The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, September 12, 2002
Can I kick it?

OK, so what have you got to say about the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates? Some of us are waiting.
You only ever seem to drop in when there's no one else around.
I didn't fancy a pint and wasn't keen on watching slow motion collapsing buildings with unctuous Robert De Niro voiceovers.
It's taken me a long time to make my mind up about Revolutionary Road. I'm not sure that I still have.
You didn't like it did you?
The texture of it I do like. Some sequences pierce me deeply. I'm unsure of what Yates was intending, however. Is this a pitiless indictment of two lives wasted and destroyed by compromise, or...
Well why is it always the woman's fault? April Wheeler's the one who has to be sac...
Wait a minute. Not everyone's read this book yet. Start from the beginning.
OK. Revolutionary Road was written in 1961, when Yates was 35. He wrote about eight novels subsequently but none made the same impact. He died in 1992. It's about an unhappily married couple, Frank and April Wheeler, who married too young and too hastily, had a child and have subsequently attempted to live what they perceive to be a "normal" or "interim" life in suburbia until they have the means to live the life they really want.
About Frank Wheeler...
He fought in WW2 and didn't go to college, just like Yates. He says that he nurtures ambitions (literary? poetic?) but has deliberately taken a desk job (in the same firm for which his father worked) which is dull, monotonous and requires minimal mental and physical input. He argues that he will not be there forever, but we know full well that he will be, that really he likes the inertia, he likes not having to think.
Fear that his cover might be blown?
Probably. He can quote from numerous literary and philosophical sources but never demonstrates any evidence of understanding or developing them. He read a lot when he was 19 but doesn't seem to have done so since (in this book they are both about 30). He hates April for imprisoning him with the early child, for not letting him get on with being nothing. I am unsure whether he hates himself even more; my impression is that he doesn't. He is putting on a facade all the time in his social life, with his supposedly bovine neighbours the Campbells, with his secretary Maureen Grube, with whom he inevitably has an affair which equally inevitably ends in tears, with the superficially kind but secretly despairing letting agent, Mrs Givings, and her near-mute husband and psychotic son. Perhaps the only time that he actually is himself is at work. He clearly enjoys playing delay games with the in-tray and "filing cabinet" (bulging bottom drawer of his desk, which he periodically empties into the bin without reading), and when called actually to do some urgent work, manages to deliver the goods and improve his standing in the company (merely by drafting a series of ludicrously cliched manuals). My feeling is that this is what he wants to preserve, this is what he really cares for. Too bad for any other human being who might have the misfortune to care for him.
And what about April?
Same, but the other way round. Driven by a misbegotten need to "fit in" (inevitably the father in her youth is away for long periods of time and hardly ever present, which starts this mental process off) and hating Frank for the same reasons that he hates her, she joins a local amateur dramatics company. In the opening scene of the novel Yates gives us a merciless dissemination of her lacklustre performance in The Petrified Forest, and the possibility that she may count this as a public suicide. Thereafter she is a living ghost. To try to resuscitate her idea of a "good life," she suggests to Frank that they sell up, move to Paris and start a new life. With her secretarial skills, she could earn a good living there, which would leave Frank free to "find" himself and achieve the sort of life which she thinks he wants. Now of course any other young man in his position would probably jump at the idea and start packing straight away, but...
...except of course he is mortified by the proposal.
For two reasons; firstly, this would require him to demonstrate more fully that he loved April, which he doesn't; and secondly, that his cover would be blown and he would eventually be unmasked as a slacker with a nice turn of literary phrase. One imagines that he is completely relieved when April becomes pregnant again...except later on, as the novel progressively darkens, we learn that he doesn't even want this child anyway, although he has made a Herculean effort to persuade her into not aborting it. This proves fatal.
Because April decides to play along with it. She goes past the last date when she could safely abort the child. But arguments recur, everything comes to a head and uncomfortable truths are learned about both of them; on April's part, from her neighbour Shep Campbell, with whom she has a brief consummation, the result of which is that she doesn't know who she is; and on both their parts, from John Givings, the asylum day release ex-maths teacher, who is, predictably, on the mark about their relationship. On the last night they are together, their relationship explodes and is apparently beyond repair.

