I have just finished reading Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, on which the current movie starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio is based. I haven’t seen the film, and on the basis of the book – no matter how winsome and well-coiffed Kate and Leo may be – I won’t. It’s not that I am afraid of sad movies (I saw The Reader this weekend, which is one hundred levels of sad), it’s that I am tired, tired, tired of the storyline Wife Gives Up Everything for Husband’s Career, Becomes Depressed and, By Mistake or Not, Offs Herself.
Revolutionary Road is a book of its time, 1961, where wives were mostly at home and husbands were mostly at work and anyone who crossed those rigid gender lines was considered downright odd or desperate. I give it that. Another thing I give it is that it is strongly written and the characters are crystalline and piercing. Yates has a way into their heads that is compelling, that leaves you almost breathless with its frank and disturbing insight.
My objection is which characters’ heads he enters. As readers, we know a lot about Frank Wheeler, the Husband. We know that he is very impressed with himself, that he loves his own verbiage and his ironic and cutting take on his now far too suburban life. We know that Frank considers himself an iconoclast even though he is rather ordinary, and that his rebellions are typecast (affair with secretary, daytime drinking, not taking his job seriously). Frank believes in his own PR that he is an artistic soul searching for meaning and the way to handle the vast gap between that belief and his life is to take nothing seriously, and wield irony at every turn. His tragedy is that he does choose the conventional path, and that is what sets off the horror of this story.
Another character into whose head we delve is Frank’s neighbour and friend, Shep Campbell. We know that Shep ran away from his privileged background, went to an ordinary college and prides himself on marrying Millie, daughter of a painter, whom he has helped to rise above her station and who now has decorated her home almost as well as April Wheeler has done. Despite being proud of Millie’s pulling herself by her bootstraps, Shep is frantically in love with April. We spend a goodly amount of time in his head as he sways between the two poles of Millie and April.
The third character to whom Yates devotes head time is the Wheeler’s estate agent Helen Givings, who is a bundle of neuroses. Older than Frank and April, she has adopted them as her favourite couple and earmarked them as potential friends for her schizophrenic son John, who lives in a nearby asylum, but who is allowed out for visits. Helen believes that by spending time with nice young people like the Wheelers, John will have a sniff of how normal life could be. She takes him and her ancient deaf husband Howard to visit Frank and April three times, and each visit is dominated by John’s rapid social unravelling. The book ends in Helen’s head, a blur of guilt and anaesthetizing domestic detail.
My question for the sadly now deceased Richard Yates is, where is April is in all this? We see her through Frank’s eyes, through Shep’s eyes and through Helen’s, and yet, despite the fact that she is the one character with a concrete plan, with a dream that she is actually going to follow through, we are never in her head. The only time we have April head space is in the last chapter, where she enacts her fatal self-abortion. Logically, I understand that she needs to remain opaque through the narrative in order to make this final act so overwhelmingly defeating and tragic. But as a woman, I feel enraged that she is silent until she kills herself by mistake.
Here, at the end of the novel, is what April has to say:
Then you discovered you were working at life the way the Laurel Players worked at The Petrified Forest, or the way Steve Kovick worked at his drums – earnest and sloppy and full of pretension and all wrong; you found you were saying yes when you meant no, and “We’ve got to be together in this thing” when you meant the very opposite, then you were breathing gasoline as if it were flowers and abandoning yourself to the delirium of love under the weight of a clumsy, grunting red-faced man you didn’t even like – Shep Campbell! – and then you were face to face, in total darkness, with the knowledge that you didn’t know who you were.
Although April believes she doesn’t know who she is, she has an active plan for her family to escape their stultifying life. Her plan is to move to Paris, get a diplomatic job so that Frank can wander around the city and find himself. However, Frank has received a job offer at work for a much better position and he is absolutely torn between the Paris dream and the reality of an improved career. When April falls pregnant for the third time, this stifles her plan and allows Frank to consider his work offer. By aborting the baby, she is trying to stick to her plan, to save herself and her family, and on an emotional level, it absolutely enraged me that she had to die. By killing her off, no gender lines get imploded, Frank can advance his career, hand his children over to his older brother to look after and be free to continue to indulge himself. Problem solved.
Perhaps anything else is too much to expect from a mid-twentieth century male writer like Richard Yates, and I am being unfair. However I want to read and write novels where the patriarchy gets blown out of the water, novels where women change their lives, speak out loud in voices that aren’t always mellifluous, enact their dreams; novels where their breasts or the length of their thighs don’t get a mention; novels where they are allowed to know just exactly who they bloody well are.