First published in 1953
First things first: I haven’t seen the Hollywood version and having read the book, have no desire to. Too many “classics” are getting the Beverley Hills treatment and absolutely do not want to see Leonardo Di Caprio massacre a brilliantly created character in Frank Wheeler. Equally, the thought of Keira Knightley’s wooden beak all over the movie adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, one of my favourite books, is enough to make me shudder. In fact, I struggle to think of a film adaptation that’s better than the original. I could say The Shawshank Redemption, of course, but I think the film’s almost unrecognisable from the novella by Stephen King, such is the artistic liberty they were permitted to take.
The first thing I noticed when I picked up Revolutionary Road was an endorsement in the inner sleeve from one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut calls it “the Great Gatsby of my generation”. Now, it’s been a while since I read Gatsby, but I think I see where he’s coming from. This is a commentary on status in Middle America; people aspiring to something greater; people trying to outdo their peers and neighbours; people thinking they deserve better, because they’re better than those around them. Less keeping up with the Jones’, this book is about shitting all over the Jones’ perfectly coiffed lawn. In that respect, I would also draw a comparison with Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. Whilst there isn’t a character in this as tragic as Willy Loman, Revolutionary Road too exposes the flaws in the very concept of the American Dream.
It’s the story of a young, handsome couple, the Wheelers, and their efforts to escape the banality of plush New England suburbia. It’s about the dynamics of their own relationship and how their dissatisfaction with their own lives really stems from their displeasure with each other. Their relationship is a war of attrition. They fell for each other under a mask of his deceit, which he has kept up throughout their marriage. He is callous, manipulative and calculating. He always thinks one step ahead of his wife, colleagues, neighbours and employers.
As you read on, though, it becomes clear that he is of limited ability and far from the great man he believes himself to be. He has gotten as far as he has on a wing a prayer and a whole load of hot air. He is one of the best characters I have come across in a long time: both pitiable and despicable. Wrapped up in the smug, clean-shaven, suited and booted persona of Frank Wheeler, I see a lot of contemporary politicians. Richard Yates does brilliantly to capture a whole breed in one smarmy character.
But what really struck me about Revolutionary Road is just how much of it I see in my every day life. The Wheelers’ existence is built upon putting on a show, keeping up appearances, as is that of the rest of the characters. People hear what they want to hear. Few are prepared to upset the applecart. In fact, the only person who isn’t afraid to speak his mind is John Givings, a certified lunatic. As I move into my late twenties (eek) I see far too much of this. Teenage abandon is, well, abandoned. People are nice, as a rule. Yates captures the anxiety that comes with getting a little older and getting trapped in a life you don’t want brilliantly. People inhabit a world of trite courtesy and phoniness. It’s not how you are, but how you are perceived to be.
It’s a cliché to say “you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors”, but it rings particularly true here. As a society, we’re obsessed with fly on the wall documentaries and real-life dramas. But few are as effective a reminder as Revolutionary Road that adversity befalls everyone. Everybody has their problems. Appearances can be deceiving. Woven in amongst these observations is a great story: slow paced and methodical. This is a great book and it comes highly recommended.