I jotted down the sentence “I think I interpreted this novel wrong” on scrap paper when reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. High praises from bloggers I love and trust pointed to Rev Road being this devastating grand tragedy. According to the novel’s Wikipedia page, Richard Yates intended for Revolutionary Road to be an indictment of stifling suburbia and the conformity of fifties Americana.
Well, Revolutionary Road indeed deserves all the praise it gets. It is impeccably well-written; no, Yates is not a lyrical stylist, but his prose is pristine and functional. It is a serious page-turner, but also thought-provoking. And it certainly has a tragic ending. But instead of finding it distressing, I found the novel quite funny.
Ostensibly, Revolutionary Road is about the disintegrating marriage of Frank and April Wheeler. The Wheelers live in the suburbs of Connecticut; Frank goes up to New York to work on weekdays at a sales promotion job he describes as the dullest job you can imagine, nothing interesting about it. April looks after their two young children. Basically, the Wheelers live the typical suburban, middle-class life. What is a little less typical is their antagonistic relationship with each other.
The novel opens with the debut performance of The Laurel Players, an amateur acting company. April, who “had attended one of the leading dramatic schools of New York,” was meant to be their star performer. Instead, the performance tanked. The cast fell apart under pressure and April’s acting with it. A night that ended in disgrace and humiliation culminates in a nasty fight between Frank and April on their way home. The fight is quite upsetting to read about, complete with screams of “You’re sick!” and “You’re disgusting!” and the “racing back over the years for old weapons to rip the scabs off old wounds.” What their monstrous fight is really hiding, is bitter disappointment with their life. They despise their suburban life; they are convinced that they are superior to the conformity culture of fifties America and wish for “the world of the golden people.” So when, several days later, a suddenly-sweet April proposes they relocate to Europe, the only place Frank thinks is worth living, the higher existence they have always dreamed about becomes close enough to touch. April would work as a secretary in Paris and Frank would be free to find himself, his true talent, and his true vocation.
Or at least that is what April hopes. Rather than being a scathing commentary on suburbia, Revolutionary Road –to me, personally- serves as both character study and parodic mockery of the groom, Frank Wheeler.
Frank, oh Frank. Where do I even begin? Frank is one of those guys who projects an image of effortlessness; so tough, suave, and manly. He is a talker, a charmer. Too bad everything about his mannerisms are fake, false, and desperate; Frank is deep down, a roiling cauldron of insecurity. Frank is one of those people who would pontificate endlessly on a subject, mainly politics or philosophy, with such conviction and pseudo-knowledge that the audience can’t help but be taken in. But really, he’s just a whiny wannabe-intellectual trying to impress. Think fatalistic “our country and culture is dying or dead. X country is so much better at A or B or C” lectures and that would be the essence of Frank’s entire oeuvre.
By the end of Part One, I knew this novel wouldn’t end well. Poor April actually believes Frank is the man he is pretending to be and has decided that a move to foreign shores will transform him to full potential. It is Yates’ beautiful irony that although April is the actor by training, it is Frank who is an actor at heart. Despite bemoaning his job all the time, Frank is pretty good at it. And I personally suspect, he kinda likes it too. When Frank’s superior offers him a promotion at work, Frank tries to squirm and save face to April and everybody else. It was a delicious scream to read!
In some ways, Frank is still a sympathetic character. He’s got daddy issues, constantly trying to act the rebel when what he really wants is to prove himself. And the thing is, Frank is so, so familiar because there is a little bit of him in all of us. We all put on a show to convey to the world that we are better than we are; more competent, more intelligent, more compassionate. Sometimes, like Frank, we would try to anticipate other people’s reactions and react accordingly with “spontaneous” wit to impress. But Yates sketched Frank’s wearisome traits to such a degree that Frank becomes a parody in addiction to in-depth character study.
For a novel about marriage, we hear very little from April. Her point of view finally arrives forty pages before the end. By then, I had been dreading what comes next as something happened before this particular chapter that made me just know things are at a boiling point. You can’t say Yates didn’t know how to ratchet up tension and letting it spectacularly implode.
So yeah, before I spoil everything I’ll just say this: Revolutionary Road is a beautiful novel and I echo all the recommendations that came before me. It’s technically-accomplished and a wonderful character study. Truly wonderful. Frank felt like a real person to me. I’m not sure if I read it the way it is intended to, but hey, fiction does lend itself to a barrage of different interpretations, right?