Friday, July 31, 2009

My sole issue with Revolutionary Road

I loved Revolutionary Road, have had the paperback for 6 months and completely destroyed it; it's been written in, dog-eared, ripped, wrinkled, taped, and devoured. I'm not even the 1000th person to believe this, I'm sure, but, Richard Yates created a masterpiece - and Tennessee Williams agreed, according to his quote on the book's back cover.

In my blog header, I announced that I'm making a(n independent! thanks FAFSA!) study of great writing in my hopes of becoming a great writer. What I can't decide, though, is if that means I'll be focusing more on the matter of the things I read, or the manner in which they're written - if it makes ANY sense to separate the two. Most of the things I have to say about Revolutionary Road deal with themes, character development, correlations I discover between elements of the novel and other things I've read, etc - and very few with the intricacies of Yates' masterful prose.

I know I like the book and there's no doubt that it's beautifully and expertly written, but it's proving difficult to dissect and understand (mechanically?) WHY I enjoy this book as much as I do. Perhaps, I've taken the J.V. Cunningham quote (also in the blog banner) too literally. Yates isn't given to syntactical or descriptive indulgences, and if I had breezed through the novel, I may have even thought that Revolutionary Road was written plainly or that it read coldly - and I would have been wrong.

I could probably fill a month's worth of posts with the things I liked about Yates' writing (have I just contradicted myself?): the anthropomorphic descriptions of cars in the first chapter - "foolishly misplaced", "unnecessarily wide" that "crawled apologetically" to their destinations - illuminating character experiences, the story's setting paralleling character developments, synesthetic descriptions and sense triggers - the "yellow smell" of sawdust causing Frank to recall the humiliation of his father's scolding, the "bright yellow pain of [Frank's] real awakening" -, the use of questions and indirect discourse to create group identities, highlight character conflicts, and act as a Greek chorus or supplementary narrator. And I could go on and on and on. And will in future posts.

But this post is about the one thing, the sole thing, about that troubled me: Yates' tendency to state, explicitly, through dialogue or narrator(/author?) interpretations, the significance of his own devices, symbols, themes, etc. At first, this absolutely thrilled me! I'd jot down a note, and pages, sometimes paragraphs or even lines later, there would be my note in the novel's very text (of course, stated infinitely more succinctly and eloquently). It assured me I was reading the book the right way - whatever that means. If I came to the same conclusions as the book's author/narrator, my reading was on the right track... no problems, right? RIGHT?

I thought so the first two or three times it happened and resisted becoming alarmed until the third to last chapter, page 320, where I scratched in the margins, and to my surprise - angrily, DO I LOVE OR HATE YATES' STATING HIS DEVICES THE WAY HE DOES?

Hate??? Surely, I couldn't HATE anything about Revolutionary Road. Could I? Well, that's what I wrote. And here is the sentence that prompted my marginal scribblings:

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;...

Maybe it's because it reminds me of what I hated most about certain academic writing - the horrid and forced repetition, the restating of the thesis - which always felt patronizing. Can we not assume the readers of our essays (most likely our teachers or professors) get the gist of the thing the first time around, or the second? Must we subject ourselves and our audience to a superficial rewording of the obviously and already stated? Now, I'm 100% sure this is not what Yates is doing, but flashbacks from my brushes with academia (Full Disclosure: I've left two colleges so far and am headed for a third, Shimer, in the Spring) sprang forward after my ninth and and tenth happenings upon these moments in Revolutionary Road.

The first instance occurred on page 45 - here, April Wheeler has just cut the grass while Frank was sleeping and hung-over from drinking the night after an argument between them:

Everything about her seemed determined to prove, with a new, flat-footed emphasis, that a sensible middle-class housewife was all she had ever wanted to be and that all she had ever wanted to love was a husband who would get out and cut the grass once in a while, instead of sleeping all day.

Because earlier in the book, it's made clear that April has no interest in being a "sensible middle-class housewife" and, in fact, feels "trapped" by her environment, I made this note: ex post facto modification of expectations, to minimize failures – also in this case to make Frank feel the full magnitude of her disappointment in his shortcomings. I'm not embarrassed to say that I was proud of myself for having come up with and noticed this, and more for fitting it into the margin legibly. Imagine how impressed with myself I was when I read this on page 54, a mere 9 pages later: "[Frank] laboriously pried the stone out again and began hacking at the root."

HACKING AT THE ROOT???? (Frank is literally hacking at a root here to make way for a stone path he's installing on his property.) Well, that kind of sounds like moving the goal posts, which parallels that note I just took. Hmmmm, I may be on to something.

To confirm my suspicions that I was, indeed, the most brilliant reader of any novel of all time EVER, this on page 55: " now [Frank's] mind had mercifully amended the facts."

MERCIFULLY AMENDED THE FACTS!???! Exactly! Wow, this Yates guy really has the whole thing figured out!

Honestly, I think this post has helped me come to terms with what was troubling me. My other examples of this, and there are at least a dozen others, are pleasant, and reassuring (I may give them a separate post). I often feel like I'm reading in some isolated wilderness or vacuum - and that I'm posting my thoughts into the infinite void that is the internet - so for Yates to give me a little wink now and then is .... well... it's awesome!

And I'm vaguely aware that I'm probably inventing this entire phenomenon, so if that's the case, feel free to let me know in the comments.
(or that there is a name for what I've written about - echoes, parallels... something.)

We all need a little literary therapy... occasionally. This blog can be mine.

In other news, it's probably time I find a book club. Until I'm back in school, it's the waiting game (and blog posting game) for me.

I'll break up the Revolutionary Road stuff with thoughts on Wilfrid Sheed's Max Jamison, Montaigne's Essays, a few short stories by Black authors from Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature, African-American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, and The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, and Sherwood Anderson's Winseburg, Ohio.


Dorothy W. said...

I'm glad you've enjoyed this book so much! You're making me want to reread it. I tend to focus on what a writer says rather than how he or she says it, but I do enjoy thinking about style and technique now and then and I like learning about it from other people. I really appreciated Francine Prose's book Reading Like a Writer for helping me think about style more.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Reading like a writer : a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them!??!

Why have I never heard of this book? I'm putting it on hold at the library RIGHT NOW.

And I've read such great things about Francine Prose at A Commonplace Blog. Thanks for the info and your comment.

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Fintan Owens said...

I liked your little brackets in a smaller font. I hope you make it as an author