Monday, December 08, 2008

Rereading Revolution

With the imminent appearance of Revolutionary Road in theaters, critics are revisiting its source material, the classic 1961 novel by Richard Yates. Christopher Hitchens’ take in The Atlantic devolves into a somewhat confusing flurry of excerpts. James Wood stays more focused in The New Yorker. But both pieces share an important idea. As Hitchens puts it:
The achievement of . . . Revolutionary Road was to anatomize the ills and woes of suburbia while simultaneously satirizing those suburbanites and others who thought that they themselves were too good for the ’burbs.
Yates himself said the novel was meant to serve as “an indictment of American life in the nineteen-fifties,” but Wood notes that “the tale is subtler than the teller”:
In Revolutionary Road, mid-century American suburban man is so maddening because he is both a rank escapist and a conservative pragmatist: he has arrogated to himself twin rights that ought to be incompatible—to dream of escape (and have adulterous affairs, like Emma Bovary), while simultaneously dreaming of timid stability, like Charles Bovary.
In short, Frank Wheeler -- the novel’s protagonist -- is full of himself for no good reason. Bored by his mindless corporate work, he’s also incapable of doing anything much more interesting, and the stifling suburbs are just the handiest excuse for what is really a personal lack. Identifying with him too closely wouldn’t reflect very well on a reader. As Wood writes, “just as we quickly reach for our own preferred weapon of condemnation . . . we find the novel judging our own judgmentalism, qualifying our superiority.”

I think the movie is bound to fail, but I’ll give it a chance. The trailer makes excellent use of Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind,” but I have a hard time believing that Hollywood will capture all the ironies. It's more likely to settle for an easy knock on ‘50s-era conservatism. It has Kate Winslet going for it, so we shall see. (Leonardo DiCaprio can be great, but he also still looks like he’s 12, making his Frank Wheeler appear, to me, more like a play-acting child than a conflicted adult.)

I shared a brief excerpt from the novel way back when.

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