Saturday, July 25, 2009

Books: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

Either screenwriter Haythe and director Mendes were more faithful to the novel than I credited them with being, or I completely lack imagination for, reading Revolutionary Road seven months after watching the movie, I could only project the film’s images in my mind’s eye. Months ago, I insisted DiCaprio was miscast, but reading every mention of Frank Wheeler, I could only see his pliable features. I distrusted Daisy’s foresight in bringing a pack of cigarettes up the hill with her in the midst of her worst argument with her husband, but there it is on the book’s page, so I saw Kate Winslet’s face briefly blow in the flame’s amber light.

I had also trusted the proclamations of male readers that the book’s sympathies skewed male, to Frank Wheeler’s professional dissatisfaction and self-loathing, but when reading it for myself, found it to be as much a tale of women’s woe as the film was. The FDA first approved the oral contraceptive pill in 1960; Yates published Revolutionary Road in 1962 about a couple whose lives are literally destroyed by the responsibility incurred by unplanned pregnancies in the 1950s.

Frank Wheeler is not a particularly likable character. April Wheeler is not particularly likable either, but nor is she quite as dislikable as Frank. Though she was as complicit as he in the formation of their mistake (allowing a brief affair evolve, via a series of mounting emotional white lies, into a marriage), she had the foresight to suggest aborting their first pregnancy. And so, at least she kept her wits about her, and wanted to make logical choices in the face of reality. Facing the same opportunity at the outset of their third pregnancy, Frank Wheeler fights tooth and nail to keep the child, until, winning at last, he locks himself in the bedroom with a bottle of whisky, realizing that he doesn’t even want that third child, probably didn’t want the first two, and fought for them only with the instinct of protecting his manhood. This is someone I cannot respect, and I rarely side with the girls.

Radical ethics aside, I was surprised to be a bit let-down by the book, just as I was surprised to be let-down by the movie. Yates’ writes with facile distaste, such haughty, smug prose, rather like a contemporary, American, Evelyn Waugh (arch Waugh of satires like The Loved One, not of the devastating Brideshead Revisited).* I didn’t much care for the plight of the bright young Wheelers, or anyone in the book, for that matter, except perhaps the hapless Shep Campbell, who thinks he loves April, is used by her one night, and then has to comfort her husband when he himself is reeling from her death. Only his emotions, perhaps because of their na├»vete, feel genuine. The insightful madman, John Givings, whose proclamations came so cutting in the film’s otherwise blithely elegant chatter, seems equally blithe in the book, nearly as resigned to the “hopeless emptiness” as the Wheelers.

*April’s flashback to a scene in which her Gatsby of a father gives her the plastic horse charm off a bottle of cologne or liquor because he forgot to bring a gift is, it seems, a flashback to an Evelyn Waugh novel, unless Yates is relying completely on the Fitzgeralds for inspiration.

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