Cellophane Bag; ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Richard Yates

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.”George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara

Every so often, as confused 20-somethings do, I contemplate my existence – how different it is from the way I planned. I never had a career in mind for when I grew up and I am still not entirely sure what I am able to do now, but I always had an idea of where I wanted be. Sadly I have not completed a PHD, I am not living in London, and I am definitely not a genius; so much for my 13 year-old self’s dreams. These goals/desires/assumptions on reflection were rather unrealistic (I do not have the attention span to achieve a PHD) yet in their beautiful simplicity they allow me to wonder what I could be doing now and how I can change.

Hailed as a masterpiece from its first publication, Revolutionary Road is the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a bright young couple who are bored by the banalities of suburban life and long to be extraordinary. With heartbreaking compassion and clarity, Richard Yates shows how Frank and April’s decision to change their lives for the better leads to betrayal and tragedy.Goodreads

From the moment of its publication in 1961, Revolutionary Road was hailed as a masterpiece of realistic fiction and as the most evocative portrayal of the opulent desolation of the American suburbs. It’s the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a bright, beautiful, and talented couple who have lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner. With heartbreaking compassion and remorseless clarity, Richard Yates shows how Frank and April mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying not only each other, but their best selves.Goodreads

Initially it was easy to relate to the Wheelers, our protagonists, trapped in their suburban bubble, when they would give anything to live a more philosophical, free thinking, bohemian lifestyle. There is nothing more horrifying than suburban life; evil and all-knowing and tight nit and bitchy, neighbours gossip and everyone knows your business. Yet as the novel progresses my initial respect quickly turned to disdain; Frank and April are unrealistically idealistic, forgetting and avoiding their responsibilities. They follow a lifestyle plan they despise and constantly act at doing what is expected of them, when called on this hypocrisy they are armed with excuses for their compliance.

There was not one character in Revolutionary Road that was anything but naive, unreasonable, bitchy or flighty. I thoroughly enjoyed Yates’ characterisation, I enjoyed being annoyed at these fools, I questioned my own views and judgements; it was marvellous. April Wheeler was my main aggravation, a woman who constantly makes excuses for her actions. April claims she acts for the benefit of others/Frank, yet her bullshit very visibly skims the surface of her real emotions. Later in the novel, moments before she ‘seduces’ Shep Campbell, April speaks wistfully about life passing her by and while I understood her sadness the chip on her shoulder and ‘woe is me’ attitude disrupted any possibility of me feeling sympathetic. April carefully words her sentences; on the surface she appears to accept blame for the life she leads, however, on closer inspection her ‘speeches’ are laced with double meanings, placing the blame on others.

“She didn’t really want to talk; not to him [Shep], anyway. All she wanted was to sound off, to make herself feel better by playing at being wistful and jaded, and she had elected him as her audience.”Shep, Revolutionary Road

With my distaste for April seeded at the very beginning of Revolutionary Road, Frank Wheeler was at first my only sane companion. Faced with his unreliable narration, I initially admired his tolerance of April and accepted his affair with Maureen as a necessity. However, as the book progressed my feelings for Frank evolved and my rose tinted glasses faded away. When Norma, Maureen’s flat-mate, called Frank out on his actions (demanding he should take responsibility for his affair and effect on Maureen) I could have shouted for joy! Frank constantly fails to take responsibility for his actions in any segment of his life; he makes no effort at work, he does not work at his marriage, he does not care about April’s needs and neither he nor April take responsibility for their children; unwanted accessories disrupting the Wheeler’s lives. By the end of the novel Frank is a broken man, but not any better for it, just another version of a failed husband and father.

Aside from flawed characters, there is a constant battle between free thought and the closed thought of the suburban lifestyle; while (I like to think) I am a supporter of philosophical thought, Frank and April’s cavalier attitude towards the aspects of their life which do not conform to this lifestyle left me judgemental. John Givings represents this battle between city and suburban thought perfectly; as an ‘insane’ and damaged character he praises the Wheelers for their non-conformity and then berates them for switching to a conformist mind set. Initially the Wheelers attitudes are that of a crazed insane man, then change to the rational/repressed side of the elder Mr and Mrs Givings; the idealistic young life style is therefore represented as frivolous, to be locked away and banished from the realms of people settling down to marry and have children.

As ‘revolutionary’ as Frank and April Wheeler claim to be they are still incredibly stuck within their gender rolls – Frank is easily emasculated by April mowing the lawn or sorting paperwork for the move to Paris, while April is trapped in motherhood without birth control. Revolutionary Road is a fantastic book; it keeps you thinking, motivated and hungry for the next chapter, read it!

“You know what this is like, April? Talking like this?? The whole idea of taking off to Europe this way?” […] “it’s like coming out of a cellophane bag. It’s like having been encased in some kind of cellophane for years without knowing it, and suddenly breaking out.”Frank, Revolutionary Road

Arrested Development; ‘The Sun Also Rises’ by Ernest Hemingway

“The… the other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,” and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.”Alvy Singer, Annie Hall [1977]

There are two things Alvy Singer and I have in common; incoherent verbal diarrhoea and an inexplicable need to reject anyone who actually shows interest. We do not want to be part of clubs who would have us as members. This I reserve specially for relationships; show the slightest bit of romantic interest and I will be over the other side of the room staring longingly at the man calling me a bitch before you can blink. There are psychological reasons for this – I’ve not gone into them; however I usually (eventually) realise when I make a romantic cockup, so I have at least got a list of all the ways in which I am going wrong. Sometimes I improve, other times I do my Alvy Singer impression, it is pretty hit and miss.

Watching Alvy tumble through Annie Hall made me think of the dilemmas The Sun Also Rises explores, of the lovelorn Cohn and exasperated Jake. Before I go on to make a fair few criticisms of this novel, I would like to state that I absolutely loved it. It is one of the best stories I have read this year if not in my lifetime. Beautifully written, it kept me engaged, made me angry and most importantly, made me want to write.

On the surface the novel is a love story between the protagonist Jake Barnes—a man whose war wound has made him impotent—and the promiscuous divorcée Lady Brett Ashley. Brett’s affair with Robert Cohn causes Jake to be upset and break off his friendship with Cohn; her seduction of the 19-year-old matador Romero causes Jake to lose his good reputation among the Spaniards in Pamplona. The novel is a roman à clef; the characters are based on real people and the action is based on real events. In the novel, Hemingway presents his notion that the “Lost Generation”, considered to have been decadent, dissolute and irretrievably damaged by World War I, was resilient and strong. Additionally, Hemingway investigates the themes of love, death, renewal in nature, and the nature of masculinity.Wiki

I arrived at this novel from a slightly odd angle, having read The Paris Wife earlier in the year. With it being a Roman à clef I felt as if I already knew the events Hemingway based The Sun Also Rises on; I recognised the character’s real life counterparts, and from this prior knowledge I expected to dislike the novel.A Roman à clef is a based on real events and/or people Hadley, Hemingway’s wife, and their son are not characters in The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway bases this tale on his infatuation with Lady Duff, and his anger and frustration at what had or was happening with Harold Loeb.

However, I found Hadley and their son in this novel. They are represented in Jake’s impotence, one of the many reasons Jake and Brett are apart. Each character, even Jake, are childish self absorbed fools living in a bubble of alcohol and money, blocking out any ill consequences. The whole novel reminded me of Evenlyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, a critical fiction of the 20s bright young things. Jake calls Cohn a case of ‘arrested development’, yet this is not singular to Cohn, you see it in every character, in every bright young thing of Hemingway’s lost generation.Arrested Development is a state in which development has stopped prematurely Similar to the original celebrities of today, with a warped understanding of the value of money and a hedonistic need to enjoy the pleasures of life.

Hemingway’s attempts at being critical of his characters feels bitter and self indulgent. He mocks his friends, giving him an air of pettiness and attention seeking. Jake, the moral centre of the novel, is preachy and should be held as accountable as the rest of the characters he debases. Hemingway’s admiration or obsession with Lady Duff, shines through in Brett’s ability to be loved wherever she goes; any other woman faces far more scrutiny, for example Kitty Cannell as Francis, Cohn’s controlling girlfriend.Harold Loeb’s girlfriend before his affair with Lady Duff

Anti-Semitism is a key theme throughout The Sun Also Rises. Cohn, intended to be the ‘bad’ guy, was a figure of sympathy. I felt for Cohn, a character I should be disliking; while he is a fool he is purposefully segregated predominantly for circumstances outside of his control. I grew to disapprove of Jake, for his inconsistency and hatred towards Cohn. His narrative I found flawed and untrustworthy, mostly due to his biases. While my attitude is a product of the time in which I am reading, where anti-Semitism is definitely not okay, Cohn is clearly separated by race and you cannot help but feel for his predicament. Jake’s impotence leaves him lacking a Y chromosome; he flops along through the novel pathetically. Every male character Brett begins an affair with is a virile and manly, characteristics Jake lacks and is clearly threatened by. Jake uses Cohn’s Judaism to make up for his impotence; he is unable to match Cohn in any other way. Ultimately the only difference I found between Jake and Cohn is that Cohn makes a show of his emotions and Jake cannot (or does not) express his.

On a less critical note, Hemingway’s modernist writing style is fantastic; I enjoyed the lack of overly descriptive writing. Hemingway does not litter his prose with metaphors, describing everything as it is, writing without patronising.

I have found a lot to discuss in The Sun Also Rises, but this does not mean I have not enjoyed it. A novel that insights this much thought is fantastic, I do not encounter a book like this often. I strongly recommend you pick up a Hemingway and give it a go, it may surprise you how much you enjoy it.