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.