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Blaming the 'Burbs

'Revolutionary Road,' considered the original anti-suburban novel, isn't actually anti-suburbs—but something far more devastating than that.

The novel of suburban malaise has been in fashion for as long as people have been commuting from leafy pastures just beyond the city limits. Never mind that the majority of Americans actually live in suburbs (and have therefore voted with their feet in favor of suburbia), American readers are apparently hungry for books that seek to reveal how stultifying that life really is. Rick Moody made his career with The Ice Storm, an account of a Connecticut family’s expensively appointed but empty lives. Similarly, Tom Perrotta's Little Children depicts a seemingly pleasant Massachusetts town in which rage and depravity lurk behind flower boxes and picture windows, and the banality of child-rearing naturally gives rise to adultery.

Now, Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates's brilliant 1961 novel, stands poised for a comeback. Often considered the original anti-suburban novel, the book—long a staple on bookstore shelves labeled "our favorites" and "staff picks"—tells the story of an unhappy young Connecticut couple; it has just been reissued in tandem with a Hollywood adaptation, due to hit theaters the day after Christmas. The film is directed by none other than Sam Mendes, the man behind American Beauty, perhaps the apotheosis of suburban exposé.

But if Mendes's new film is to do Revolutionary Road justice, it will transcend the easy anti-suburban categorization. While Yates's depiction of suburban life is nightmarish enough to exceed the worst fears of Jane Jacobs's devotees, Revolutionary Road is far more than a complacent takedown of the ’burbs. It is in fact less an anti-suburban novel than a novel about people who blame their unhappiness on the suburbs. 

Once upon a time, Frank and April Wheeler were bohemians in Greenwich Village, but one thing led to another—well, sex led to pregnancy—and Frank, who’d graduated from Columbia on the GI Bill and worked odd jobs while trying to "find" himself, finally took a "real" job at Knox Business Machines, the dullest of dull corporations, quintessential Organization Man territory.

But Frank doesn't see himself as a victim of 1950s-style pressure to conform. Taking the job was an ironic gesture. "The thing I’m most anxious to avoid," he said to a friend, "is any kind of work that can be considered 'interesting' in its own right. I want something that can't possibly touch me." Moreover, Knox was the very same corporation for which Frank’s own father had toiled his whole sad, Willy Loman-like career. How rich! What better way to thumb his nose at his father and his outmoded bourgeois values than to breeze right into a higher position than his dad had ever achieved—and then treat the whole thing as a joke?

Indeed, Frank's trouble is that he doesn't do much of anything sincerely. When we first meet him, he is sitting through a disastrous amateur theater performance, in which April stars. Afterwards, he approaches her backstage:

He … started toward her with the corners of his mouth stretched tight in a look that he hoped would be full of love and humor and compassion; what he planned to do was bend down and kiss her and say “Listen: you were wonderful.” But an almost imperceptible recoil of her shoulders told him she didn’t want to be touched, which left him uncertain what to with his hands, and that was when it occurred to him that “You were wonderful” might be exactly the wrong thing to say—condescending, or at the very least naïve and sentimental, and much too serious.

What he said instead was, "Well, I guess it wasn’t exactly a triumph or anything, was it?" Ouch.

The remark wasn’t hurtful the way it might have been if April were another woman or this, another marriage. In fact, Frank was probably not wrong to have suspected that "you were wonderful" would have grated on April’s nerves. The problem is … well, it's complicated.

Frank’s love for April is real, the only thing in his life that is wholly authentic. That doesn’t, however, mean it’s good; it is in fact utterly poisonous both for him and for April. From the early days of their affair, April, in spite of moments of feeling something that may be, could be love—she thought he was smart, she liked the countercultural thrill of living together in a cheap, cigarette smoke-filled West Village apartment—has "held herself poised for immediate flight."

And that really galls Frank. It’s not the morality of the times or the unavailability of abortion that caused the newly married couple to have their first child—and take their first tentative steps towards conventional middle-class life—but Frank’s frustration with April’s aloofness. She intended to induce an abortion, which enraged Frank even though "the idea [of ending the pregnancy], God knew, was more than a little attractive." But April’s unwillingness to bear his child seemed to bespeak an intolerable lack of love. He just wanted her not to be so indifferent—to him:

"You do this—you do this and I swear to god I’ll—"

"Oh, you’ll what? You’ll leave me. What’s that supposed to be, a threat or a promise?"

Feeling threatened, Frank did what was easy, natural—and despicable—he took up the "moral position," as if that were the true reason for his objection. And it worked. Frank convinced April to have a baby she didn’t want, without having ever considered her feelings in any light other than how they reflected on him.

What is so unique here is that Yates isn’t seduced by his characters' emotions, no matter how earnestly experienced; he lays bare the roiling pools of vanity and narcissism that underlie them. While Frank is the nicer of the two—by conventional standards, at least—it’s no wonder that April feels revulsion at his "precious moral maxims" and his "'love' and … mealy-mouthed little—." It’s hard for her to articulate, but the reader has no trouble understanding what she means. Meanwhile, Frank, fearful of her flaring temper yet resentful of her power over him, catalogs her flaws—the widening hips, how certain facial expressions make her look old—but to no avail. No matter how much he wants to, Frank can’t talk himself out of the absolute stranglehold April has on his sense of self—that is, his great and abiding love for her.

