Revolutionary Road

One of my Christmas presents this year was the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which has just been made into a film, arriving in British cinemas this week.

The book depicts a troubled marriage in mid-fifties American suburbia, the couple believing they are better than their surroundings, but not quite able to escape.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I’m suspicious of any movie or novel that’s a critique of suburbia.  The subject’s been done to death, to the point that I feel like saying to anybody who does it, ‘Look, you know what to expect.  Don’t make up a story whinging about how awful it is, just don’t move there.’

Of course, when Revolutionary Road was published in 1961, it hadn’t been done to death yet.  It’s the granddaddy of surburban ennui, and has been practically gutted for inspiration by much that followed (If the makers of the TV series Mad Men haven’t read it at least twice AND made notes in the margin, I’ll eat my hat.  Good job it’s a hat made entirely from licorice).

In the event, the book was absolutely excellent.  When I got about half way, I thought I knew how it was going to turn out, which is a bit too soon for my liking.  Then it did something entirely different, which was impressive.  

I was rather thrown, however, by some of the quotes that fill up the blurbspace at the beginning and end of the book.  The publishing imprint Vintage is clearly trying to establish Yates as a 20th Century great in time for the film (Yates was completely out of print when he died in 1992) and it looks like they’ve posted his books to various notable authors in an effort to raise awareness of how good he is.  ‘Fitzgerald’ is a name that is raised several times here.  Indeed, Kurt Vonnegut called it (at some point) ‘The Great Gatsby of my time’.  Now, it’s good, but it’s not that good.  But then nothing much is.

Which led me to thinking, why is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby ‘Great’, whereas Revolutionary Road, accomplished though it is, could only really be described as excellent, remarkable, or ‘great’ with a small ‘g’?  I think it’s because even though Fitzgerald’s work perfectly evokes its period, effortlessly defining the Jazz Age (with a tiny amount of time-specific detail), it is not itself defined by it.  Fitzgerald instinctively saw his historical moment as just the latest manifestation of something bigger – the story of America, and beyond that, the philosophical question of whether an individual cannot just define themselves, but invent themselves as well.

Yates, on the other hand, is more closely bound by his time.  The way he manoeuvres the story to highlight his characters’ self-deceptions (a mad character tells it ‘how it is’) is as informed by late Fifties/early Sixties attitudes towards ‘authenticity’ vs. ‘inauthenticity’, ‘truth’ vs. ‘phoniness’, as the debates between his warring characters.

The American book from the Twenties it reminded me most of was Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, in which a suburb-dweller’s life goes off the rails in a midlife orgy of self-indulgence and irresponsibility.  Revolutionary Road is more subtly written, and artistically better, but the two aren’t totally dissimilar.

Anyway, Revolutionary Road is a great read, and quite heartbreaking, so check it out.  I’d be interested in reading more Yates at some point to see what some of his less era-defining work is like.  In the meantime, I’ve still got the pile of books from the secondhand shop in Bexhill to tackle.  Next up, Odd Man Out by F.L. Green!

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2 Responses to “Revolutionary Road”

  1. Check out Eater Parade and Cold Spring Harbor, both of which are excellent.

    I would also suggest the non scifi books of Philip K Dick which have a similar flavour.

  2. I agree on the Babbitt comparison, and you’re the only other person I know who’s linked the two!

    I’d also recommend Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, which is a little more optimistic than Yates, and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, which is a lot less.

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