Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Revolutionary Road, originally published in 1961, tells the story of suburban couple Frank and April Wheeler. Frank, a moderately self-obsessed businessman, works for an office equipment company and spends his days finding infinite ways to shirk his responsibilities while flirting and schmoozing his way around the office. April, a stay at home mother, spends her time taking care of her children and home while lamenting her dream, the acting career that never got off the ground. Most of their leisure time is spent in the company of a select couple, denigrating the bourgeoisie aspects of their neighbors' lives and wallowing in the apathy and detachment that, in their minds, places them so far above the rest of their population and community. Aside from all this, Frank and April have a turbulent and quarrelsome marriage, each acting as both the tormentor and the tormented. As April and Frank become ever more disenchanted with their lives, April suggests a move to France, where the family can have a chance to begin again. And although Frank is ostensibly happy about the move, his true feelings are harder to gauge. The decision, once made, begins to catapult their lives into confusion and uncertainty. From the viewpoint of other sideline characters a portrait of this dysfunctional nuclear family begins to develop and coalesce, and the reality of the Wheeler's marriage is one of bleakness infused with mere shreds of hope. As the move to France looms closer, Frank and April's bitterness and disillusionment over their existence begins to grow, and an unexpected event threatens their plan and pushes their marriage to the breaking point. Frank and April's lives, both anguishing and relentless, evince their struggle for advancement while delineating the creeping boredom and unfulfillment that they both come to share.
This book, while beautifully rendered, was at times painful to read. What emerged for me was a fierce portrayal of emotional upheaval between two people, both striving for control over the other. The sentiments of utter nastiness between Frank and April were both devastating to read and depressing to contemplate. Don't get me wrong though, this was an exceptional book. The ability of the author to make me wince in discomfort was amazing, and the larger issues housed within this close story were ones that we all chew on from time to time. The themes of cynicism and disappointment were thoroughly explored alongside the self-delusion that only the fortunate can seem to exhibit. The atmosphere that Yates created was one of stifling ambiguity, a desperate struggle for an unobtainable balance between two deeply unhappy people. Despite Frank's priggishness and April's cutting attitude, it was obvious that both these people were in pain, and that their lives were not the places they thought they would one day inhabit. Franks unlikablility and selfishness made me really feel for April at times, and at times I wondered how this unlikely pair ever came to be. And April was no peach either, believe me. She had a way of making me go cold, what with her lack of empathy and predilection for despondence.
Although I could not connect with these people, I certainly felt for them. In a way it was like watching a train wreck, awful and ferocious, yet I couldn't look away. This, I think, is the brilliance of Yates, whose spare yet weighty prose told the story of two unlikable protagonists in a totally believable and urgent way. I wanted more, yet at the same time, I wanted less. I felt like I was watching two people undress: they were naked and vulnerable, while still being tough and unyielding. The couple's utter lack of pragmatism, indeed their whole concept of reality and acceptability, was skewed and slanted, not to mention their huge issues of accountability. Franks moral contortions were especially frustrating. The interesting part of these human complexities was the couple's total animosity toward the typical suburban life, when in reality they were espousing all that they found so repulsive. Lovely picket fenced house? Check. Two point five children? Check. Attitude of suburban melancholy? Check. It would have been almost funny were it not so piercing. I found the author's ability to express all this masterful. His prose was convincing and sparse, while still being moving and descriptive. The book hurled effortlessly along, gaining weight and momentum as it plunged forward. Frank and April were almost never remorseful for their actions, but in a way defiant and almost child-like in their ardent opinions and bullying self-serving behavior. They were, in essence, people you love to hate, while still being able to relate to. The ending was a bit clichéd and unsatisfying, but I prefer to look at the book in terms of it's message and it's ability to express that message, which I found profound. How many of us know an April and Frank Wheeler? How many of us are April and Frank Wheeler? This scathing and unflinching look at a a crumbling marriage could easily be a mirror reflecting the secrets of a couple in 2008, so well has it aged. It was a modern treatment of an age old quandary. What do you do when enough is never enough, when reality clashes with expectation?
If you are looking for a feel good love story, this book is not for you. If, however, you're looking for an honest and unflinching portrait of a marriage on the brink of disaster, I highly recommend this book. It is truly a great study of human behavior and it's proclivity for self preservation. Yes, at times it is depressing, but not horribly so, and not in the ways you would expect. If the ideas put forth in the story don't sway you, I would instead suggest this book for it's readability and it's artistry. The character creation and the author's ability to dismay the reader is worth the cover price alone.