I needed to take a few days after finishing Revolutionary Road before I wrote a review. Reading Yates is an emotionally draining experience, and so is thinking about the implications of his writing; how it makes me feel, how it effects me, and why. What I love about his work is that it is unsparing, unsentimental, and unafraid. Reading his books evokes the feeling of being naked in public; of being exposed, vulnerable, small, and ashamed. His words are whispers of my secret fears and at times they make my blood run cold. Why am I really here? Is it worth all of this pain, all of this frustration, all of this worry, if really, I’m never going to find this ‘something’ I’ve been searching for anyway?
Frank and April Wheeler are idealists; they believe there is a golden world of Elysium out there for them to find, a different plane of a higher existence they can reach, if only they could escape from the confines of their drab lives. They have convinced themselves that they are superior to the people around them, that they are special, and deserve, are entitled to, something better than their humdrum day to day lives in a pastel coloured suburban town. April had dreams of being an actress; Frank has some sort of undefined talent that he believes sets him apart. One thing they both know; they were made for more than they have settled for.
The book opens with the first night performance of The Laurel Players; the dramatic society that has recently been formed by local people looking for some culture outside of the ‘city’. It transpires that April has ‘reluctantly’ been drawn in to take part, on account of her dramatic training, and what was supposed to be a triumphant evening for her, and the Players, ends in embarrassment and shame when the cast fall apart under the pressure. April’s dream of being an actress is shattered yet again, and a violent argument breaks out between her and Frank on the way home from the play. This fight serves as a microcosm of their marriage; blame, hate, frustration, disappointment, fear and loathing bubble to the surface as they rip apart the carcass of their relationship on the side of the new highway lined with the bright and breezy strip malls selling the American Dream.
A couple of days later, Frank returns home, expecting the hostile silence he has become used to from the wife he is never secure of, and instead finds a repentant, beautiful April, who has prepared a birthday celebration for him. She has recovered her happiness; she has made a new plan for their lives, a plan that will give them the dream existence they long for. They are going to move to Paris; April will work, and Frank will be free to discover his true vocation. All seems perfect for a while, and the Wheelers experience a contentment in their marriage that hasn’t been present since its earliest days as they talk about their plans and imagine the beauty of their new lives. However, Frank’s nagging fear that he doesn’t really have any spectacular talent to discover makes him reluctant to fully commit to the plan, and it isn’t long before Frank starts to have doubts; unexpected recognition, and promises of promotion, at the job he has always dismissed as dull begin to make him think it might be better for them to stay behind. Then April’s unplanned pregnancy puts a stop to it all; a secret relief for Frank, but a devastating blow for April, that will change the course of their lives and demonstrate just how destructive unrealised dreams can be.
This was Yates’ first novel, and is considered his best by many. The story of the ill fated April and Frank, of their friends, who viewed them as admirable, aspirational revolutionaries, only to be disappointed in their inefficiency to live out their dreams, just like everyone else, and of the crazy son of their neighbours, driven mad by the inescapable, essential hopelessness of life, is astoundingly painful, haunting, depressing, and yet, somehow, beautiful. In amongst the despair, there are moments to be treasured, moments of joy, of love, of contentment, and peace, that make life worth living, worth trying for. There are no easy answers with Yates; there are no cosy endings, no platitudes, no comfort for the weary. However, there is a bravery, a brazenness, in his declaration that life is not the romance novel we have made it into. Lives don’t all have happy endings; dreams don’t come true, hearts do get broken, and happiness is often hard to come by. Yates never shies away from this. His characters all scrabble around, trying to find the magic key to a more fulfilling existence; they never find it, but at least they believe it’s there; at least they try. That is what I find most compelling about Yates; amidst the despair and hopelessness, hope springs eternal. His characters have an inherent belief that life should be, is capable of being, greater, fuller, more beautiful. They dare to dream.
I am now reading Blake Bailey’s excellent biography; I will post about it as I go along as it has many fascinating insights into Yates’ work. At the moment I am just bowled over by how autobiographical his work was; sometimes he didn’t even bother to disguise the names of the people he wrote about. He was a remarkable man, with a tragic life, and I am slowly getting sucked into his world…