November 18, 2011

Revolutionary Road (#95)

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

What I said then: 

The absolute favourite book of one of my colleagues, I’m not letting myself watch the movie until I read it.

What I say now:

A large part of me was dreading reading Revolutionary Road, because it's the kind of book I tend to be pretty dismissive about: a high-minded, capital L 'Literary', examination of white, middle-class suburban life. I'm not saying a book like that can't be good (Revolutionary Road, as I'm about to tell you, is very God-damn good indeed), they're just not really my thing. I find them dull. In fact, I tend to find them just as dull as I'd find their characters, if I ever met them in real life. Yes, I'm looking at you, Jonathan Franzen. And Richard Ford. And the second, way-less-interesting, half of White Teeth. And I could go on and on.

(There's an element to this dislike which I'll probably go into with my therapist one day, to whit: I'm not interested in books about ... well ... me. White, middle-class people have all sorts of psychological weirdness going on beneath their seemingly calm exteriors? Yeah, no shit, I already know that because I've been paying attention to myself all this time. Come on, novelists, I want you to tell me something I don't already know.)

So ... I approached Rev Road with trepidation. And I finished it completely blown away. This is truly one of the great novels of the 20th century.

For those that, like me, haven't seen the movie, the fairly simple plot runs as follows: It's the late 50's and Frank and April Wheeler live in a neat suburban home. Frank takes the train into New York every morning for work, while April stays home with their two small children. And Frank and April hate their lives. It's much more complicated than that, obviously, but at heart the novel is about the couple's distaste for the pristine prison they've constructed for themselves, and the self-loathing caused by their failed attempts to escape it. There's nothing particularly new or exciting about the plot of Revolutionary Road. It's in the execution that it's electrifying.

When they write, nearly every author (and definitely every author working in 'realist fiction') is attempting to do something that ought to be impossible. They're trying to combine scratches of ink on paper in such a way that they can conjure up some kind of emotional truth, some kind of imaginary reality. And they're trying to do it so well that you, the reader, forget about the ink and the paper and buy into the emotion of things that never happened. The best way to make us forget the ink and paper is to write with clarity, never giving our brains that jolt that makes us look away from the page, that makes us remember that it's all imaginary.

Yates writes with a clarity that borders on perfection. Because Revolutionary Road exists, I kind of feel like I should never bother reading another realist novel, and that nobody should ever bother trying to write one, because it's simply not possible that it'll ever be done this well again. With brutal, forensic precision, Yates is able to delve right inside the heads of his characters and bring their psyches, kicking and screaming, into the light. Each word is the right word. Each sentence perfectly captures a single idea. Each line of dialogue they speak, each decision they make, each regret they harbour, adds its own little piece to our understanding of Frank and April.

To give give just one small example: several times throughout the novel, Frank changes his mind about things within the scene that we're reading. At the start of the scene, he's convinced of one thing, and by the end he's convinced himself of its exact opposite. In a lot of novels that might seem muddled or unclear to the reader, but it's because of Yates' clarity that he gets away with it. We understand Frank perfectly at both ends of the spectrum, and we've understood him at every single moment as he's slowly changed his views. Even though Frank himself is confused by his own addled thoughts, we readers never are.

If I had one small criticism, it would be that in the second half of the novel Yates begins to broaden his story out beyond Frank and April, letting other characters have their turns under his knife. It's not that those sections were weaker, it's just that part of me wishes that we'd stayed trapped with Frank and April through to the bitter end. Though, to be fair, that might have made it too harrowing to finish.

Anyway, read it. It's not a book that will entertain you, really (it took me a long time to read because I had to take a break after each chapter and think about it for a while), but it is a book that will astonish you.

(Oh, and as for the movie? I don't think I'll even bother now. The thing Revolutionary Road does so magnificently is the one thing that books will always be able to do better than movies; that is, get inside a character's head. Honestly, I can't even really fathom why you'd even try to adapt it, or how.) 

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
books to go: 94