MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Taking a Wrong Turn on Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road is not a story about suburban angst; it’s a story about the illusions people create to sustain their belief in who they are and who they wish they were. Lee Siegel, writing for The Wall Street Journalhas a piece up titled “Why Does Hollywood Hate the Suburbs? America’s Long Artistic Tradition of Claiming Spiritual Death By Station Wagon,” which unfortunately completely misreads both the film Revolutionary Road and the book from which it was adapted. Siegel opens his piece with this: “Revolutionary Road, based on Richard Yates’s 1961 novel of the same name, is the latest entry in a long stream of art that portrays the American suburbs as the physical correlative to spiritual and mental death.” He goes on to add, “In Revolutionary Road, the two principal characters are brought down by lawn sprinklers and station wagons.”

Well, not really. In fact, that’s a complete misreading of the story.

What Revolutionary Road portrays is a late-1950s couple, Frank and April Wheeler (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the film), who latch onto the bromide of suburban-life-as-death as a means of holding onto the picture of themselves they want to present to the world as intellectuals who are really very much smarter than the rest of the the folks around them — which is not quite the same thing as what Siegel asserts. In stories that do “claim spiritual death by station wagon,” the cookie-cutter mentality of suburban life is more of a character in and of itself (i.e, Edward Scissorhands), as opposed to the backdrop to the story that it is in Revolutionary Road.

The focal point of the novel Revolutionary Road is not so much on the suburbs as the actual end of all things intellectual (which is what Siegel claims) as it is on the ways in which the main characters blame the suburbs for their shortfallings . This is evidenced in particular by the mental twists and turns the character of Frank Wheeler takes — not just after he moves to the suburbs, but long before he even meets April, when he’s in college and sharing a small New York City apartment with a couple other guys — in both convincing himself and those around him that he’s more than he is, and in blaming everything and everyone but himself for his failure to achieve greatness. The move to suburbs filled with station wagons and lawn sprinklers does not cause the death of Frank Wheeler as an intellectual bound for greatness; it’s nothing more than the latest in a string of excuses he invents to convince himself that he’s not just an ordinary guy, no different than the hundreds of other ordinary guys he rides the train with to work each day. The suburbs are the backdrop within which the latter two-thirds of the book take place, not the driving force that brings about the spiritual and mental death of the characters; their metaphorical deaths arise from forces within, not without.

This is evidenced in details sprinkled liberally throughout Yates’ book: the way in which the characters discuss the community theater group the start, and the way in which they react to the dismal failure of the first performance; the disdain the Wheelers have for all-things-suburban, from the way in which suburbanites discuss lawn care to the signage on houses proclaiming this the home of “The Smiths” or “The Joneses;” through Frank’s perspective of the other humdrum suburban men commuting by train to city jobs, in his ongoing inner monologue through which he affirms and reaffirms to himself how “different” he is from the rest of the lot; in Frank’s moments of clarity where his thoughts reveal his own understanding of the ruse he’s pulling in deliberately slacking in his job while convincing his wife and those he works with that he’s really working hard to support his family; and even in April’s revelation that what she and Frank really need is to move to Europe, as they’d dreamed of doing before kids and a mortgage interfered with their plans.

And even that is preceded (in the book, at least) by what drives the Wheelers to marriage and the suburbs to begin with — not April’s first pregnancy per se , but the way in which Frank uses that pregnancy to shield himself from the grim specter of failure — evidenced by the way in which he’s become just like his father — that haunts his every thought and decision. Frank sees in April’s first pregnancy an opportunity to shift the blame for his lack of spectacular achievement onto something else; so long as he can blame the existence of a child and his marriage on the need to move to suburbs and take a dull job with the same company his father worked for his entire life, Frank can convince himself that he’s a rather tragic figure: the brilliant young man shackled to an unimpressive job by the burden of wife and kids.

The truth about Frank is much closer to what the schizophrenic, oft-shock-therapied John Givings (played by Michael Shannon in the film) says about him in their last encounter, when the Wheelers reveal that their European plans have been curtailed by April’s third pregnancy: that Frank is hiding behind a maternity dress out of his own fear of failure. John Givings, as a dramatic device, acts to reveal truths about the characters that they’ve tucked away with great care from both others and themselves.

Yates reveals in countless ways that this is a story about both a failed marriage and a failed, utterly solipsistic man. Frank shields himself from the truth at every turn. He has an entire drawer in his desk at work where he dumps and hides all the things he doesn’t want to deal with, just as he dumps and hides the truths about himself into his own inner junk drawer. He compartmentalizes his affair with secretary Maureen Grube, blithely using her both for sex and a self-esteem boost, then finally reveals the affair to April in a tone that suggests she should be both grateful to him for coming clean, and apologetic for the problems in their marriage that led him to stray in the first place. When April doesn’t seem to care that he’s had an affair, he’s so self-focused that he’s unable to even see that his wife’s ambiguity about his cheating on her might, perhaps, be indicative of greater problems in their marriage that he’s stashed away and not dealt with, but even then he manipulates and turns things around on her, blaming April for not loving him anymore and taking no responsibility for his own actions within his marriage that have contributed to its crumbling.

