Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road (1961) or Why is Richard Yates a Writer’s Writer?

Revolutionary Road

The first time I came across the name Richard Yates was in 2006 when his short story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness was translated into German. All the big newspapers reviewed and praised it. I think that must have been about the same time, he was rediscovered in the US, which then led to the translations. I’m not sure why it took me another nine years to finally pick up one of his books. Be it as it may, I’m so glad I finally did. After finishing Revolutionary Road, I started to read up on him and that’s when I came across this very long, very insightful article by Stewart O’Nan: The Lost World of Richard Yates. It was written in 1999 – before the rediscovery. It’s interesting because O’Nan not only tries to capture why he thinks Yates is an amazing author but also goes into lengthy musings on why he was never successful. For me, it wasn’t surprising that it took so long to discover him in Germany, but that he wasn’t successful in the US or other English-speaking countries did come as a surprise. Stewart O’Nan’s central thesis is that Yates is a writer’s writer. Not a typical one, though. I’ll get to that again, after the review of Revolutionary Road.

Revolutionary Road tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple who’s living in the suburbs of New York. The book opens with an amateur play in which April has the main role. At first it looks like it could be a success. Initially, April’s performance is good enough to make her husband fantasize what her success will mean for them. He imagines how April will be admired and how it will ultimately make him a center of admiration too and how he will pretend to be all modest about it. But then the play goes wrong and turns into a farce, exposing all the actors, including April to ridicule. It’s a devastating moment. Not so much because the play goes wrong but because the Wheeler’s dreams are shattered. April, who studied acting once, isn’t a good actress after all. And Frank, who imagined his wife’s stellar performance would reflect on him as well, feels just as ashamed as she does, maybe even more so.

This scene is a perfect introduction to the novel and the couple April and Frank Wheeler. While the outcome is dramatic for them, it’s not as such tragic but it contains all the elements of the future tragedy.

Yates introduces us here to a couple who lives a somewhat mediocre life. He’s working for a company he doesn’t appreciate, doing a job that bores him to death. She’s a housewife and stay-at-home-mom, the last thing she ever wanted to be. This as such is sad but what makes it sadder is the fact that they still think they are special and different from anybody else. But every time they want to prove themselves that they are more cultivated, wittier, unconventional, their unrealistic dreams crash against reality and leave them bitter, disillusioned, and filled with an anger they take out on each other.

I must admit, it took me over a hundred pages until I started to appreciate what Yates was doing. I hated and despised these two characters so much. Their aspirations and pretences showed us that they were anything but special but mediocre and petty. Since one of Yates’s admittedly brilliant techniques is to show us Frank’s interior monologue, we’re constantly in the head of a real douchebag. As I said, I was so distracted by the story and found the characters so off-putting, that I almost missed to pay attention to Yates’s narrative techniques. Not only is it brilliant to let Frank’s interior monologue clash with reality, it’s also quite funny.

At the heart of the story is April’s dream to leave and start a new life in Paris. The interesting thing about it is that while it may seem wild, it’s a totally feasible plan, yet they are bound to fail. Why and how they fail is shown in a masterful way.

The most tragic and paradoxical thing about April and Frank Wheeler isn’t that they never live their dream but that they try, if only for a very brief moment, to live it.

I said at the beginning of this post that Yates was, for a long time, considered to be a writer’s writer. This was surprising to me at first because usually writer’s writers are stylists, often using lyrical prose. Yates does write well but his writing is accessible, smooth, simple, almost free of figures of speech. He’s not strong on descriptions, hardly uses atmosphere or mood. So what is it then? It’s amazing how brilliantly he describes people and their interactions. His dialogue and interior monologue is sharp and witty. But more than that, his choices of scenes and structure are admirable. I wondered constantly – how will he capture this or that? Whose point of view will he choose next? And, most importantly – how will he end this novel? I wasn’t interest in the ending from a plot perspective but from a perspective of author’s choice. I felt that there had to be a major “bang”. What would it be?

These are reasons why I agree with O’Nan— he is a writer’s writer. After having found O’Nan’s essay,  I came across John Mullan’s four part piece on Revolutionary Road in The Guardian – you can find it here Part I Imaginary Dialogue, Part II The Epigraph, Part II Comic Dialogue, Part IV The Ending. Reading it confirmed my impressions. Yates is a highly conscious writer. His style may be effortless, his structure and narrative choices are not. One just has to think of the title. Revolutionary Road is the street on which the Wheelers live. It’s close to a suburban nightmare called “Revolutionary Hill”, where all the houses are candy-colored, cute abominations. Not so the Wheeler’s street and house. Nonetheless, it’s suburbia and even in a part that’s not as affluent. Knowing that they read signs and interpret them in a spirit of self-aggrandisement, the name of the road becomes ironic. The Wheeler’s are a lot of things but they are not revolutionary nor rebellious. If anything they are self-deluded and narcissistic.

Revolutionary Road was my first Richard Yates but it won’t be the last. I’m already halfway through Easter Parade and want to read Cold Spring Harbor and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness after that.

I had to watch the movie after finishing the book. Of course, it’s not as good but what bothered me the most was that the Frank Wheeler in the movie was almost likable.