But on the next morning everything is miraculously restored. April greets Frank warmly with a splendid breakfast, takes what appears to be genuine interest in his work (the company is about to welcome computerisation, an interesting angle which maybe allows the modern reader a hook on which to hang on this story), is very kind and loving, waves him goodbye as he drives off to work. She is still smiling as she returns to do the washing-up, maintaining her smile until every other facial muscle has cracked, until finally she sobs. Then, suddenly, methodically and apparently dispassionately, she makes preparations to self-abort her child, knowing full well that this could kill her...which of course it does. This is the most frightening sequence in the book, more frightening because of its superficial serenity. Like Poltergeist, it scares you most when everything is quiet.
And of course I suppose Frank doesn't die.
Yes and no. Physically he doesn't. There's a very moving section when he has returned home from the hospital, and cannot believe that someone whose presence is still very strong in their house (down to the smell of her dresses in the wardrobe) is in fact dead. He hears the Campbells enter the house to look for him but hides until they have disappeared. Subsequently the story moves to Shep's perspective, a few months later. He thinks of how Frank disappeared, moved back to the city, and then visited a couple of months after April's death; much thinner, talking with evident fake enthusiasm about work prospects and seeing an analyst, even throwing in the cliche that if his wife hadn't left him a note he would have killed himself. Shep knows that Frank didn't have the nerve to do anything like that, but equally knows that he is, to all intents and purposes, dead, as an inquiring and passionate human being. A living death which may be worse than the actual death which April initiated for herself, because he will spend the next 50 years slowly dying of something internal.
Strong stuff.
It certainly is at times. But...
You haven't said much about the other characters yet.
Because they're all caricatures rather than characters. They're drawn so flimsily that you imagine that every one of them is a projection from Frank or April's own minds. The names - Mrs Givings as the leaseholder. His father's sub-Pickwick boss was one Oat Fields. Maureen Grube - the little "other woman" nothing more than an insect. Shep - the faithful dog (and of course the reverse of Frank; high-class family, rebelled against upbringing, became an engineer, lived a blue-collar life, but then re-rebelled back to the sort of life from which he shouldn't have run away in the beginning).
Some of these scenes with others read uncomfortably like screenplay drafts.
Indeed. Their actions and reactions are largely predictable. And I can't buy into the idea of the mentally ill son who of course knows the Real Truth which is unavailable to Ordinary Humanity. The part of John Givings requires several more dimensions than Yates was prepared to give him.
A part which at its best would have required a Brando at his sentiment-free peak. Instead it reads as though it was written for...Michael Parks, or Tony Franciosa.
And the urban Tennessee Williams deal?
Hmmm. Too much unanalysed slapping of the wife. The underlying suspicion that Yates actually sympathised with Frank and detested April.
It was 1961.
It was already five years past Look Back in Anger, which this novel resembles in several intriguing ways. Frank and April are Jimmy Porter and Alison, except in Revolutionary Road Alison really wants to be Helen, if that makes any sense.
I'll have to go and refresh my memory. Speaking of dramatic parallels...
You read my mind. I doubt that my doubts about Revolutionary Road would be quite as concrete without knowing Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? from a few years later. Here everything is garrotted down to brutal essentials. Failings are out in the open, wounds are gladly chewed over.
That's not really the point of Revolutionary Road, though. Here it's to do with what happens when emotions are kept from coming out in the open and emotional wounds left untreated.
Indeed. The book has too much power in it to be dismissed. That closing section cut me to the quick the first time I read it. What Frank turned into after April's death seemed to me to be so much like what I turned into, or thought I had turned into. Hiding from grief.
You wouldn't have had the guts to kill yourself either.
I wouldn't be so sure about that. September-November last year was a difficult time in lots of ways, as have the last 12 months in general. It's a last resort when every other coping mechanism has failed.
Is The Church of Me a coping mechanism?
One's life has to be justified somehow.

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