This is further evidenced in both the book and the film when Frank, in trying to convince April not to abort the third pregnancy, tells her that they don’t need to move to Europe to achieve their dreams; with his anticipated promotion at work (an event that in and of itself was spawned not by his actually setting out to achieve that goal, but which happens by circumstance when he deals with a work issue in a cursory way that ends up being seen by his boss as brilliant) they can afford to live in New York City instead of their suburban home on Revolutionary Road. This shows, again, Frank’s utter misreading of both his own failures and his wife’s perspective on their lives.

April isn’t unhappy because they live in the suburbs, she’s unhappy because she mistakenly blames herself for Frank’s failure to achieve anything worthwhile with his life, and she believes that if she supports him in Europe and gives him time to “find himself” that he’ll finally achieve the dreams he’d convinced her he always had, and stop blaming her for not achieving them. She’s bought into the illusion Frank spun for her when they were dating of what a spectacularly clever man he was, and struggles to understand why he’s never achieved all that she thought he could; after a lifetime of blaming herself for being abandoned by her own parents to a succession of relatives while they lived the high life, April naturally blames herself and her pregnancies from holding Frank back from becoming the great man he could be, and she seeks to remedy that.

But when April reveals this plan to Frank, he’s paralyzed by fear: What he if he actually has this time to find himself, to decide what he wants to achieve, and still doesn’t attain greatness? Then he’ll no longer have April, or the suburbs, or their cookie-cutter neighbors, or his dull job to blame on his mediocrity, and he’ll have no one on whom to lay the mantle of his failures but himself. And this reality — not life in the suburbs or the evil of lawn sprinklers — is what he cannot face.

Siegel goes on his piece to further excoriate Yates’ “hostility towards the suburbs” in the novel, adding “No literary critic that I know of has ever challenged Yates’s puerile social perceptions. The reflexive reverence for Revolutionary Road is a testament to the degree to which anti-suburban sentiment is one of the most unexamined attitudes in American culture.” Perhaps that’s because the literary critics to whom Siegel refers had a better understanding of what this story is about that Siegel exhibits in his own puerile analysis of the book, and perhaps the reverence for the book stems not from a lack of examination of the attitude towards suburban life in American culture, but from a greater understanding of the material than Siegel himself conveys.

While it’s rather difficult to assess in Siegel’s piece where he’s referring to the book versus the film (or even if he’s actually read the book itself), he does make some interesting points overall about Hollywood’s take on suburban life, and many of those points are valid. Unfortunately, in trying to stretch the skin of his thesis to fit snugly around his take on Revolutionary Road, he misreads the book greatly and the film to a lesser extent. It’s true that director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe put a greater emphasis on suburbia than on Frank’s myriad miscalculations and mental sleights of hand; I’ve already written at greater length about my own issues with the adaptation and how much of the underlying motivations of both Frank and April were lost in the translation.

But when Siegel uses the suburban settings of both Revolutionary Road and American Beauty in an attempt to draw an allusion between the two films as saying something greater about the director — as when he states, “the British Sam Mendes’s very own American Beauty (of which Revolutionary Road is simply a reiteration — take a sprinkler, add a dollop of anomie, and presto! you’re an authentic American filmmaker) — he reaches a little far and reveals his hand perhaps a bit too much with regard to his own motivation in positioning the thesis of his article.

Siegel concludes his piece with this bit: “Which only means that life’s complexity and surprise follow you everywhere, even over the city-line, across the river and into the suburban trees. You wonder why the creators of the film Revolutionary Road are blind to such an obvious fact of human existence.” What I wonder is why Siegel himself doesn’t grasp that the creators of the film had little to do with the point Siegel is trying to make here. The characters in Yates’ novel, the source material for the film, go through the entire storyline in a state of complete lack of awareness of their own flaws, regardless of where they live.

I would argue that it would be more to the point to explore the idea underlying Yates’ perspective in his novel, as reflected by the characters of Frank and April Wheeler: That people everywhere are frequently wont to overlook the ways in which their own shortcomings and failings contribute to their problems. It’s true enough that you can’t run or move away from your problems, but it’s also true that people both inside and outside the pages of novels fail to see this, often to their own detriment. One of life’s greatest lessons lies in the truth behind the phrase “No matter where you go, there you are.” Yates understood this particular facet of human nature and exploited it excellently within the novel Revolutionary Road; Siegel , in focusing so intently on the place in which the novel is set rather than what’s actually going on within the characters both before and after they move to Revolutionary Road, misses the forest for the trees.

– by Kim Voynar

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~ Hampton Fancher

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