Thursday, March 19, 2009

Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961) is back in print and stacked on the front table of bookstores once again thanks to Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and Revolutionary Road, the movie (2008). For this we can be thankful. Yates was too good a writer to have his works disappear altogether, as they did once, going out of print following his death in 1992.

Stewart O'Nan's 1999 article in the Boston Review, "The Lost World of Richard Yates: How a great writer from the Age of Anxiety disappeared from print" set the stage a decade ago for what might now be called the Yates Revival.

Or as Jane Morris at Amazon UK has put it:

The rediscovery and rejuvenation of Richard Yates's 1961 novel Revolutionary Road is due in large part to its continuing emotional and moral resonance for an early 21st-century readership.

April and Frank Wheeler are a young, ostensibly thriving couple living with their two children in a prosperous Connecticut suburb in the mid-1950s. However, like the characters in John Updike's similarly themed Couples, the self-assured exterior masks a creeping frustration at their inability to feel fulfilled in their relationships or careers. Frank is mired in a well-paying but boring office job and April is a housewife still mourning the demise of her hoped-for acting career.

Determined to identify themselves as superior to the mediocre sprawl of suburbanites who surround them, they decide to move to France where they will be better able to develop their true artistic sensibilities, free of the consumerist demands of capitalist America. As their relationship deteriorates into an endless cycle of squabbling, jealousy and recriminations, their trip and their dreams of self-fulfillment are thrown into jeopardy.

Yates's incisive, moving, and often very funny prose weaves a tale that is at once a fascinating period piece and a prescient anticipation of the way we live now. Many of the cultural motifs seem quaintly dated--the early-evening cocktails, Frank's illicit lunch breaks with his secretary, the way Frank isn't averse to knocking April around when she speaks out of turn--and yet the quiet desperation at thwarted dreams reverberates as much now as it did years ago.

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the exacting cost of chasing the American dream.

What do I think?

The Richard Yates Revival overreaches. Morris does note that Revolutionary Road's "cultural motifs seem quaintly dated," which is a well-phrased rebute, if a little quaint itself. It's too soft a criticism, in my view, of the significant failures it's describing.

Having recently read Revolutionary Road and the first third of Yates's collected stories (the section comprising his first collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962)), I register diappointment.

The short stories haven't aged well; one could echo here Morris's complaint about the "cultural motifs." They are quaint, dated, or worse (though there is much strength in the writing, one must admit). About the novel, my complaint is more severe: I found it dishonest.

Yates: Dated? Dishonest? These conclusions complicate the revival, despite the arrival on the scene of movie stars and the Oscars. "Revolutionary Road" may make a good movie (I haven't seen it). This blog, however, is concerned with books.

Yates was strong influence on Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, the latter of whom has done much to keep Yates' work in circulation. These are writers I trust; find generally grounded in their rhetoric. I believe Yates was one of Carver's teachers at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the influence of Yates on Ford's earlier, simpler stories is strongly suggested. However, I wouldn't call anything I've read by these two students of Yates dishonest.

And I admit that I've strugged with this conclusion. What is it that I find dishonest about Yates? His reputation is for stark truthfulness. Is it just that I find the work dated? For example, the second story of the collected stories is "The Best of Everything." I didn't find this story dishonest, but I reached the the end and thought: Good grief! I also thought: This is not a story one could write plausibly in 2009. The plot, briefly, concerns a young couple about to get married. The woman is, of course, leaving her job because a married woman in that day (1940s?) didn't work. The man is feted at work, taken out by the boys, then drops in on his fiance, whose roommate has gone out so that the betrothed could be alone. Except the man decides he needs to go back to his drinking buddies and ignores the fact that his wife to be (who has plans for a pre-wedding consummation) has made himself all pretty for him. He even notes to himself that he hopes she isn't one of those wives who doesn't let her husband go out for a few drinks with his buddies. The reader sees disaster ahead for these two. The contempory reader can only marvel at the naive stupidity of it all.

