February 2009

Elizabeth Gumport


Re-Reading Richard Yates

In 1999, the Boston Review published Stewart O’Nan’s long appreciation of Richard Yates, whose fiction had fallen out of print after his death in 1992. How, he asked, can Yates, who “represents an important aspect of the American experience: the confusion of the post-war boom,” be so neglected? A “fine writer” and gifted mortician, Yates anatomizes the desiccated corpse of “American individualism,” the hollowed-out hopes of a country and its citizens.

So began Yates’s second coming: Revolutionary Road was reissued the next year, and his other novels soon followed. In 2001, Picador released his collected stories. His fiction appeared in The New Yorker for the first time.

Since then, Yates’s reputation has gone from restored to radiant. “The movie possibilities are nil,” O’Nan wrote, but that was nearly a decade ago. Times change, and 2008 saw the premiere of the film adaptation Revolutionary Road, released just in time for awards season. Although it has received mixed reviews, the movie is clearly built to be a hit, the names of its award-winning director and stars printed in tasteful Sans Serif font on the promotional posters. The film grossed over three million dollars while still in limited release and Kate Winslet won a Golden Globe for her performance as April Wheeler. In The New Yorker, David Denby included Revolutionary Road on his list of the best movies to appear in 2008.

And that’s not it for Yates, either. This month, Knopf released the Everyman’s Library edition of Yates’s work, which gathers Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade, and his story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness into one tidy package. Richard Price, our current golden Richard, provides the introduction.

The question, however, remains: Why? Why Yates, and why now? Given the coming release of Blake Bailey’s biography about John Cheever and the Library of America edition of Cheever’s work, Yates’s revival might simply be one example of our current fascination with mid-century America. Another example -- or cause -- of this fascination is Mad Men, which recently won the Emmy Award for best drama series, and has replaced The Wire as the show serious-minded people watch seriously and write about seriously in serious-minded publications.

In his essay on the series for London Review of Books, Mark Greif suggests we find Mad Men alluring because when we watch it we can’t help but say, Doesn’t That Look Good. And it does look really, really good: the smoky bars, the lovely women, their hair tied up in glossy knots, in lovely clothes, the whole pressed and polished world. Here the cigarette is always lit and the glass is always full. Visually, the scene is completely seductive -- as is the film version of Revolutionary Road, in a drier, more pastel way -- but the rush we get from it isn’t just aesthetic. What’s alluring is the sense of possibility, the freedom to do what’s now explicitly forbidden (smoke in restaurants) or just impossible (live in the West Village if you’re not ridiculously wealthy). Pretty things, however, are just pretty things, and the show’s primary appeal, Greif argues, derives from our smug sense that Now We Know Better. The past, as imagined by the writers of Mad Men, comforts us about the present: the sexist bosses, the oppressed housewives, the green but certainly not Green suburbs are all indices by which we can measure how far we’ve come since.

If, like O’Nan, we choose to focus on how well Yates “represents” -- that is, portrays and serves as an example of -- a period in American history, his work might appeal for the same reasons that Mad Men does. The ways in which the movie differs from the book certainly suggest that audiences are presumed to derive significant pleasure from Knowing Better: the camera lingers on a herd of identically-dressed men waiting for the morning train, and much is made of April’s plan to work so Frank can stay at home. "How could a man let his wife go to work while he sits around picking his nose," Shep Campbell asks disdainfully. In the novel, however, it is Frank, himself, who imagines sitting around with his finger up his nose, a vision he never admits aloud. But in the movie, of course, the question must be asked so we can congratulate ourselves for no longer asking it.

On Mad Men, we learn that Don Draper -- the handsomest and, we are told, most talented mad man -- stole another man’s identity. When a co-worker discovers this and attempts to blackmail Don, nothing really happens. Nobody seems to care. This absurd triumph of American ingenuity and the self-made man -- it literally does not matter who you are, you’ll succeed as long as you work hard -- seems, initially, a world away from the lusterless offices and thwarted ambitions found in Yates’s fiction.
But Yates, too, values hard work and work done well: during basic training, the young soldiers in “Jody Rolled the Bones” find themselves transformed by the rifle range. Pull the trigger and shoot the target; when you found out your score, “the man kneeling behind you with the scorecard would mutter, ‘Nice going’ or ‘Tough,’ and you’d squirm in the sand and take aim again.” Actions, Yates makes clear, can be evaluated. Good work looks different from bad work, and no amount of pretending can change this.

