Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Original Mr. and Mrs. Draper: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates


Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I wish I could know what it would have been like to read this book in 1961, when the ideas of suburban hell and thwarted, if vague, creative aspirations and painfully loveless marriages hadn't been dissected and exorcised in books to the point where they'd practically become cliches. Would the story of Frank and April Wheeler living the life they never wanted, in a neighborhood that suffocates them, with friends they secretly hate, and jobs they openly despise have seemed fresh and honest then?

But then, I wonder if the suburbs weren't already something of a cliche in 1961. In the Los Angeles Times's "Worthy, Though Neglected, Novels of 1961," John W. Aldridge wrote that Revolutionary Road was "a rare example of an effort to be honest about suburban life in the face of the almost irresistible pressure to dress it up in one of the fashionable, ready-to-wear cliches."

I guess the story of people rebelling against conformity, complacency, and the uneasy comfort that those two provide is always a cliche. It's all in how it's done. On Mad Men, the trappings of the Draper household -- the high-powered city job, the heavy drinking, smoking, and womanizing, the housewife's malaise -- are all cliches, but the characters of Don and Betty Draper aren't. They're compellingly doomed.

Richard Yates makes Frank and April Wheeler a little too bound up in, and too self-aware of, those constructs. However, they're compelling in a different way. They're compelling, because they're also aware that they're completely ordinary, not particularly talented or creative individuals who were, somewhere along the line, led to believe that they were special and deserving of extraordinary lives. But then their ordinariness butts in and gets in the way, and fouls everything up.

The way the book is framed is particularly effective. It begins with the Wheelers at the height of their ordinariness, their nasty squabbles and their contempt for one another. And then, there's a glimmer of hope. They just might love each other, take a risk, and escape it all. And then, well, you've seen all the distraught, teary, sweaty-faced movie trailers with Kate and Leo...

Though Sam Mendes's adaptation is the first to see the light of day, Paul Wendkos, best known for directing several Gidget movies and numerous episodes of numerous television programs in the 1960s and 1970s, planned to make Revolutionary Road under the entirely inappropriate title, Love's Lovely Game in 1964. However, the project fell apart. Maybe it was the whole extramarital affair/aspiring home abortionist thing that did it in.

I haven't seen the movie, but I'm inclined to agree with the friend who gave me Revolutionary Road, and say that while it's a good book, it might make for a dull film adaptation. It's a very dialogue and interior monologue-heavy book, and while it moves along at a very nice clip on the page, I just don't think that kind of thing translates very well to the screen.

1 comment:

Philip said...

I think the main strength of the book is its observation of the main characters. I was particularly impressed at the way Yates was able to capture the way they both think. Not simply ‘they’re just like me!’ kind of way, but more an enjoyment, and surprise at the realism, of the detail that he includes.

This leaves you, as a reader, understanding why they act as they do, and consequently switching allegiance between them throughout the book. Ones sympathy switches from Frank to April to Frank to April throughout. Maybe all that this achieves is a novel that goes along at a fair clip, as you say. But I’m inclined to go further and say that as a representation of human thought and human life, it’s a real success.