At least, that’s the state of Frank and April’s marriage at the beginning of the book, when things are going comparatively well.

Then April does something that really terrifies Frank, even more than the threat of her temper. She takes his denunciations of "these damn little suburban types" and his diatribes about "Conformity, or the Suburbs, or Madison Avenue, or American Society Today" at face value. She decides that they should move to France, where she will get a secretarial job and Frank can find himself. They’ll finally be free from the banal routine that just has to be the source of their unhappiness.

It has to be, hasn't it? The picture Yates paints of suburbia is unremittingly bleak. Frank and April’s world, with its houses that look "as foolishly misplaced as a great many bright new toys that have been left outside overnight," is bad, but even more depressing are the Wheelers' attempts to make their existence congenial: the amateur theater endeavor, for example, so paltry, so chintzy—and so small in light of all that is wrong. Even less likely to yield real relief are their only friends, the fawning, insipid Campbells, who offer little but meaningless distraction and the ignoble pleasure of being looked up to. It's a hellish life, or it should be. It certainly is for April, anyway. While Frank drones on with stock talk about Conformity and other clichéd generalities, April's acidic observations have Dorothy Parker-like precision. "I know these damn artsy-crafty things," she said of the theater group initially, before she got talked into participating. "There’ll be of a woman with blue hair and wooden beads who met Max Reinhardt once … and seven girls with bad complexions."

April's unhappiness is real, but Yates, unlike a more sentimental author, doesn’t applaud her daring—her willingness to buck convention and propose escape. Instead, he exposes the foolishness and the self-delusion behind her Paris plan. In a moment of particularly abject misery, April decides that "it"—the whole dreary shebang of suburban family life—is her fault. "I put the whole burden …on you,” she says to Frank. "It was like saying if you want this baby, it’s going to be All Your Responsibility. You're going to have to turn yourself inside out to provide for us. You'll have to give up any idea of being anything in the world but a father." It sounds plausible enough, even if it has little bearing on the messier, more complicated truth. But Yates portrays the glee with which April latched onto her new analysis as part and parcel of the human tendency to self-dramatize: "Her whole day had been a heroic build up for this moment of self-abasement."

Nor does Yates let us forget that April's plan is riddled with holes, something even the affable drunkard who shares a cubicle with Frank can see. (As he says to Frank over lunch, "Assuming there is a true vocation lurking in wait for you, don't you think you’d be as apt to discover it here as there?") It also rests on the assumption that Frank really is cut out for a different kind of life. But whatever it may have been when she met him, Frank’s anti-suburban talk has by this time become a mere gesture, a way of making himself feel sophisticated and being once more in April’s eyes "the most interesting person [she’s] ever met." Frank is not so much lying as he is being insincere. It's as Lionel Trilling observed about Mansfield Park's vivacious Mary Crawford: She is "impersonat[ing] the woman she thinks she ought to be." Likewise, Frank is pretending to be the nonconformist he—and April—want him to be.

The truth is Frank is relatively content in Connecticut. He likes the idea of family life; he likes prattling on to the Campbells; there are aspects of his job that he finds pleasant and even gratifying. Besides he’s not sure he has it in him to do much else other than work at Knox. The vision that comes to mind as April waxes about the virtues of her European plan:

[April] coming from a day a the office—wearing a Parisian tailored suit, briskly pulling off her gloves—coming home and finding him hunched in an egg-stained bathrobe, on an unmade bed, picking his nose.

This, not the supposedly "hopeless emptiness" of middle-class American life, is what really terrifies Frank Wheeler.

But April, having convinced herself that her misery is merely a function of geography, is rapturous about France. And Frank gives in. After all, how much more tantalizing is it to join in April’s euphoric excitement and her breathy account of him as the stifled genius than it is to feel like the dreary mediocrity whose touch she recoils from.

Rarely in literature has there been a second honeymoon quite so chillingly portrayed as the one the Wheelers embark upon after they decide to move to France—that is, decide that they will both embrace the same flattering fantasy of themselves. As unromantic as Emma Bovary’s affairs, it's a sort of mutually masturbatory arrangement that, underneath all the murmured "darlings" and doors held open and nights of passion, is as unstable and as devoid of real tenderness as any described in Game Theory. Because as we know, and Frank only half-suspects, he is more interested in enjoying April’s newly reinstated tenderness and admiration than in going to France.

How this all plays out makes for a deeply disquieting account of modern dysfunction. Not that Revolutionary Road is perfect: It poises uneasily on the brink of satire, wanting to its detriment to have it both ways—the psychological sophistication of realism and the mercilessness of satire, granting nothing to its characters that isn’t either corrosive or affect. It is, undoubtedly, a brutal book.

Still, it’s a great deal bigger and more ambitious than most of the anti-suburban novels it's so often lumped with. In the vein of many a great 20th century novel, Revolutionary Road turns the towering Victorian novels on their heads. Without itself being morally obtuse, it sets up a scenario in which the moral questions that preoccupied those authors are largely beside the point. How much of life, Revolutionary Road reminds us, defies the kind of analysis that parcels out responsibility and blame—and how terrible the realization of that is, because if goodness, or at least its attempt, has so little bearing on happiness, then what can any of us do?

Adelle Waldman is working on a novel called The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.