Thursday, June 21, 2007

Two Novels by Richard Yates

Recently I read two novels by Richard Yates – his first novel Revolutionary Road, published in 1961, and The Easter Parade (1976). I’d never heard of him before. Revolutionary Road came recommended by someone very close to me.

Well, I must say, I was totally hooked on Revolutionary Road from the get go. Richard Yates has a marvellous way of describing mundane, middle class suburban life, its aspirations and failures, in such merciless detail, that it is utterly compelling. He makes himself invisible as a writer, so all you get is a very credible description of events and personalities, with no moralising, or tsk-tsking, isn’t middle class aspirational life miserable.

Why were there so many books written around the fifties or about the fifties by Americans that showed so much discontent with American life and its booming capitalist culture? You’d think everything would be fine and dandy in the post war years of I Love Lucy fifties America. The novel made me think of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces etc. Even Mary McCarthy’s The Group, a book written in the sixties (I think) about liberated young women studying for lives in the professions in the 1930s, whose lives go off the rails. Why does everything go wrong for these people?

The second book, The Easter Parade, is perhaps even glummer than Revolutionary Road. It describes two sisters and their lives over the decades. It’s referenced in Woody Allen’s film about three sisters, Hannah and Her Sisters. Indeed, throughout the book I couldn’t stop thinking of that film. By the novel's end I felt an almost unbearable sense of despair. It was like every single miserable, lonely Sunday you’ve ever experienced bundled into one book.

I’m now reading Yates’s short stories, and they’re really good too. Some of them are even mildly amusing. The collection comprises of two published collections of his short stories from 1962 and 1981, and then some uncollected stories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give the dates on when these other stories were written, so you can’t really place them in a timeline in his career.

Yates seemed to live a pretty normal life. He married twice and wrote business copy to put food on the table. He did a short stint as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy. He died in 1992, his health made much the worse by years of heavy drinking and smoking.

Yates writes in a plain, straightforward style about what he knew best, the middle class suburban life of work and sex, its dubious successes and frequent failures. You should read Richard Yates, because you’ll most likely see yourself in his writings. This may comfort you on the one hand, and make you a little sad on the other.

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