Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 15, 2009

Richard Yates, _Revolutionary Road_

I READ THIS as our book club selection for May -- the release of the film based on the novel no doubt had something to do with our club's choosing to read it, but I had actually been hoping for an occasion to get to it for a while, based on its reputation as a "writer's writer" novel. And you know what -- it really is remarkably good. Great, even.

Which makes me wonder, how did Yates ever come to languish in the relative obscurity in which he languished? Did excelling in Flaubert/James/Ford style realism amount to backing the wrong horse by the mid-60s, when Barth, Barthelme, and Pynchon began to rule the roost? Still, Updike and Cheever managed to make a go of it.

The book uncannily nailed its moment. At several points the dialogue and pastimes (e.g., amateur theatricals) threw me back to my childhood and overheard conversations among my parents and their friends -- my parents lived in Iowa, not Connecticut, and I can't imagine them deciding to move to Paris, but the chatter of the college-educated circa 1960 must have had a certain family resemblance coast-to-coast.

More impressive still is the book's awareness that _The Feminine Mystique_ is on the horizon -- to say nothing of _Ariel_. Frank's use of gender ideology to intimidate and control April (not that she is guiltless of occasionally doing the same thing to him) is so persuasively represented that a reader might think this is a novel about the early 60s written in the 80s or 90s, well after that vicious species of psychological manipulation had been exposed and anatomized.

And so skillfully narrated, too. Yates shows a mastery of the possibilities of narrative point-of-view that is positively Jamesian -- the holding back of locating point of view in Frank for a few pages as the play unfolds, the switch to the neighbors' points of view when the Wheelers decide to go to Paris, the withholding of April's point of view until that terrifying final episode, the striking absence of Frank's point of view in the closing pages -- it's Jamesian. I have no higher praise.

Ah me, what has become of the Jamesian? Who can manage it now? Edmund White, yes, Alan Hollinghurst on a good day...that's about it.

No comments: