I am reminded of the poem “The City” by Constantine Cavafy, whose lines so alarmingly dictate to the reader:
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
In the pageantry of American literature, there seems to be a handful of titles nauseously paraded perennially as the Great American Novel. Within this excess, Richard Yates’s works go little noticed in the commercial terrain, rarely seen in syllabi or “best of” lists to be introduced to the general public. Although his first novel, Revolutionary Road, was a finalist for the 1962 National Book Award and his subsequent short stories were compared to those of James Joyce, his name was only finally bumped to the top of the cultural milieu with Sam Mendes’s 2008 film adaptation of Revolutionary Road, reuniting the Hollywood darling duo of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (in multiple surprisingly mature and effective performances from the lead actors and supporting cast including Michael Shannon and Kathy Bates).
It is a simple and familiar story. A young couple feels a dead end in their daily monotony of suburban life, and, disappointed with their stunted growth in their professional and personal lives, resolve to leave for the Continent where a change in scenery and social mentality would be their liberation. It is easy to be swept into their optimism and confidence. While sharing their disdain for their provincial and corporate environments, they exhibit the same kind of exceptionalism that they doubt of the land they can’t seem to leave. While some would argue that the United States reached global supremacy after the First World War, it was truly after the Second World War where its hegemony was formally coronated in all spheres of economic and political leadership. Frank Wheeler, a veteran of the latter, would have known the devastation of the Continent, yet even he entertains April’s idea of a transatlantic migration where their reinvention is the focus, not the reconstruction of a continent.
This novel is my primary example countering those who insist that stories must have likeable characters. Each character in Revolutionary Road inspires a certain disgust, but what keeps the reader compelled is a sense of empathy, or perhaps our own reflections of agency and ambition to change our environments, to better ourselves, because we can. Because we have all experienced some kind of disenchantment after falling short of some unfettered objective. Perhaps that’s why John Givings, the secondary character whose genius and madness provide the no-filter foil to the hypocrisies and cowardice of his peers, spews his condemnation of the Wheelers’s failure to launch, at their own dinner table no less, felt so lacerating. When facing mediocrity, intimately or vicariously, there is an instinctual tendency to point the finger elsewhere, because to come to terms with the unexceptional is such a critical wound to our very existence.
Yates noted in an interview, “If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.” This suffocating isolation is notably distinct in the film as spit is strewn from the actors’ explosive deliveries, where accusations ricochet off the meticulously staged mid-century appliances. But it is in Yates’s prose where these dizzying paroxysms are rehearsed, particularly in the mind of Frank Wheeler whose psyche we primarily inhabit. We are anxiously aware of this precarious fulcrum of masculinity, conformity, youth, and purpose.
Through much of Yates’s writing, the endeavour is to come to terms with the ordinary and unexceptional, and to a general state of disillusionment, tempering the flames of grandiosity whenever and wherever they may burn. In the early reviews Michiko Kakutani wrote for The New York Times, she noted the characters of Revolutionary Road as “Reasonably intelligent, gifted and sensitive, they are all practiced in the art of self-deception, and the price of their illusions is disappointment and grief.” I wonder if through his character psychoanalyses, Yates also saw his country, whose then youthful bravado could not be thought of as anything other than everlasting. But as Cavafy once again notes, in “An Old Man”, youth is “so brief an interval, so very brief”.
While the title refers to the suburban street where Frank and April Wheeler decide to make their home, it feels that what is truly “revolutionary” is how Richard Yates is able to detail the mundane and ubiquitous conditions of the white American middle-class, letting desperations simmer and vices fester so that the volatility of the Wheelers’ relationships and their untenable ambitions combust to a truly tragic conclusion. Unlike some other staples of the Canon, there is absolutely no affect, no pretension or mirage of depth. Here, the revolutionary is in the minutiae.
The Wheelers never made it to the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, I don’t remember if Yates ever placed the Wheelers, in the timeline of the novel, near the shore. For their ambitions though, perhaps it is for the best. Like the wanderer in “The City”:
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
— Sarah Wang, Programming Coordinator