Thursday, June 11, 2009


There seems to be some occult providence dictating the things I happen to read. What other explanation could there be for a girl who makes reading lists, never abides them, yet constantly stumbles upon prose inexplicably supplementary to what she has last read?

While reading an article on Gawker today about shady and hastily assembled Craigslist Writing employment postings, I came across a blind link under this user comment: "Gosh, this is where we're heading, huh? Everyone should read this, then". I followed the blind link to what I quickly discovered was "Builders" from The Collected Short Stories of Richard Yates. Naturally, because I've been reading and enjoying Yates' Revolutionary Road, I dove into "Builders" - and in it I discovered familiar themes, discussions of which I will save for my posts about Revolutionary Road.

What struck me most was the story's male protagonist - and how, with all his misguided aggression toward his well-meaning wife, I could end the story not hating the character. I feel similarly about Revolutionary Road's Frank Wheeler. And here's why:

Just as Frank Wheeler resents in his wife the recognition of his own weaknesses, (the "suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself"), we as readers of Yates' work often find his characters repulsive because they amplify flaws we abhor in ourselves. From what I can tell, Yates' characters have a tendency to spin in the mud; in both stories of his I've read, the reader jumps into a mild hell in media res with characters who loathe themselves and their insignificance as much as we pity them for their lack of progress.

Bob Prentice in "Builders" models his life after and measures his talents and evolution as a writer against Hemingway. When Prentice is conned, his shame is only magnified by his realization that "Ernest Hemingway could never in his life have known... [his] own sense of being a fool." And he was serious.

I'm 22-years-old (the same age as Prentice in "Builders") and understand having idols and feeling inadequate. But seeing these perceived failings in Bob Prentice and Frank Wheeler makes them seem hilarious and trivial. These yard sticks that exist only in our own minds, to which we hold ourselves strictly accountable - become prohibitive neuroses - and frankly, it's hard to witness in others, even if the others are fictional.

So when a stumped Prentice, struggling with writer's block, reacts to his wife's suggestion that he stop trying so hard to be "literary" and "think of Irving Berlin" by saying he'd "give her Irving Berlin right in the mouth in about a minute, if she didn't lay off [him] and mind her own goddamn business," the feminist in me wants to continue the story resolved to dislike Bob Prentice - but the human in me can relate to misplaced anger and aggression, and especially hypersensitivity on the matter of others' opinions of my writing.

I'm finding it impossible to hate Yates' impossible characters, in short.

Update: On the Chicago Reader's Lit & Lectures homepage today, an article originally published by the paper in November 2003 was featured, written by J.R. Jones detailing his intimate history with Richard Yates and his interview for Blake Bailey's A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Works of Richard Yates. In the article is this quote: "...[Yates] could be disarmingly candid and grimly funny, especially regarding himself, and the compassion for life’s losers that made his stories heartbreaking was evident every time he spoke." Sounds about right.

Revolutionary Road posts up next....


John Baker said...

Richard Yates never wrote anything as fine as Gatsby, but then again, he was more consistent than Scott-Fitzgerald, and in several of his novels and stories he came within a whisker of eclipsing America's finest exponent of modernist fiction.

His subject was always the American Dream and its casualties, the continuing inability of his twentieth century characters to truly live together. Revolutionary Road is recognised as one of the greatest novels of urban America. The Easter Parade, which chronicles the lives of two sisters searching for happiness in different pockets of the 'dream' is always touching, subtle and poignant, brave and beautiful and true.

In the short stories, Yates deals with the loneliness of individuals. The self-destructive Vincent Sabella, who has spent most of his life in some kind of orphanage. Sergeant Reece, the tyrannical Tennessean soldier who insists on doing his job. And Bob Prentice, the mediocre writer who sees himself as Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott-Fitzgerald, but who in reality is not much good at anything.

Yates' stories are gems, giving us insight into the emptiness of our own lives and those of people close to us and who we love. Richard Yates spares us nothing. He is a brave and truthful writer and in order to stay with him as a reader, you have to be prepared for the worst.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Yates is wonderful. I used to sleep with "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" ("Builders" was the last story) under my pillow when I was a teenager--literally. I wanted something right to hand if I wanted to read in the middle of the night.

Yan Tan said...