Word Porn: ‘Revolutionary Road’ (1961)

The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accomodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt sillhouttes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves. . . “

After I first finished Revolutionary Road, I launched the book across the room and into a box of outgoing mail. This was a few summers ago. I was working as a clerical assistant at a local Elementary school, and had read the book cover-to-cover during a particularly slow week. While I may not have had much to do in the way of work, Yates’ immensely troubling and compulsively readable first novel made sure it was one of the most stressful weeks of my summer. 

There’s real dread here. Moreover, there’s a sense from the characters that speaking directly about the existential terror facing their dewy dreams of American escapism will somehow render the horror irreversible. As a result, reading Yates’ muscular dialogue becomes an experience not unlike navigating a minefield. This is equal parts literary retrospection (see: Hemingway, Chekhov) and prediction (see: Carver). Whatever it is —  a classic Fitzgeraldian opus or modernist masterwork —  the fact remains that Revolutionary Road is undeniably American, and that’s an important thing to consider.

“We marvel at its consummate writerliness,” Richard Ford writes in his introduction to the second Vintage Contemporaries edition, “at its almost simple durability as a purely made thing of words that defeats all attempts at classification. Realism, naturalism, social satire — the standard critical bracketry — all go begging before this splendid book.” And I think he’s right, not simply by virtue of the book’s greatness, but on the grounds that it is close to impossible to truly encapsulate the novel’s mastery with those critical staples. It’s melodramtic, but it’s not a pastiche; it’s satirical, but the objects of its satire are too large and numerous for the novel to really be considered “pointed” in any way; it’s truly tragic, but with enough textual distance that its tragic elements never take center stage in the authorial spotlight.    

Everyone owes it to themselves to pick up this criminally unread novel. If not, then at least check out Sam Mendez’s adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, playing now in select cities. I won’t get to see it until Friday, but if the American Beauty director’s last feature – 2006’s haunting Jarhead – is any indication of the direction in which he’s headed, then sign me up.  

– Jezy

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