The Dim-Post

December 2, 2013

Notes on Revolutionary Road

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 7:03 pm

I just finished reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I thought it was great! But I also think this one star review on Amazon is pretty great:

I don’t want to read a boring book about a miserable, bored couple. Already living that life.

- Hope, a reader from San Diego, California.

Sorry to hear that, Hope.

The book cover and the introduction both promised me that Revolutionary Road was about the perils of conformity and the evils of suburban middle-class existence, and the introduction included quotes from the author to substantiate that thesis. But the book isn’t about those things at all! The main characters hate the suburbs and middle-class life, sure, but the main characters are miserable, vain, hopelessly confused people. What the book is really about – I think – is performance. How we play roles to impress people, and get them to like us, and those roles can end up trapping us; forcing us to become people we aren’t, and live lives we don’t even want. And it’s about vanity: so often we convince ourselves that we’re special; better than everyone else, so surely we must do something extraordinary with our lives! But what? The characters in Revolutionary Road don’t know. There’s a bitter comic thread running all the way through: people keep suggesting to the self-loathing, drifting main character that since he doesn’t know what to do with his life he should become a writer.

Bonus Richard Yates trivia: Larry David dated Yates’ daughter and went out to dinner with the great man who he described as utterly terrifying. He based an episode of Seinfeld on the experience.

There’s a film adaptation of Revolutionary Road that I have no desire to see: but I did like this description of Leonardo DiCaprio’s method acting chops:

DiCaprio prepared for the role by watching several documentaries about the 1950s and the origin of suburbs

Next up on the reading list: Justine by Lawrence Durrell.

Update: One other point about Revolutionary Road: it was obviously a huge, huge influence on Jonathan Franzen. Like, Franzen’s books are basically contemporary Richard Yates novels, only not as well written. I had a similar experience earlier this year when I read T H White’s The Once and Future King series and realised that a lot of what I liked from Lev Grossman’s Magician books and Harry Potter were flat-out copied out of White’s novels. There should be a neologism for that: when you read an older, less well-known text and discover that it’s been looted by a celebrated contemporary writer.

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16 Comments »

  1. I hope you are reading not just Justine, but the entire Alexandria Quartet. They are linked novels, looking at overlapping events from the view points primarily of the four titular characters of each of the novels.

    Comment by David in Chch — December 2, 2013 @ 7:43 pm

  2. “What the book is really about – I think – is performance. How we play roles to impress people, and get them to like us, and those roles can end up trapping us; forcing us to become people we aren’t, and live lives we don’t even want. And it’s about vanity: so often we convince ourselves that we’re special; better than everyone else, so surely we must do something extraordinary with our lives! But what?”

    Pretty much nails every ‘look at my perfect life’ social media sycophant in the modern age

    Comment by max — December 2, 2013 @ 8:46 pm

  3. Maybe after 4 billion years evolution has peaked and humanity is degenerating into a society of trolls revolving around Mac Donalds , KFC and Walmart and the like.
    The human race could have peaked in the days of Mozart and Beethoven in spite of all the advancement of modern life. Probably the future of the internet will
    be the deciding factor.

    Comment by bosun — December 2, 2013 @ 8:59 pm

  4. @3 bosun

    Evolution does not peak.

    Evolution evolves,

    Environments change.

    Species adapt or die.

    Nothing too difficult in that to understand in that I trust?

    Comment by peterlepaysan — December 2, 2013 @ 11:04 pm

  5. >Pretty much nails every ‘look at my perfect life’ social media sycophant in the modern age

    Pretty much nails most people I’ve met. Few people are honest about their problems, and they’re seldom admired for being so.

    >Maybe after 4 billion years evolution has peaked

    Nah. It’s accelerating. That’s the most difficult thing to deal with.

    >people keep suggesting to the self-loathing, drifting main character that since he doesn’t know what to do with his life he should become a writer.

    Yes, put the misery to some use. Even Hope is doing her little bit.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — December 2, 2013 @ 11:56 pm

  6. Looking back at 50’s middle class America it has more the appearance of extraordinary privilege.

    Was the supposed sterility of those consumerist suburbs any more soul destroying than the self-regarding vanity of the urban intellectuals?

    Comment by NeilM — December 3, 2013 @ 6:17 am

  7. An intellectual indeed, Neil. Don’t be so self-loathing though. Or perhaps do.

    Comment by Judge Holden — December 3, 2013 @ 6:31 am

  8. The city library also has his 1962 short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which is definitely worth a read. Impressively gloomy title makes the reader look deep, too, so be sure to brandish it prominently on the bus.

    Comment by Ethan Tucker — December 3, 2013 @ 7:22 am

  9. Who ever supposes that self-regarding intellectual vanity of the urban strain isn’t anything but a passport to an absolutely smashing time?

    Comment by Sanctuary — December 3, 2013 @ 8:11 am

  10. Nice to see Leo’s done his research. Wonder if he watched documentaries about boat building before Titanic.

    Comment by nw — December 3, 2013 @ 8:35 am

  11. Richard Yates, Richard Ford, Johnathon Franzen, Gillian Flynn ; It’s griim stuff but I, for one , can’t get enough of it.

    Comment by Eric Whiting — December 3, 2013 @ 9:17 am

  12. Ahem. Ever going to tell us what happened with Infinite Jest?

    Comment by Donna — December 3, 2013 @ 9:28 am

  13. Track down his Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Great short story writer.

    Comment by Bill — December 3, 2013 @ 11:29 am

  14. >Was the supposed sterility of those consumerist suburbs any more soul destroying than the self-regarding vanity of the urban intellectuals?

    In both there were people who liked it and people who didn’t. Urban intellectualism is much easier to escape than the suburbs, so I’d have to presume that the burbs have more influence on general levels of happiness. Anyone who felt/feels crushed by the existence of urban intellectuals is going to do so no matter where they are, since they clearly don’t have the simple wherewithal to just disassociate, and are locked in by their own psychological issues. But moving out of the burbs is pretty difficult when that’s where all the housing and jobs are.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — December 3, 2013 @ 11:31 am

  15. Don’t be so shallow. The history of suburbs is interesting and important.

    Comment by grant — December 3, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

  16. Heaven is not built of country seats
    But little queer suburban streets

    Christopher Morley, To the Little House.

    Comment by Joe W — December 3, 2013 @ 10:03 pm


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