Stuff I’m Reading: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

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11/18/2008 10:00 AM |

Since it’s about to be a movie and all, I thought now’d be a good time to read Richard Yates’s ur-novel of not-so-quiet desperation in the conformist, suburban 50s. It’s ripe images out of the collective cultural subconscious, deployed with a pervasive sense of irony and bitterness that’s sometimes cutting, sometimes too inevitable and condescending, and sometimes too clumsily handled (Yates will force a desired response with loaded adjectives, or underline a connection with a callback to an earlier scene). The book does a three martini stagger between archetype and stereotype, is what I’m saying; obviously it is with no small amount of trepidation that I await the movie version, from the director of American Beauty. Gott in himmel.

But then again.

The essential tragedy in Revolutionary Road is one of understanding, of both oneself and one’s partner — it’s a book about a husband and wife, but the narration runs almost entirely through the husband. So we see his (mis)perceptions, and retain a sense of the 50s housewife as a creature basically uncomprehended by her husband. But the wife in the upcoming movie is played by Kate Winslet; on account of her being married to Sam Mendes and everything I am interested to see what kind of emphasis and attention she receives.

Still, though, I can’t help but anticipate a failure (though the Kate-and-Leo-reunited marketing campaign is an appropriately ironic take on this defiantly antiromantic book), especially for reasons of historical distance. Yates was writing in 1961, about a half-decade after the book takes place (the characters are his age, too), before our understanding of the time became solidified and definite. Maybe for this reason, its people are actually people, not just functions of a deterministic anthropology-in-hindsight.

I dunno, this is a pretty bad book in a lot of ways, particularly in its rather simplistic emphasis on father-child relationships as all-determining (a perspective it also parodies, weirdly). And given the books Yates has inspired — Father’s Day Lit types like fellow Richards Ford and Russo; plenty of cartoonish visions of the 50s home — it’s probably one of those major works that ultimately does more harm to the culture than good. But I was moved by it, I think largely because in spite of problems of execution and outlook it seemed to know very well the types of lives people would lead then — the rungs of the socioeconomic ladder and all their accoutrements, the material ones of course, the apartments and houses and dinner and restaurants, but also the emotional ones, the kinds of things people aspire to when they’ve lived a certain way, and the self-knowledge they’re capable of reaching.