In defense of Revolutionary Road, the book

I wrote this comment in response to Lee Siegel’s review of “Revolutionary Road,” the movie, in The Wall Street Journal:

If only Lee Siegel had made a greater distinction between Revolutionary Road the book and “Revolutionary Road” the movie!

Indeed, his conclusion about the movie is, I think, what Richard Yates was saying in the novel: “[L]ife’s complexity and surprise follow you everywhere, even over the city-line, across the river and into the suburban trees.”

It’s true that Yates invents an uninspiring landscape by planting “KING KONE, MOBILGAS, SHOPORAMA, EAT” signs all along fictitious Route Twelve, but the true lack of inspiration lies inside Frank and April Wheeler. Nothing in their lives has prepared them to be anything more than dilettantes. They don’t know very much about hard work, persistence or commitment. Worst of all, they blame everybody except themselves for their failures: the community theater is cheesy; Knox Business Machines is full of do-nothings; and the Revolutionary Road community, whose members actually had the kindness to come out and support their neighbors in an amateur performance of a very average play, is nothing more than a bastion of Republican dummkopfs.

The Wheelers’ Connecticut suburb forces them to acknowledge a harsh reality about themselves and each other: They are not great actors or writers. They are ordinary people doing ordinary things — raising their children, planting gardens, taking out the trash. At some point on the evolutionary road to adulthood, most of us ordinary souls accept this ordinariness about ourselves and our social circle. The Wheelers’ tragedy lies in their belief that life owes them something “absolutely crazy, and marvelous.” When life doesn’t deliver on this wished-for scenario, the Wheelers fall apart. If you want to examine the problem of suburban America, Yates seems to be saying, look at Frank and April. Don’t blame SHOPORAMA.

Even though I was never (sad to say) a Paris Review intern, count me in as one of the puerile admirers of Yates’ wonderful old — and deeply insightful — book!

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4 Comments »

  1. Very well argued. I think the novel’s test of the reader is to translate the ironies of what seem to be the most obvious centers of “cultural criticism” by Frank and April themselves (of course Shep Campbell in the novel helps to provide an opposing voice). What is the distance between author/reader and characters on pp. 112-116 (end of Part One)? Ditto, where John Givings rants, pp. 188-193 (end of Part Two, Chapter 6)? And finally April’s subjective “truth” at the end, pp. 303-311 (end of Part Two, Chapter 7)?

  2. modestine said

    Hi Dewitt. It also occurs to me that Lee Siegel’s comments about the “puerility” of Revolutionary Road probably say more about Siegel than they do about Yates’ novel.

    I found something in Literary Criticism Online that goes to to the heart of the novel:

    “Most of Yates’ fiction ‘works’ [because] . . . the incidents that constitute the plot always seem to grow out of the characters and never seem to be arbitrary. Yates can tell us in advance [the future of his characters] because he knows that the character he draws can behave no other way, and we know it, too. It is in the inevitability with which his characters’ lives proceed that Yates shows that tragic art is still possible.”*

    Nothing in this criticism suggests the influence of a mind-numbing suburbia.

    I admire The Wall Street Journal, but in this instance, I think Mr. Siegel would have done better to leave his political bias against the “elitist urban dweller” at the door, and to have performed a simple comparison of book and movie.

    I can’t judge the movie yet — I plan on seeing it — but how much do you want to bet the novel will be the more subtle of the two?

    * (I think this was written by A.G. Mojtabai, The New York Times Book Review, September 19, 1976.)

  3. kateonyates said

    http://www.moviecitynews.com/columnists/voynar/2008/081229.html This person, Kim Voynar, argues so well against Siegel’s piece. I am rushing now but am delighted to see this debate.

  4. modestine said

    Kim Voynar’s response to Lee Siegel hits the mark. She too locates the unraveling of the Wheelers’ marriage in Frank and April themselves, and not in something the suburbs are “doing” to them.

    I do think it’s fair, though, to ask what the function of the Connecticut suburb is in the novel. Why didn’t Yates set the story on Bethune Street in Greenwich Village?

    This is where some historical context — which Mr. Siegel, unfortunately, doesn’t provide — would be of help. Whatever else they are, Frank and April are post-war Americans. They are living in one of the most prosperous economies this country has seen. The suburbs are part of that prosperity, and that prosperity has to be marketed to the middle class. For all their superior intelligence, the Wheelers don’t understand that they are simply part of a marketing demographic, and hence, they do not examine the idea they are buying into.

    Hey, that’s OK. Everybody is young at least once. We all have to sift through the dross of life to find a few golden threads.

    But Frank and April don’t do any of that sifting. They aren’t capable of any serious analysis — about themselves or about the suburban ideal marketed to them through TV, advertising and mortgage deals. Moreover, they have no family ties and can’t turn to anyone for advice or perspective. Sad. They do have some strikes against them. (Everyone does.)

    Now, If Frank were serious about writing, and if April was serious about supporting her husband, they would have come up with a more realistic strategy than moving to Europe. Let’s think for a moment what Europe actually was in the mid-1950s: A continent still recovering from fascist movements that the masses of Europeans supported. Even in their wished-for escape to Paris — a place for which they are in no way prepared — the Wheelers are holding on to a foregone aesthetic ideal.

    I have no bone to pick with Lee Siegel for going on a full-scale assault against anti-suburbs snobs. I’m simply baffled why he chose Revolutionary Road as his launch pad.

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