigned myself not to expect too much. Well, listen. Maybe this
sounds corny, but something happened up here tonight. Sitting out there tonight
I suddenly knew, deep down, that you were all putting your hearts into your work
for the first time.’ He let the fingers of one hand splay out across the
pocket of his shirt to show what a simple, physical thing the heart was; then he
made the same hand into a fist, which he shook slowly and wordlessly in a long
dramatic pause, closing one eye and allowing his moist lower lip to curl out
in a grimace of triumph and pride. ‘Do that again tomorrow night,’ he
said, ‘and we’ll have one hell of a show.’
They could have wept with relief. Instead, trembling, they cheered
and laughed and shook hands and kissed one another, and somebody when out for a
case of beer and they all sang unanimously, that they’d better knock it off
and get a good night’s sleep.
you tomorrow!’ they called, as happy as children, and riding home under
the moon they found they could roll down the windows of their cars and let the
air in, with its health-giving smells of loam and young flowers. It was the
first time many of the Laurel Players had allowed themselves to acknowledge the
coming of spring.
The year was 1955 and the place was a part of western Connecticut where
three swollen villages had lately been merged by a wide and clamorous
highway called Route Twelve. The Laurel Players were an amateur company, but a
costly and very serious one, carefully recruited from among the younger adults
of all three towns, and this was to be their maiden production. All winter,
gathering in one another’s living rooms for excited talks about Ibsen and Shaw
and O’Neill, and then for the show of hands in which a common-sense majority
chose The Petrified Forest,
and then for the preliminary casting, they had felt their dedication growing
stronger every week. They might privately consider their director a funny little
man (and he was, in a way: he seemed incapable of any but a very earnest manner
of speaking, and would often conclude his remarks with a little shake of the
head that caused his cheeks to wobble) but they liked and respected him, and
they fully believed in most of the things he said. ‘Any play deserves the best
that any actor has to give,’ he’d told them once, and another time:
‘Remember this. We’re not just putting on a play here. We're establishing a
community theater, and that's a pretty important thing to be doing.’
The trouble was that from the very beginning they had been afraid they
would end by making fools of themselves, and they had compounded that
fear by being afraid to admit it. 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. The Players, coming out of their various kitchen doors and hesitating for
a minute to button their coats or bull on their gloves, would see a landscape in
which only a few very old, weathered houses seemed to belong; it made their own
homes look as weightless and impermanent, as foolishly misplaced as a great many
bright new toys that had been left outdoors overnight and rained on. Their
automobiles didn’t look right either—unnecessarily wide and gleaming
in the colors of candy and ice cream, seeming to wince at each splatter
of mud, they crawled apologetically down the broken roads that led from
all directions to the deep, level slab of Route Twelve. Once there the cars
seemed able to relax in an environment all their own, a long bright valley of
colored plastic and plate glass and stainless steel—KING KONE, MOBILGAS,
SHOPORAMA, EAT—but eventually they had to turn off, one by one, and make their
way up the winding country road that led to the central high school; they had to
pull up and stop in the quiet parking lot outside the high-school auditorium.
‘Hi!’ the Players would shyly call to one another.
‘Hi!...’ ‘Hi!...’ And they’d go reluctantly inside.
