Scenes from a marriage
Vintage: 356 pp., $14.95 paper
Among the finalists for the 1962 National Book Award in fiction were three iconic first novels: Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer” (the eventual winner), Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22" and Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road.” Even now, that seems remarkable, a signifier of American literature and culture in transition, an indication of the changing of the guard.
Yet there’s something else remarkable about that list, which is that the best book on it may be the least well-known. I am an admirer of “Catch-22.” (I don’t think “The Moviegoer” has aged as well.) But Heller’s black comedy was its own closed loop, a virtuoso performance that didn’t leave him anywhere to go.
“Revolutionary Road,” on the other hand, continues to speak to the essence of who we are. Bitter, unsentimental, unforgiving, it is a portrait of Frank and April Wheeler, a suburban Connecticut couple who are adept at only one art -- self-deception -- and of what happens when they must face the lies upon which they have built their lives.
The irony is that, alone among these novels, “Revolutionary Road” didn’t seek to break new ground in terms of voice or literary consciousness. It is not, like “The Moviegoer,” a story of existential alienation and the distancing power of the image; nor is it, like “Catch-22,” an antiauthoritarian romp. Rather, it’s a realist novel at its most unrelenting, in which Yates meant not just to explore a character or frame a sensibility but to dissect an entire way of life.
In a 1972 interview with the journal Ploughshares, he was explicit about his intentions: “I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s,” he said of the novel. “Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs. . . . I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties.”
Still, “Revolutionary Road” is less about conformity than false promises, by which everyone is equally victim and victimized. This is the key to the novel, the way the Wheelers are complicit, unable to see themselves, or each other, in an honest light. Even when they confront their desolation, it’s histrionic, as if each of them were playing a part.
“He felt as if he were sinking helplessly into the cushions and the papers and the bodies of his children like a man in quicksand,” Yates describes Frank. “When the funnies were finished at last he struggled to his feet, quietly gasping, and stood for several minutes in the middle of the carpet, making tight fists in his pockets to restrain himself from doing what suddenly seemed the only thing in the world he really and truly wanted to do: picking up a chair and throwing it through the picture window.”
Such a sensibility emerges from the earliest pages of the novel, which opens with a community theater production of “The Petrified Forest,” in which April has the lead. For the Wheelers, the small theater company is a lifeline, a way to rise above their surroundings, to which they feel superior and aloof. Almost immediately, though, the production falls apart, leaving April to suffer on stage while Frank chews his knuckles in the audience.
"[A]ll afternoon in the city,” Yates writes in a passage of ruthless beauty, “stultified at what he liked to call ‘the dullest job you can possibly imagine,’ he had drawn strength from a mental projection of scenes to unfold tonight: himself rushing home to swing his children laughing in the air, to gulp a cocktail and chatter through an early dinner with his wife; himself driving her to the high school, with her thigh tense and warm under his reassuring hand (‘If only I weren’t so nervous, Frank!’); himself sitting spellbound in pride and then rising to join a thunderous ovation as the curtain fell. . . . Nowhere in these plans had he foreseen the weight and shock of reality; nothing had warned him that he might be overwhelmed by the swaying, shining vision of a girl he hadn’t seen in years . . . and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell.”
Before long, Frank and April are on their way home; when she rejects his ham-handed attempts at comfort (“Well, . . . I guess it wasn’t exactly a triumph or anything, was it?” he tells her in the dressing room), they end up in a vicious fight.
No other writer has ever caught the vehemence of a full-throttle marital fight as well as Yates does; his descriptions of Frank and April going at it are enough to make you scream. But it’s not just the fights, it’s the frustration, the sense of missed connections, the feeling that something, they don’t know what, has been stripped away. They pine for the days they shared Frank’s Greenwich Village apartment; they long for something more authentic, without any idea of what that means.
The tragedy is that they’re smart (or desperate) enough to try to fix it: April suggests moving the family to Paris, where Frank will get to figure out what he wants. And yet, even as they plan their exodus, there’s no escaping the sense that it’s as poorly conceived as the rest of their existence, an inauthentic fantasy -- Paris in the 1950s? Is it possible to be more conformist? -- that will only lead to ruin when it falls apart.
And fall apart it does, as we know it will, as the Wheelers must know, too. If, as Tolstoy wrote at the start of “Anna Karenina,” “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion,” the Wheelers are surely the architects of their misfortune, manipulating each other, withholding their affections, talking, talking, talking until nothing makes sense anymore.
It would be easy to judge them, but Yates won’t let us off that easily. His genius is to make us sympathize even as we see them for who they are. Frank is, ultimately, a heartbreaking figure, conflicted, insecure, uncertain, who responds to his wife’s great gift (“You’ll be finding yourself,” she tells him. “You’ll be reading and studying and taking long walks and thinking”) with terror, since on some not quite conscious level, he understands that there is nothing to find. For April, it’s more complicated; she’s less willing to compromise. When the whole thing crashes down, her toughness collapses into vulnerability, leaving her with nothing to cling to, not even emptiness.
It’s a bleak and brutal vision, although not without a touch of irony: The moral center of the novel is a schizophrenic who, on day leave from a private institution, sees through the Wheelers as if they were made of glass. Yates, however, is not after social commentary; he means to diagnose a sickness of the soul. Perhaps this is why, like all of Yates’ writing, “Revolutionary Road” has been something of a forgotten book.
That’s likely to change now, with the release, this week, of the Sam Mendes film, but beware the flattening effects of Hollywood. What Yates achieves on the page is a fully realized evocation of the inner life. The heart of the book is not its action but its inaction, the claustrophobia of the Wheelers’ marriage, the stifling weight of their dreams.
“Wow,” John, the schizophrenic, says to Frank in a line that captures it exactly. “Now you’ve said it. The hopeless emptiness. Hell, plenty of people are on to the emptiness. . . . Nobody ever said ‘hopeless,’ though; that’s where we’d chicken out. Because maybe it does take a certain amount of guts to see the emptiness, but it takes a whole hell of a lot more to see the hopelessness. And I guess when you do see the hopelessness, that’s when there’s nothing to do but take off. If you can.”