By Penelope Przekop
Last week I had the opportunity to take a 12-hour road trip across Texas with my 66-year-old mother. She talked a lot about the way things used to be when she was growing up in the 1950s. She enjoyed going on about how everyone was so much more polite, well-groomed, and decent. I was surprised to hear that my grandmother required my mom and her siblings to make their beds when they stayed in hotels.
My mother graduated from high school in 1960. Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road was published in 1961.
Ironically, I was getting this earful about life in the ’50s just as I was finishing Yates’ novel. Flying back to Philly from Dallas, I thought about the perfect picture of domestication my mother grew up with, and how she still wishes life could be that way. Truth be told, she wishes I could be that way. (Confession: I rarely make the beds in my own home much less hotels.) I also considered what I’d like to say about Revolutionary Road. Another detail swirling in my head was the fact that I finally read a novel officially categorized as Chick Lit just prior to reading Revolutionary Road. It was Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess. One word to describe my reaction: disappointed. Of course, lots of folks buy Kinsella’s novels, and I admit that her work, along with the rest of successful Chick Lit, has its place on the shelf, and probably on sandy beaches everywhere. But I take the word literature seriously … maybe too seriously. Before my first Chick Lit experience, I assumed these books were for hip, intelligent women who love literature. Isn’t literature supposed to mean something more than hot embraces, palatial homes, awesome shoes, and perfect endings filled with train station embraces? If not, than I was an official chick at eleven. That was the fateful year I discovered the thrill of the harlequin romance. My love lasted about four months—the amount of time it took me to figure out the formula and lose interest. Now that I’m a woman who can bring home some sort of bacon, I want what I’ve decided to call, Wit Lit. And yes, Wit Lit can appeal to men as well because although we’re apparently from different planets, we share good ole’ human nature in all its simple and fascinating complexity—the very element Yates tapped into when he wrote Revolutionary Road in 1961. Yates’ novel qualifies as Wit Lit because it’s 20-21th century literature that brilliantly provokes relevant, close-to-home thought in the reader. The fact that it was written in 1961 is significant in that the particular questions Yates poses were unexpected and bold within the context of my mother’s graduating class. These American kids were poised to waltz out into the world and set up houses with nice white picket fences, swing sets, and husbands who wore suits to work while the girls stayed home and baked to ensure the home smelled yummy for hubby’s return. Yates gave them something to think about, and he gives us something to think about today. Thus another criterion for Wit Lit: timeless. In Revolutionary Road, Yates masterfully uses the one certifiably crazy character, John Givings, to deliver truth to a bunch of neighborhood chicks and dudes who, despite their wonderful, intelligent qualities, find themselves caught in the cultural quagmire of the 1950’s my mother so misses. This crazy guy, John, seems to have much to give, however lacking the acceptable 1950’s social skills, he’s been wheeled out of town to an institution. His parents define him as unstable and ill, yet Yates never provides facts to support why he’s been classified this way. John actually seems to know what he’s talking about in a room full of people struggling to put up all the kinds of fronts that maintain the perfect picture John has escaped.
The Wheelers and main characters, Frank and April, have much to offer to each other, their children, and themselves, but they can’t seem to pull past bitter disappointment as they fail to physically escape the Norman Rockwell life they’ve been pressured to emulate. Yates brilliantly casts an inner pallor over the white picket fences, swing sets, yummy smells, and pressed suits of that stifling world. Frank and April aptly recognize that pallor yet fail to grasp the magnitude of choices within their reach. Frank describes the culture he longs to escape like this: ”Christ’s sake, when it comes to any kind of a showdown we’re still in the Middle Ages. It’s as if everyone’d made this tacit agreement to live in a state of total self-deception. The hell with reality! Let’s have a whole bunch of cute little winding and cute little houses painted white and pink and baby blue; let’s all be good consumers and have a lot of Togetherness and bring our children up in a bath of sentimentality–Daddy’s a great man because he makes a living, Mummy’s a great woman because she’s stuck by Daddy all these years–and if old reality ever does pop out and say Boo we’ll all get busy and pretend it never happened.” However, reality is all around Frank. He falls prey to the sad unreality he longs to escape through his inability to honestly express himself in nearly all his relationships. He describes his work like this: “I mean the great advantage of a place like Knox is that you can sort of turn off your mind every morning at nine and leave it off all day, and nobody knows the difference,” yet he misses opportunities to tap into his intellect at Knox because he’s blinded by his own ideas of escape. The fate of those on Yates’ Revolutionary Road shows that revolution comes from within. It doesn’t matter what town, road, or home you live in. Yates deftly relays how revolutionary moments, decisions, and actions can be missed if we fail to look inward rather than outward. Interestingly, another character, the Wheeler’s neighbor, Shep Campbell, grew up in the sort of high-brow intellectual, arty world to which the Wheelers long to escape. Ironically, Shep spent his younger adult years desperate to break out of that particular mold by settling himself into the cookie cutter world of Revolutionary Road. He comes to realize that he doesn’t want to live on the street either—thus we see another character searching outward rather than inward. In one cool Chick versus Wit moment of the novel, John Givings says to Frank, “I like your girl, Wheeler … I get the feeling she’s female. You know what the difference between female and feminine is? Huh? Well, here’s a hint: a feminine woman never laughs out loud and always shaves her armpits. Old Helen (his mom) is feminine as hell. I’ve only met about half a dozen females in my life, and I think you got one of them here. Course, come to think of it, that figures. I get the feeling you’re male. There aren’t too many males around, either.”
If she existed in 2009, John Giving’s mom, Helen, would probably enjoy Sophie Kinsella’s work. If, like Helen, you prefer to escape the real world, whether through the purchase of a nice white fence, a corporate job that keeps you too busy to feel, or religious services that don’t require real contemplation, stick to reading Chick Lit. In The Undomestic Goddess, Kinsella’s characters always said exactly what they were thinking and feeling. Her conflicts are vastly situational rather than internal. The characters may have been quite comfortable on Revolutionary Road back in the ‘50s. I suspect Kinsella could have nicely resolved Frank and April’s issues with a lot of superb communication, and a nice summer trip to the EU. We’d all be smiling with stars in our eyes but somehow less enlightened about the true nature of humanity.
So, if you prefer to open an eye or two to the complexity, inconsistency, creativity, and hidden beauty of reality, pick up Revolutionary Road, and hope that today’s emerging writers can perpetuate truth the way Yates did in 1961. Demand more Wit Lit! Walk past the chicks and dudes, and take the train toward being real females and males who search inward for answers rather than grasping at all the turn of the century machinations our society imposes. There are still a heck of a lot of streets like Revolutionary Road in our towns and cities. Just because we may live there, doesn’t mean we’re trapped.
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