I grew up in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, and I live in the “inner ring” of older suburbs of New York City now, so I have always had an interest in the history of urban development, suburban style, and I think I have a good feel for the realities of suburban culture. Or should I say, ‘culture’? I was curious about the film, Revolutionary Road, but not enough to see it.
After hearing about what a great writer Richard Yates was, however, I decided to read the book since I knew nothing of his work. The blurb on the paperback edition I have, with Kate and Leonardo on the cover, speaks of him as a forgotten titan, up there with the greatest of 20th century American novelists. This article speculates on the reasons why all of his books – all got excellent reviews – are out of print.
The reason is not hard to find – he is a fine writer, a real craftsman, and his prose carries you along so smoothly, you hardly realize how clever he is – but his vision is incredibly limited, at least in this novel. Everyone is miserable, everyone is pretty stupid. They are all dishonest with each other and with themselves. Nobody has the gumption to try and make their lives into anything meaningful for themselves, they just play parts, and whine.
Was this an indictment of a real social situation or the exquisitely written rant of a talented and unhappy man? Did he never meet anyone in the ‘burbs who was trying to do something “real” with his or her life? In satire, people are mocked with the idea that there is a higher standard to which they could, but don’t aspire. What Yates thinks real and “true” life should be is anyone’s guess.
The only interesting question this dismal literary period piece raises for me is not dealt with much at all by Yates, though he hints at it. What might it have been that led people who grew up in The Depression and lived or fought through WWII that made some of them accept simplistic notions of success and respectibility? (What makes them do so today?) Dimly hinted at in this book, there is a great question: In a society of relative surplus and freedom, just how does one decide what to do with one’s life?