Sunday, 10 July 2016

What Are PGS Teachers Reading This Summer II

Portsmouth Point asked PGS teachers to reveal what they are looking forward to reading or re-reading over the summer holidays.  Here Dr Richmond discusses one particular novel that she returns to again and again. 

During my holiday to Spain this summer, I will not be going to the airport bookshop and buying the latest trashy novel that you see people reading by the pool. In fact, I will not be reading anything new at all. “Strange”, you might exclaim! “Aren’t you meant to be writing about a book you have wanted to read for a while and have not got round to?” you further exclaim. Well, I plan to re-read a book that is my favourite book of all time; one which I have read over 20 times; a book which I don’t leave more than 2 years to pick up once again. Furthermore, I can quote some of the fantastic and devastating dialogue contained in the book with ease. The book makes me feel whole and glad to be alive despite its dark and disturbing themes.

The book is Revolutionary Road which was published in 1961, a debut novel by American author Richard Yates, written when he was 35 years old. It received critical acclaim and in 2005 it was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the 100 best English language novels from 1923 to the present. The book is set in 1955 and tells the story of a failing marriage at a time when the American Dream was at its most seductive.  Frank is married to April and they live in a Connecticut suburb called Revolutionary Hill Estates. On the surface, the Wheelers seem like the perfect suburban couple. She is beautiful and poised, he is charming and glib, and they live, with their two children, in a bright, clean house on Revolutionary Road. One of their neighbour’s remarks – “They’re sweet. The girl is absolutely ravishing and I think the boy must do something very brilliant in town.”  They feel different to their neighbours regarding the American Dream: Frank is stuck in a job he hates while April humiliates herself in local amateur dramatic productions. Yates puts it beautifully: “I think I meant it more an indictment of American life in the 1950s…because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs – a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.”  Frank arrives at work every morning wondering why he was feeling so unfulfilled and comes home at night to find April making her customary jibes and Frank retorts in a similar fashion. 

The marriage is clearly dead and both find different ways to cope with the mess: Frank has a silly affair with a colleague whom he doesn’t like whilst April dreams that emigrating to Paris will solve matters. But what drives this dark book forward is the imaginary dialogue that Frank directs towards his wife. The book is told particularly from Frank’s point of view but in a way that we don’t sympathise with him. The reader wants to shout at the characters that the only way that can feel happier is to leave each other but one is left knowing that it is all going to end badly. And it does! But the book is not all bleak; it is cruelly comical in places. During one day at work, a place Frank detests but has only ever told his best friend, he is asked to carry out a task befitting to a new promotion. When he tells April that evening, she is simply indifferent to his news. But Frank consoles himself through imagined dialogue to himself - “I think it proves that you’re the kind of person who can excel at anything when you want to, or when you have to” as he imagines April nodding her head and beaming proudly. The reader realises that in fact these imaginary exchanges are not rooted in fantasy but are what April and Frank really want to say to each other if they dared to. In other heart-breaking scene, April sits in tears in the dressing room after another disastrous amateur dramatic production and Frank stands next to her, as if frozen. Then the imagined dialogue starts and the reader smiles as if he is actually speaking to April in this way: “Listen, darling, you were wonderful” as he kisses her gently on the cheek. But instead, we realises he actually says “I guess it wasn’t actually a triumph or anything, was it” as he jauntily sticks a cigarette between his lips. The reader wants to scream at them to say what they really mean but we realise that things have gone too far.

Nearing the end of the book, the reader starts rejoicing at the fact that April and Frank ARE going to emigrate to Paris and we imagine that this may induce some real talking away from the disastrous characters we see in Conneticut. Then April conceives their third child and frank tries to manipulate her into having an abortion but April can’t bring herself to consent to it. At the horror of their situation, Frank resurrects his relationship with Maureen at work and April has a one night stand with her neighbour in a desperate attempt to self-medicate her pain.  April exclaims just before her death because of a botched self-inflicted abortion:

“I STILL had this idea that there was a whole world of marvellous golden people everywhere…People who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way that wanted without even trying, who never had to make the best of a bad job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time. Some of the heroic super-people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I’d suddenly know that I belonged with them, that I was one of them, that I’d meant to be one of them all along.”

April and Frank are both practiced in the art of self-deception and the price of their illusions is ultimately disappointment and grief.

What a great book! Once you have read it, read a later novel of Yates – ‘The Easter Parade’. All the characters live in a world of self-deception too and each page is beautifully crafted and written.

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