But Yates’ prose falters not only in its literal execution, but in the lack of conveying a good story. The tale- ostensibly the death of a marriage- is not only melodramatic even as it is run of the mill, but encrusted with noxious forerunners that plague bad modern novels, such as the necessity to have a sage that is above all and ‘tells the truth.’ In most novels that are considered classic, such a role (if it exists) is fulfilled by the very omniscient narrator Yates chose to tell the tale. Instead, Yates has to set that role aside, and into a minor character- John Givings, the mentally disturbed son of the Wheelers’ real estate agent, Mrs. Givings. The book starts with him firmly a cheerleader of the rebellious Wheelers, against the conforming strictures of ‘dread modern society.’ But, predictably, he soon turns out to be something from a bad Stephen King novel- a cheerleader turned critical dreadnought who chides the couple, especially Frank, as phonies. He accuses Frank of purposely impregnating April with the fetus that precipitates the death-causing self-abortion just so that he will not have to make any real choices in his life. And, not surprisingly, many of the book’s critics have latched on to this character as somehow being the mouthpiece for Yates’ real feelings about his main characters. Whether true or not, though, is irrelevant to the fact that such a character trivializes the very real problems that occur in very real marriages, the sort that Yates assiduously avoids in favor of the melodrama that gets its easy out and ventilation through the use of such Johnny One Note caricatures as John Givings. While none of the specific scenes, alone, is particularly noxious, the device of the ‘truthtelling son’ is overused, and a blatant symptom that Yates preferred to show his readers ‘unreal characters’ who were unwilling and unable to voice the rather obvious problems in their lives, not because he thought such folks really existed, but because he wanted to so trope his novel away from reality and into melodrama of the sort he found personally and vicariously satisfying, as well as more easily wrought; even as it left his readers yawning and yearning for the even easier resoluble soap operas of television
In many ways, the Wheelers are the literary equivalents of the central character in Woody Allen’s 1978 drama, Interiors. Played by the actress Mary Beth Hurt, the lead character is a young woman named Joey, the middle sister of three, who, despite wealth and privilege, a male companion who loves and supports her, still feels a desire to create- something, anything, even though she is clueless as to what to create, and her past attempts have been met with derision by those around her because she lacks any real talent for art. Joey is ordinary, but so ordinary that she lacks even the insight to grasp that she is ordinary. And the Wheelers are Joey squared. They are Joeys, but instead of crafting a novel of corresponding depth and complexity to ground their situation in an adult and compelling manner, Yates either took the easy way out, or was simply overwhelmed by the length and complexity of the novel form. Or, both. And, having skimmed over some of his short stories again, this seems the likeliest reality.
How else to explain the Dumbest Possible Action trope of the novel; wherein, just as in Hollywood films, the characters do not act as moderately competent human beings would, but act in dumb ways just to push the heavyhanded plot along? How else to explain the lack of depth in the characterizations, rather than the characters? Not the lack of the characters depths, but Yates’ inability to show that lack well? I.e.- the Wheelers may be talentless and clueless, but Yates did not have to portray such so stalely and ineptly. His cluelessness as to the depths of their cluelessness is akin to writing about characters being bored by crafting dull prose- that sort of recapitulation is simply not good writing. And, I could write a whole essay several times the length of this one just on how utterly clueless Yates is in his grasp of the female psyche. From April on down to the lesser female characters, Yates bases all of his female characters on how a male (with added tits and a clit) would react to a given situation. As thin as Frank and all the other male characters, save Shep, are limned, the females get off even worse- reacting either on histrionics, predictable stereotypes of female behavior, or plain old male fantasies run amok. By contrast, even Shep gets a scene where he is self-aware of a bit of his phoniness, where, after April’s death, he senses that he is physically over-emoting the heaving of his body in grief, then corrects himself. There are a few other moments like that in the novel (such as the pitch perfect descriptions of Frank’s office close encounters with the young girl he’ll take as a lover, as well as whys and wherefores of the fantasies they induce in him)- but all of these moments are with male characters; not a one with female characters. April Wheeler, is, in essence, a total male fantasy, and, to give credit where it is due, at least Yates is fairly up front about her irreality from the very earliest scenes of her entrancing other male characters as they practice the community theater play.
Overall, Revolutionary Road is not a bad novel, but it’s not even a particularly good one. It’s, at best, a passable novel that is best seen as a first draft with potential- one rushed into publication and overpraised, for whatever reasons, because it was seen as a herald of a ‘new’ approach to American life in the 20th Century suburban sphere. The presumed ‘firsts’ in any human endeavor often take on greater import than it has in reality, and in retrospect, and Richard Yates’ first novel seems to be a stellar example of this unfortunate tendency. Hell, even I’m guilty of that, to a degree, but in realizing that, I see how even my first impressions of the novel were higher than what I am left with every time I reconsider what actually worked and did not work. So, here I will end this review before my critical claim sinks another notch lower. Now, there’s empathy for you!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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