Frank and April Wheeler are masters of self-deception: they’re only happy when they fool themselves into believing that they are other than they are. Sadly for them, reality comes crashing in on a regular basis and the masks come off and they see themselves as the very ordinary people they are, and not as the special people they want to be.
The author, Richard Yates, is a fiendish torturer armed with a fine-bladed scalpel. His victim is mid century America, laid out on the table, and Yates wants to probe and find out what’s inside. He gives his victim occasional respite, to make the next round of torment all the more exquisite. He peels back the layers of appearance and self-indulgent fantasy that his main characters engage in, and in the end makes them face up to reality.
At no time in this novel do you ‘identify’ with Frank and April; but if you’re honest you won’t condemn them - they do their best, and if that’s not much, it’s probably as much as you or I can manage. Their downfall is their inability to keep their self-image aligned with their actual condition. They just can’t seem to bear very much reality.
The one truly honest character in this novel is a paranoid schizophrenic, John Givings, the adult son of an acquaintance. Yates gives him the role of jester, speaking truth that everyone is (or ought to be) aware of, but that nobody else has the courage to speak.
There’s no happy ending (and I hope that’s not a spoiler - if you get through the first 20 pages and expect there to be a happy ending, well, there’s no hope for you), and no justice either. This is not a morality play nor a call to action. It’s simply a hard-eyed look at married life in suburbia.
After writing the above I read a dozen or twenty of the other reviews of this novel on goodreads. I guess we mostly agree that this is in some way an indictment, or at least an investigation, of ‘suburbia’. But that makes me wonder what it is, exactly, about suburbia that supposedly leads to the shallowness / emptiness / dullness or whatever it is that is so terribly awful about suburban life. Having lived in a metropolitan city center, in a small town, and in various suburban and periurban towns and neighborhoods, I’m a bit skeptical about the horrors of suburban life. “No matter where you go, there you are”, as they say. Living 5 blocks from symphony hall, 4 live theater venues, half a dozen movie theaters, 20 pubs, lounges, bars, and restaurants, and 3 art galleries - none of that is in itself enriching. In fact, after the novelty wears off, the crowds, the noise, the piss-stained sidewalks, the panhandlers and hookers, all become enervating and you long for a different way of living.
Suburbia has been criticized for creating social isolation. There’s something to that, to be sure. But is it really different in the city center? Running into your neighbor in the foyer of your downtown condo building is scarcely more likely than running into your neighbor as you walk out to your suburban driveway. Social isolation seems more a function of the peripatetic way of life that has developed with the end of industrialization and the need for so many of us to move from one place to another to find decent employment. That, together with the general decline in effective mass organizations such as unions, seems a better explanation for our isolation than any supposed ill effects of suburbanization.
I lived for a few years on a street in Minnesota where some of the residents had lived for more than 50 years. They knew each other; they were friends as well as neighbors. There was no sign of social isolation, other than the usual Minnesota reticence. So - what was so terrible about that?
Overall I suspect that the widespread contempt for suburbia that began in the 50s had a lot to do with the fact that for the first time in 30 years (or ever, really) a majority of people had peace and a fair degree of prosperity and wanted to settle down to quiet (boring) lives, and they did it in suburbs. Much of the exodus from the cities was driven by racism, I’m sure, and made possible by the daft transportation policies of the Eisenhower years; but the desire for a better life, and the very real possibility of attaining it was in itself nothing to be contemptuous of.
Maybe the contempt for suburbia arises from the fact that if you move to the suburbs and buy a house, suddenly you’re part of the propertied class (in a small way). You have to conform, because you can’t afford to lose your job. You become conservative, you begin to identify with the ruling class despite the fact that the ruling class is robbing you blind. Maybe in that sense you would be better off living in a cramped urban apartment, paying rent: at least then you can more easily recognize the class enemy, and so you can more easily feel and express solidarity with your peers. Maybe.
Or maybe it was simply that, for the first time, a great many people had gone to college and began to realize that there is a big world out there and began to believe that they were capable of great things - not realizing that in any generation only a small percentage of people are actually able to do great things, because the standard of greatness rises with greater participation. And that disconnect between what they thought they could achieve and what they (we!) actually achieved led to the sort of angst and self-loathing that we see in Revolutionary Road.
I just don’t know.