So Jane Morris is right to comment on "cultural motifs." Yates may be a perfect recorder of his era. Still "quaint" is a mark against the longevity of the work.

The problems I experienced with Revolutionary Road were more serious. Consider the following:

And she'd never been able to explain or even to understand that what she loved was not the job -- it could have been any job -- or even the independence it gave her (though of course that was important for a woman constantly veering toward the brink of divorce). Deep down, what she'd loved and needed was work itself. "Hard work," her father had always said, "is the best medicine yet devised for all the ills of man -- and or woman," and she'd always believed it.

Who is this passage refering to? Mrs. Givings, the real estate agent. The neurotic busy body whose Beatnik son tries to kill her and ends up in a mental hospital. Her son, true to himself in a way that Frank and April Wheeler aren't, is the true counter-point of the novel, and Mrs. Givings, strangely, its progressive, stabilizing centre.

However, this is not how the novel is typically portrayed. Here's part of the blurb from the version published at the same time as the movie (Kate and Leo are on the cover): With heartbreaking compassion and remorseless clarity, Richard Yates shows how Frank and April mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying not only each other, but their best selves.

I have one word for this: Bullshit.

Frank and April don't betray their best selves; they behave as if adolescence will go on forever. They fail to make a successful transition to adulthood. This is where the story is fundamentally dishonest. The choices that confront Frank and April in the novel and not between being true and being false. They are between accepting complexity or trying to live their lives within an oversimplified code that can only lead them towards insanity or worse (witness the young Givings and April's death).

Like the short story "The Best of Everything," Revolutionary Road depends on cultural motifs long gone. Readers will only feel the tragedy of April and Frank if they believe the characters were truly caught in the naive straightjacket that they believed in so fervently. Were there really no other options? If so, then the novel is prophetic, telling, sad, a masterpiece.

But I beg to differ.

One strained example may assist. A review essay titled, "On the Edge," by Adam Kirsch, in the April 30, 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books, discusses the years pre-World War I. The book under review is The Vertigo Years (Basic Books, 2008) by Philip Blom. The question, in short, is why did WWI happen? Was it inevitable? Was the world trapped by nationalism, machoism, too rapid industrialization, decayed culture or morality?

Kirsch points to one example where an alternate future might have developed. The English suffragettes. The article includes prints of photos of a suffragette in custody (i.e., minus period costume, make up, hair down). She looks highly contemporary: modern. Kirsch suggests that the suffragettes pointed the way to an alternature future that didn't include mass slaughter. Is the society that fails to prevent death by the millions tragic, or just inept?

Are Frank and April tragic, or just in need of some consciousness raising?

Here's two other examples, these more literary in nature.

First, T.S. Eliot famously dismissed Hamlet as an "artistic failure" in his essay "Hamlet and His Problems" (1922):

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. If you examine any of Shakespeare's more successful tragedies, you will find this exact equivalence; you will find that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife's death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. The artistic "inevitability" lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.

Second, in Let it Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles (1999) various critics discuss Bowles' best-known novel The Sheltering Sky (1949), which was later a movie (1990). One of the critics claimed that the novel was a failure because Bowles didn't make explicity his protagonist's homosexuality.

Okay, so now this post has devolved into a discussion of artistic failure.

Is it a failure that Bowles didn't show explicitly that his character was gay? (One doesn't need to read too much between the lines to understand that it's so.) Is it a failure that Hamlet isn't dominated by an emotion more simple and clear? (Doesn't his general confusion mirror the general chaos of the world?) Is it a failure that Yates doesn't make clear that Frank and April cannot progress into their idealized life because their idealized life is a childish dream? (But isn't articulating that green light at the end of Daisy's dock the goal of all American 20th century literature?)

No, no, and no. Or yes, yes, and yes.

They are all great works and will be read and re-read for decades. They can sustain many intepretations.

Read on.

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