The shards of shattered lives
(A longer version of this piece appeared in Mint Lounge on February 28. Read it here. )
Revolutionary Road, the acclaimed Sam Mendes film with a terrific, performance from Kate Winslet, will release in India on Friday.
I’m not sure how many people will go to watch the film, but I hope a lot of people do. That’s not because I am a great fan of the movie. It’s because I am hoping that if the film does well commercially here, it might do something for the reputation of Richard Yates, the novelist (now dead for 17 years) on whose 1961 masterpiece the film is based.
Revolutionary Road was published when Yates was 35 years old. It was his first novel. On the face of it, it is the story of how the lives of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple living in a western Connecticut suburb, fall apart.
It is unremittingly bleak and nihilistic, dealing with the themes that are at the heart of all Yates’s work: delusion, deception, thwarted ambition, claustrophobia, broken dreams, the shards of shattered lives. Now, to tie in with the movie, all of Yates’s work has been re-issued by Vintage in the UK. All the books are available in India.
Revolutionary Road is Yates’s finest novel but to get a measure of just how fine it is, it needs to be put in context.
Kurt Vonnegut called it “The Great Gatsby of my time”. Richard Ford wrote in 2001 in an influential essay on the 40th anniversary of the novel’s publication: “To invoke it enacts a sort of cultural-literary secret handshake among its devotees”. And it was the basis on which the renowned playwright David Hare said Yates, more than Saul Bellow, John Updike or Philip Roth, “belongs with Fitzgerald and Hemingway as the three unarguably great American novelists of the 20th century”.
As with all writers whose greatest book is their first, Yates was as much made as unmade by Revolutionary Road. But he has always had his fans. It’s a heavy-hitters’ club: William Styron, Vonnegut, Julian Barnes, Nick Hornby, Richard Ford and Joan Didion are among its card-carrying members.
Born in 1926 in upstate New York, Yates’s childhood was defined by the sort of misery and loneliness that underscores his work. The impulse of fiction, he had once said, is always autobiographical, although the facts never are.
Yates served in the US Army during World War II. He then worked as a publicity writer for the Remington Rand Corporation. He married twice; both marriages broke up. He had three daughters, the relationship with whom figures again and again in his work.
While in his job at Remington — and while becoming a full-blown alcoholic — he wrote <Revolutionary Road>. He left his job soon after, but remained resolutely devoted to the drinking. And to the writing. But he never achieved the success that his peers did.
Towards the end of his life, living alone in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he was known to suck alternately on his oxygen mask and his cigarette.
When he died broken and embittered in 1992, his work — and his reputation — had been consigned to the cobwebbed recesses of remainderdom. It is hard to tell precisely why this happened. But it is likely that literary trends and public mood left Yates behind.
The avant-garde writing and postmodern high jinks of later decades overtook his despair-filled realism. And at a time when the hope of the great American dream being realised by living the great American life to its fullest was incandescent, his cynicism and unabashed nihilism did not tap into the public mood.
If Updike, who mined the same territory of suburban foibles and love, was the theme’s lyric poet, Yates was its beady-eyed doomsayer. That did not seem particularly alluring.
But genius tends to get its due — even if sometimes it takes very long. Ford was critical in starting a revival of sorts with his magnificent essay on Revolutionary Road in the New York Times Book Review in 2001.
Word spread, and other renowned writers — some of them reading Yates for the first time — weighed in. Within a couple of years, Metheun had brought out in paperback some of Yates’s work, including Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade.
When you watch the film, don’t watch it to get a sense of what Yates’s writing could offer. With an unblinking eye that missed nothing, an ear that was always alert to the cadences of speech and a restrained-yet-lyrical, artfully artless style, Yates is impossible to do justice in a film. As the poet Nick Laird points out, “the stuff leaks subtlety in its transference” from page to screen.
So the movie is no measure of the book’s greatness. “To write so well and then to be forgotten is a terrifying legacy,” the American novelist Stewart O’Nan wrote of Yates. At least now, with the high-profile movie and the much-publicised re-issue of the books from Vintage, Yates’s work is, with luck, finally set to reach a wider audience.