For Yates, the problem with the myth of “American individualism” and the self-made man isn’t so much the “made” (though there’s that, too -- you can see Willy Loman in the portrait of Frank Wheeler’s father, a weary salesman) as it is the “self.” Again and again, the characters in Yates’s short stories dream themselves into existence: in one story, the narrator thinks he’s been offered a writing assignment when really he’s being pressed for business contacts; in another, a reporter adorns what is supposed to be an anonymous column with his photograph and byline. When we fall, we fall into a hole of our own making: the images of ourselves, the ones we create and lovingly cultivate, undo us. In “A Glutton For Punishment,” Yates describes a game in which a child, pretending to be shot, “would stop, turn, stand poised for a moment in graceful agony, pitch over and fall down the hill in a whirl of arms and legs and a splendid cloud of dust, and finally sprawl flat at the bottom, a rumpled corpse.” It’s an image that could represent nearly all of Yates’s characters -- every one the agent of his own destruction, every one throwing himself down that hill.

The same impossible illusions emerge in Yates’s novels, but they’re bigger, more fiercely guarded fantasies, and thus the characters have farther to fall. Early in Revolutionary Road, Frank explains why he wants a dull job: “I want to retain my identity... I want something that can’t possibly touch me.” Frank, like so many of Yates’s character, sees the self as some precious gem, whose properties are fixed and whose value is incontestable: put it in the right setting and it will shine. This belief that how you act is completely separable from who you are possesses Yates’s characters. In The Easter Parade, Emily Grimes tells herself that “it didn’t matter what you did for a living; the important thing was the kind of person you were.” Our deeds -- what we do for a living, what we do to other people, what we do -- are irrelevant. What matters and what ought to be judged is you, as seen by you; if you can tell yourself you’re good, you’re good.

At best, these stubborn dreams destroy the dreamer; at worst, they others along for the ride. “Emily fucking Grimes is me,” Yates once said; Emily Grimes is Frank Wheeler, too, and everyone else who succumbs to the delusion of difference, the resilient conviction that you are special simply by virtue of being you. It is this conviction that Frank is afraid to test. At Knox, he can persuade himself that he simply has no outlet to express his true self. To move to Paris would be to risk discovering that there is no self to express, that he is only the sum of the stories he has told. The Wheelers annihilate themselves largely because of this fear of evidence: evidence that the idealized self on which he hung all his proud assumptions is only an illusion and that, in fact, he is not more intelligent than everyone else, or more observant, or in any way exceptional -- evidence, in other words, that he does not Know Better than anyone at all.

We do not read Yates to confirm some idealized vision of ourselves, but because he reveals how such illusions destroy those who indulge in them. His renewed appeal comes not from what he can tell us about the past, but what he can tell us about the present: Yates’s characters lie to themselves, lie to others, and silence those who resist or refute their lies. What they do is good because they are the ones doing it, and to maintain this belief they must preserve their image of themselves as glorious and exceptional, no matter what delusions or denials of fact this requires.

Last month, Chris Wallace asked Dick Cheney, "If the President, during war, decides to do something to protect the country, is it legal?” Cheney said yes. For the last eight years, what has mattered is not the action but the individual who acts, and the stories he tells about himself. The crimes Yates’s characters commit fascinate not because they seem foreign but because, for American readers, they are all too familiar.

If they’re familiar, though, it’s not just because we’ve seen them on television and in the papers: it’s because they are our own. We’ve roused ourselves from one dream, but that doesn’t mean we can’t drowse off again. We’re all Emily fucking Grimes, and the impulse to narrate our lives -- whether to ourselves or to an entire nation -- is fierce. Pat yourself on the back too hard and you’ll push yourself down the hill.