Revolutionary Road is a novel that I presumptuously described as an existential suburban drama. Frank and April Wheeler, a self-assured couple, move their family at the end of Revolutionary Road in Connecticut despite the thought that they are intellectually superior to their neighbors. The couple feels a sense of entrapment: Frank sticking with a job that he thinks is too lame for his capacities and April blaming herself for her husband’s career. They start to bicker until their marriage nearly disintegrates, and then April suggests that they move out of that town and emigrate to France. This will allow Frank to find himself while April initially supports the family. Their loving relationship is restored, but will they ever get out of the gaping emptiness not only of that town, but also of life?
Have you ever had that feeling that you just have to read a book that you literally have to turn over your shelves to find your copy of it? This is the case with Revolutionary Road, and although I had notions of what it would be like, I never thought that it would perfectly resonate the situation I am in and the feelings that I have. Not that I am going through relationship struggles; in fact, there is more to this than a problematic marriage.
The novel opens with the first performance of the newly founded theater group of the town. This is a perfect way to begin a novel where the characters, especially Frank, have the tendency to act theatrically. Frank, in his college days, acts like a Sartre-type intellectual. He acts like he’s too cool to care for his job in the sales department of Knox Business Machines. And worst of all, he acts like he wants to escape. And yet.
April, the lead actress of the play, fails to deliver despite her little background in acting. Frank casually tells her that the play isn’t that great, and what ensues while they are on their way home is a vicious exchange of words at the side of the road, which is less about the failure of the play but more about the whole of their lives together.
“Now you’ve said it. The hopeless emptiness. Hell, plenty of people are on to the emptiness part; out where I used to work, on the Coast, that’s all we ever talked about. We’d sit around talking about emptiness all night. Nobody ever said ‘hopeless,’ though; that’s where we’d chicken out. Because maybe it does take a certain amount of guts to see the emptiness, but it takes a whole hell of a lot more to see the hopelessness. And I guess when you do see the hopelessness, that’s when there’s nothing to do but take off. If you can.”
[He felt as if he were sinking helplessly into the cushions and the papers and the bodies of his children like a man in quicksand. When the funnies were finished at last he struggled to his feet, quietly gasping, and stood for several minutes in the middle of the carpet, making tight fists in his pockets to restrain himself from doing what suddenly seemed the only thing in the world he really and truly wanted to do: picking up a chair and throwing it through the picture window.
What the hell kind of a life was this? What in God’s name was the point or the meaning or the purpose of a life like this?]
The novel is written in vibrant language that it is hard to feel drowsy even if you are reading while lying on your bed, even if you are reading about the monotonous lives of people in the suburbs: breakfasts promptly prepared by housewives who never earn anything for themselves, husbands rushing to catch the train, employees doing the same things over and over at their cubicles, dinners with a couple of drinks, drinks with the neighbors over the weekends, and conversations of how dreadful their lives are and how far beyond they are from it. But are they?
They only think, or rather imagine, that they are better than most people, but most of the time they don’t even know who they are. Franks often finds himself confused at what to feel, and April admits to not knowing herself anymore. The funny thing is that this couple dreams of a better life and yet they settle comfortably, although not admittedly, in the easy cushions that suburban life offers them.
Just as bad as not knowing themselves is not even knowing what they want. They want a life filled with intellect and creativity, but the sad fact of it is, they, or rather Frank, starts to consider that they can be happy in a place that they utterly hate, as long as they do not contaminate themselves with the infectious germs of the brain-deads, and as long as their financial standing allows them to pursue their highbrow activities once in a while.
[But she needed no more advice and no more instruction. She was calm and quiet now with knowing what she had always known, what neither her parents nor Aunt Claire nor Frank nor anyone else had ever had to teach her: that if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.]
Initially, April annoyed me with her constant whining about being trapped. I thought it was her who was constantly disturbing the peace. Although the too romantic idea of moving to France without much of a game plan is impractical and quite immature, I admire April for sticking to it. At least she gives the impression that she wants this, that she wants to make it happen, and that she really wants to get out.
But Frank? Oh dear, what’s with his moral shuffling? In a novel where he’s supposed to be the backbone, it becomes apparent page by page that he doesn’t have that backbone, plus the balls, which is splat right in his face by one insane character who makes a short-lived acquaintance with the Wheelers. More so, Frank is not the victim however he puts it in his head. But he becomes a victim anyway by suffering a worse fate than that of April’s at the end of the novel.
[The whole point of crying was to quit before you cornied it up. The whole point of grief itself was to cut it out while it was still honest, while it still meant something. Because the thing was so easily corrupted: let yourself go and you started embellishing your own sobs, or you started telling about the Wheelers with a sad, sentimental smile and saying Frank was courageous, and then what the hell did you have?]
And also, at this end, one realizes that this isn’t at all about the horrors that the suburbs can bring to its residents. Yes, people can be crushed in such a lifeless environment, but upon closer inspection, is the environment to be blamed or is it the people? Don’t the people who constantly complain about hopelessness and emptiness, and yet stay stuck, deserve it?
In one interview, Yates was asked about the central theme of the novel. He was quoted to have said that he suspects it’s a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy. Not a comforting thought, just as it’s not comforting to finish this sad yet illuminating work of a writer that has been largely ignored during his lifetime.
Dates Read: March 7 to 12, 2013
No. of Pages: 355
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars