One of the things that drew me to literary fiction as both a writer and a reader is the deep dives this form of art takes into human psychology, desires, identity, and motivation. Through novels and short stories I was able to cultivate my sense of empathy and at times “see myself” in other characters and through fictional worlds.
One of those worlds is suburbia, where I have lived for more than twenty-five years, reasonably at peace and at times in turmoil. Suburban angst and ennui have proven to be fertile territory for writers, myself included. Both Stash and Clean Break are set primarily in the suburbs and feature conflicted, dissatisfied, and yearning characters (Naturally—otherwise where is the story?).
Recent masters of the suburban novel—Tom Perrotta (Little Children), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides), and Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere)—can trace their subject back to the mid-twentieth century literary lions such as John Updike, John Cheever, and Richard Yates, whose 1961 novel Revolutionary Road might be the archetype of suburban literature.
From its publication, Revolutionary Road was considered a masterpiece, offering an evocative but also desolate portrayal of life in the American suburbs. I read the novel years ago (as well as saw the Sam Mendes film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), and I recently noticed the novel sitting on my bookshelves while I was warming myself in front of a fire. I picked the book up again, thinking I would skim a few pages to stir my memory. I couldn’t put it down.
The story of Frank and April Wheeler in 1955 rings as true today as it must have back then. This is the story of a couple who believe they are destined for something special in life—as might be the case with many young couples—but they end up jaded, angry, and resentful when April becomes pregnant, Frank takes a stultifying office job in the city, and they move to the suburbs of New York to raise their family.
April had aspirations to be an actress, and an early scene of her starring in an awful community theater production highlights how hard that dream has been stomped on. Frank wasn’t sure of his own grand destiny, but “. . . [he] hardly ever entertained a doubt of his own exceptional merit . . . He could even be grateful in a sense that he had no particular area of interest; in avoiding specific goals he had avoided specific limitations.”
Other than the limitation he was not special. Neither of them was. Yet they feel themselves superior to their suburban counterparts, and April hatches a plan that involves Frank quitting his job at Knox Business Machines and the couple moving with their two young children to Paris, where April will get a job to support the family while Frank will have the freedom to “find himself” and discover what he really wants to do with his life.
Pretty noble of April, although she is motivated by her own malaise and hatred for their ordinary suburban life.
The problem with April’s plan is two-fold. First, Frank “was trying to conceal from her, if not from himself, that the plan had instantly frightened him.” He knew deep down he wasn’t anything special, and thought perhaps could fashion a satisfying life as an office and suburban guy, although he could never admit this to April. The second problem is that April becomes pregnant again, and the question of whether she will have the baby or attempt an abortion leads to intense conflict between them and betrayal of each other.
Adding color to the story in an almost Greek-chorus type of way is John Givings, the adult son of the couple who sold the Wheelers their house. John has been institutionalized for a mental disorder and on weekend visits home to his parents, which includes several visits to the Wheelers, his lack of filter exposes the Wheelers’ hypocrisy.
It’s not a pleasant, uplifting story—in fact, it’s a tragedy—but it is rich with meaning and universal themes about our desires and identity. The movie, which came out in 2008, benefits from magnificent acting from DiCaprio and Winslet (resurrected from The Titanic), as well as Kathy Bates, plus scene-stealing performances from one of my favorite actors, Michael Shannon, in his role as John Givings.
Read the Yates novel. Then see the movie. But only if you’ve got the grit to look through such a harsh lens. Such can be the way of art.