Archive for the ‘Yates, Richard’ Category

Sometime last year, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a non-fiction reconstruction of the adventures of Christopher McCandless, a young man who chose to drop out of life as most of us know it and lose his identity and background in a new sort of life, one more “authentic” and “closer to nature,” wandering through the USA until his death in the Alaskan wilderness.

I put those quotation marks there quite deliberately and maybe even rather sardonically. Initially, I found the premise of the book fascinating, but somewhere along the way, McCandless lost any possibility of seeming heroic. He was ill-prepared for what he was trying to do and apparently lacking in the most basic common sense — who walks into the wilderness with no maps and no compass?  Krakauer, I’ve read, defended McCandless, saying that he just wanted to explore “a blank spot on the map” and therefore did not acknowledge any existence of a map. That’s one view; but I found McCandless supremely lacking in respect for either the wilderness or those who have struggled over the centuries to live in it and have accumulated knowledge to pass on, and Krakauer’s argument seemed equally so. Either which way, whatever your opinion on McCandless, it seems as if Into the Wild had a certain compelling quality, a resonance that came from McCandless’ aim, whether sensible or not, to transcend the ordinary life he was living at the point when he dropped off the radar and started on his wanderings. For is it not human to fear, in our hearts, that we are ordinary, mortal, forgettable, incapable of achieving anything more than the most mundane of drudgeries in our existences?

Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road (I have not seen the 2009 film) takes this fear of mediocrity and transplants it most skilfully into a suburban American front yard in the 1950s. Frank and April Wheeler are a young married couple, with two children, who suffer from one of the ills of our time — they have the luxury of space and time to move beyond mere seeking after food, clothing, and shelter but without knowing quite what to do with it, the capacity to see that their lives could be extraordinary but not the capacity to actually be extraordinary.  “Between the conception / and the creation,” as T. S. Eliot said, “falls the shadow…” April is beautiful and once was hopeful of being an actress before smart, smooth-talking Frank fell for her and they got married. When the novel opens, April is performing a lead role in a local amateur theatrical production that, unfortunately, falls flat. It is telling that it’s not a disaster or open to broad mocking — it simply fails, not spectacularly so. And her discontentment and restlessness come to a head, so that she and Frank persuade themselves and each other that they have to move beyond this ordinariness, beyond April’s housewifely and motherly duties and Frank’s dull, plodding, paper-pushing office job and live the dream — they decide that to truly make the most of their lives, they have to move beyond the sameness of suburban America and go to Europe.

What follows is told quietly, with a hint of wry, ironic humor and a good deal of attention to the detail of negotiation in the communication that comprises a marriage, but is bleak and uncompromising all the same, with a blunted edge of dead hopelessness to it. Just when their plans are laid, April finds that she is pregnant; and Frank finds that he is finally getting somewhere at work and begins to be unexpectedly comfortable with what is.  Yates isn’t going to give us an easy ending; the novel descends into a place of muted horror when April Wheeler takes a drastic decision that ends in tragedy.

Yates’ writing is, as I said, quiet. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here and his style is purely realistic, in a story told mostly from the third-person omniscient viewpoint of Frank Wheeler; April, thus, is always something of an enigma and this makes the trajectory of events all the more shocking when it is finally completely revealed. That descriptive style, verging on blandness, and the ordinary rhythms of conversation pinned down so accurately by Yates seem faintly nightmarish, as if all the potential for newness had been sucked out of them, leaving an infinite hollowness. It is a writing that underlines the sheer futility of the Wheelers’ dreams and plans for being extraordinary and brings a deeper psychological dimension to the reading of the novel, with a capacity to silently discomfit.

1950s suburban America is, to some extent, a staple of texts that mock conservative values and point to inauthenticity and the idea of there being better ways to live. But the Wheelers, with their desperate attempts to reject banality of existence, surely do not belong to that oft-damned milieu. Theirs is a story that has continuing relevance and can still wreak a certain inward havoc on a reader because the Wheelers are the seekers after a life less ordinary that all of us are or might have been, to some extent or another. They believe that they are different from the commonplace people around them, but we, all-knowing readers, can see that they are not, and it puts an uncomfortable mirror up to our own ideas about ourselves. Yates grants them no redemption and us no comfort.

But this book, oddly enough, considering how disturbing it is, has a certain spiritual and philosophical value that is hard to pin down but is somewhat akin to that of suffering. It can’t be defined because it is bound to be different for every reader that sees himself looking out of the eyes of Frank and April and for some, it won’t even be there at all. But it is Yates’ truly remarkable achievement that this book is not a facsimile of depression or a sentimental, romanticised banging against the sky; it never manipulates, it constructs a recognizable reality around its reading and becomes a true experience of despair. And why would anyone want to read a true experience of despair? Perhaps because it is so delicately crafted. Perhaps because it resonates anywhere where there is the dread of banality. Perhaps because it is part of the nature of life itself.


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