Rev Road – JE's take

By | on April 8, 2009 | 9 Comments

Jonathan Evison: Recently, DH commented on my inclination to read books which, whether due to their style, approach, subject matter, or otherwise, dwell outside of my comfort zone as a writer and a human being. Revolutionary Road is such a book. Being doggedly optimistic (as I have every reason to be), I’m not a big fan of realism, which I find in many cases to be little more than plain old pessimism dressed up fashionably in black or gray flannel. That said, Revolutionary Road is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.

Yates writes with a precision that inspires and humbles. Rarely, in my thirty-odd years of voracious book consumption have I tasted such incisive, artfully wrought prose. While Yates writes with little of Faulkner’s bombast, none of Joyce’s playfulness, or Nabokov’s smugness, and only a hint of Fitzgerald’s silkiness, I consider the writing in Revolutionary Road to be of the order and magnitude of the aforementioned wordsmiths. The effect can be downright suffocating, like reading underwater—and indeed, Yates’ language reads like water. This, more than anything else, is the reason why the recent Mendes adaptation fell flat for me. In spite of spot-on performances and scrupulous adherence to the text, cinematography simply cannot achieve the effect of language. Books can do things films cannot (yeah, yeah, I know, vice versa). Lovely cinematography (too lovely, in fact), cannot match the aching precision of Yates’ prose for the sheer suffocating effect of the Wheeler’s despair, as it fails by virtue of its very approach, to capture the interior lives of Frank and April. Yes, Leo does a mean chin-quiver, and Kate is masterful in the art of looking emotionally bereft, but neither can match the nuance, depth, and overall virtuosity of Yates’ prose.

I’ve got the Easter Parade sitting around here in one of my stacks, and I’m excited to dig in!


9 Responses to “Rev Road – JE's take”

  1. April 8, 2009

    James P. Othmer Reply

    Easter Parade’s a good next choice. Mixed results after that. Blake Bailey’s bio had some interesting insight into the creation of April. I’d always thought Yates related most to Frank, but while writing it he referred to her as “the me character”, and a case could be made that she was far more trapped than Frank in the hopeless emptiness.

  2. April 8, 2009

    Jonathan Evison Reply

    . . .jim-bob, we must discuss this further over beers (you’re buying-ha!) . . . i have this image of yates life as being somewhat like fred exely’s or john berrymore’s . . .a lot of damage and despair . . .

  3. April 8, 2009

    Jonathan Evison Reply

    . . .oops, i meant berryman, the poet . . .

  4. April 8, 2009

    Martyn Conterio Reply

    I felt the movie was a little flat too…I also think the two actors got in the way…it was never Frank and April Wheeler shouting at each other, but Winslet and Di Caprio…their fame got in the way of the anonymity of the Wheelers. In the book…they think they’re special and apart from everybody else living their lives…but they’re just the same sad suburbanites as everybody else living off lost dreams…and unreal future lives.
    I read Yates’ book a few years ago…maybe two years ago…as I was reading it, it felt like a classic American text…the film seems to be stressing its own importance…but gets bogged down by a weak script (did the screenwriter really understand Yates book?)
    At least it wasn’t the movie version of ‘Ask the Dust’…now there was a bad movie…and from one of my all-time favourite books.
    Literary adaptations often fail because they don’t understand how different the text can be transformed in an individual readers mind…so they, indeed, lose that individuality…the film version is just Winslet yelling at Di Caprio…and they used that gimmick of casting another Titanic castaway…Kathy Bates…another distraction.
    Revolutionary Road is a classic 20th Century text…the film version is just that…a film version…with more failings than the source material.

  5. April 8, 2009

    Jonathan Evison Reply

    . . . dig your take, mart . . .

  6. April 8, 2009

    Rob Jackson Reply

    Madame Bovary is the literary parent of Revolutionary Road. Also, in many ways RR is to WWII what Gatsby was to the WWI generation and I think should be in the conversation of great books right along side those classics.

    Easter Parade is not on the level of RR but still is a very good book.

  7. April 8, 2009

    Jonathan Evison Reply

    . . . interesting point about bovary, rob . . . a friend recently pointed out to me that sinclair lewis’s ‘main street’ might be considered the american forefather of rev road . . .

  8. April 10, 2009

    Iron Duke Reply

    I read somewhere that Yates used to write for, on average, seventeen hours a day, so it’s little wonder that his prose is as exact as you state. I’ve pulled a few stints in which I wrote for as much as thirty hours straight, but they were very few and far between.

    Oh, and for what it’s worth (which is surely nothing), I despised American Beauty as I’ve hated almost no other movie, ever, so I couldn’t have been dragged to see Mendes’ RR at the point of a machete. Thanks for the retroactive confirmation.

  9. April 10, 2009

    Anonymous Reply

    The notorious Fiction Files gang threw RevRo down before me a few months ago in somewhat of a challenge – Jimmy Pat being the force behind all of this I am sure, with his tales of ferrying Mr. Yates around from Manhattan water hole to Manhattan water hole – and the lead-up did not disappoint. I was blown away by the writing. I’m like you Jono; I don’t take kindly to tales of depression and woe. It’s been done. If the suburbs are a wasteland, then hitchhike out of there and quit your whining.

    But Yates’ can write one sweet, elegant paragraph. He makes it look so easy. I think your comparison to F. Scott probably the most appropriate; just plain silky prose. But it is not only the economy of words, it is the economy of episode and lack of wasted plot, gesture, image. I just wonder what it would be to write like that, so decisively, for any stretch of time.

    I’m currently reading his _Disturbing The Peace_. I am going to read _Easter Parade_ when I am in the time and place for something excellent, and I thoroughly expect it to be. Purposefully chose one of his lesser works, from the ‘70’s no less, to get a sense of him on a bad day. At least I am kind of hoping for a bad day from him. Too much more of RevRo’s level of excellence would make me have to go back and reconsider a lot of previous conclusion about how the world works.


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