“The Hopeless Emptiness of Everything”: On Richard Yate’s Revolutionary Road

On a wistful and drizzling Saturday morning, two hours before I had to trudge on to my fiction class at the academe, I took my Everyman’s edition of Richard Yate’s Three Novels (Revolutionary Road, The Eastern Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness) with me, eager to bask in the “deep self-deception” and “contemporary alienation” which Michiko Kakutani spoke of when she described Yate’s writings. It was a surprise. Instead of simple feeling that which Kakutani said, instead of being entertained, instead of being amused, instead of being engaged critically, all I felt was sheer emptiness, absolute sadness and melancholy, and desperation, most of all.

The novel is the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple, living in a quaint village outside of New York City. Stuck in a life of repetitions and sterility, aware that they are so much better than the rest of the drones that fill the heartless landscape of America in the 60’s, they decide, after a harrowing argument, to escape to Paris, where Frank, who’s been working for the past seven years or so to support his family, will finally have the adequate time he needs to search for the man he’s supposed to be. In order to do this, April decides to take a job as a clerk once they get to Paris. Risky and uncertain, they set out to do their plan even when their friends begin arguing about the unrealistic and absurd nature of their decision. Only John Givings, the son of Howard and Helen and a mental basket case, sees the profundity in their escape, and both of the Wheelers are completely fine with that. In years, their life takes a positive turn, and finally, they can see their chance at happiness and fulfilment manifesting in front of them.  Quite suddenly, April finds herself pregnant, which throws a wrench in their grand plan. April decides to terminate her pregnancy. Frank finds out. Another visit from John Givings makes it all worst as the lunatic taunts them for their cowardice and inability to pursue their original proposal. A fight ensues. Frank begs them to stay, for practical reasons. April argues that if the fetus is taken care off, they can still push through with their trip. In the end, April takes matter in her hands, producing dire and tragic results.

I don’t really believe that whole bullshit concept of a novel that can’t be “put down.” I’ve always had the ability to close a book, whether it is my favourite Magic Realist, my adored American narcissistic novelist for that year (I’m talking to you Phillip Roth), or my preferred short story writer of that month. Revolutionary Road was different. In the tricycle, sandwiched between an old lady and this guy who resembles the stay puft marshmallow man in the colorum, before class, after class, while waiting for Ida, in mid-commute, while eating, it was one of the first novels that I could not close. It was that magnificent. It was that enchanting. Was it the slow, beautiful but very simple prose, filled with declarative sentences, devoid of sentimentality, neutral in the presentation of each character’s desire and plight that did it for me? Was it the setting that captured the mundane world of the 60’s, the hat, coat and tie, cigarette-filled, Mad Men like reality, which Yates captured so perfectly that compelled me to read? Or was it the utter stupidity, the compassionate journey, the desperation, the inescapable predicament, the self-flagellating nature of the Wheelers, or the idealism in Shep and Milly, or the gullibility of Mr. Howard and Mrs. Helen Giving’s, which completely reeled me in?

Upon finishing the novel, I immediately felt like John Givings, the mentally disturbed son of Howard and Helen. First thing I said was “wow,” and I began to echo what he actually uttered halfway through the novel:

“Now you’ve said it. The hopeless emptiness. Hell, plenty of people are on to the emptiness part; out where I used to work, on the Coast, that’s all we ever talked about. We’d sit around talking about emptiness all night.  Nobody ever said ‘hopeless’ though; that’s where we’d chicken out. Because maybe it does take a whole hell of a lot more to see the hopelessness. And I guess when you do see the hopelessness, that’s when there’s nothing to do but take off. If you can.”

Richard Yate’s first novel, Revolutionary Road, is indeed about that hopelessness. The novel concerns itself with the exploration of the prison we find ourselves in, the jail which society and culture demands of us to be confined in. The Sisyphus-like demeanor men and women succumb to be in once they become adults, once marriage happens, once they bear children, and the dozens of escape one can pursue and the hundred more circumstances that could happen to make individuals fall back into that stupor.  It is a pale view of humanity, given that we pride ourselves on our ability to choose the paths that we forge, given that we think so highly of our freedom and intelligence. In the end we see that hopelessness, that futility, that petrifying notion, all around us, lurking in our every action, in our thoughts, stuck on the vandalized and sticky seats of the bus, the cold pole of the train, the computer monitors that we stare at as we type away the hours of the day, the business and corporate jargons that we drop during meetings, and embedded in the smile on our faces every time the fifteenth and the thirtieth of the month comes and we collect our salaries. It is a truth of the contemporary times, and it is a devastating fact that we have to live with, constantly.