When they came home, my wife went straight to her computer to start working on the AutoCAD drawings of the porch. That problem was harder to resolve; it was still bothering her on Sunday morning, when she moved from bed to the kitchen for coffee and then, immediately, back to her computer, where she stayed all day. At or so, I realized that only supper would pull her away from her work, so I fixed some cauliflower pasta and brought her a glass of wine, and I was able to coax her to the couch for a couple of hours of TV before bed.
During the week and some weekends, too , she does the same thing—for pay, obviously—for a company in San Antonio. Her work desk, with two computer screens, sits next to a big window that looks onto the stone patio of our backyard, overlooking a fountain and a flowering oleander. I remember feeling like that when I was writing my dissertation: some bit of reasoning would be just out of my reach and I knew I could just sit at my computer and work until my idea would become clear and orderly.
I remember how that process could eat whole afternoons, evenings, and nights, how one problem could define a week or even two or three. Our work colonizes our lives because we let it, and we let it because we like it. We design, fashion, smooth and improve, filing rough edges and polishing the words, the numbers, the code or whatever is our chosen material. Last month in New Republic , Miya Tokumitsu and Joeri Mol tackled the same phenomenon and came to a different conclusion. In fact, the collapse of the personal into the professional is a two-fold trap: we have to clean up our personal lives, eliminating from our social media feeds anything that makes us seem unproductive; at the same time, we forfeit our claims to the benefits of professional life.
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As the novel opens, its protagonist, Frank Wheeler, is in his seventh year in the Sales Promotion department at Knox Business Machines, an early computer company. He says he hates the job. We learn that he took it after college, when his wife, April, got pregnant. All in all, a success, except that in the past few years American writing, like the rest of the culture, had changed drastically.
The metafictionalists were in, as were fantasy and sci-fi, and mad satire. One feels that his people never have a chance: odd things may happen to them, but they are never odd enough, never tragic and awful enough, to lead to a change of vision.
It won no prizes, and commercially it was an utter failure. In the turbulence of it made no waves. It spoke for no generation—or perhaps for one that had long since been eclipsed. After waiting eight years for a second novel, critics were disappointed. He had remarried in , and in he divorced again, his second wife retaining custody of their daughter. The wait, though shorter this time, was distinctly not worth it.
John Wilder, the hero of the novel, suffers from some unspecified mental illness as well as from alcoholism and a needy, raging ego. The storyline is skimpy, as are the emotions inspired in the reader, probably because Yates focuses not on a close relationship between people trapped and dependent on one another, but on a man wholly alone, willfully beyond the bonds of love and family. A victim of his illness, Wilder is hopelessly lost and temperamentally incapable of doing anything to save himself, though he knows better. Whether Yates has affection or scorn for Wilder is moot because from the beginning the reader sees his desires not as personal and common as with Frank Wheeler and Bob and Alice Prentice but as animal and overbearing.
His self-pity and self-regard are monstrous, his judgment unsound. He felt sympathy for the assassin and he felt he understood the motives. Kennedy had been too rich, too young, too handsome and too lucky; he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse. His murderer had spoken for weakness, for neurasthenic darkness, for struggle without hope and for the self-defeating passions of ignorance, and John Wilder knew those forces all too well.
This paradox of wanting to be on the inside, to be someone special, and then railing against the lucky ones who are chosen applies to nearly all of his main characters. Ultimately they vent their bitterness, and cruelly, on the closest target, often someone who is still hopeful if deluded. A Special Providence , while well-done, had been anachronistic.
As slowly as he composed, it might be five or ten years before another Yates novel—if, indeed, there was one left in him. Pookie is similar to Alice Prentice, moving easily from pleasant self-delusion to screechy denial, and Emily, like Bob Prentice, comes to dread and despise every word that comes from her mouth. Like Bob and Mr. As the opening line promises, their lives are unhappy, their promise chronically unfulfilled. Love turns out to be harder than it is in the movies. Emily, who has romantic dreams and matching anxieties, gives her virginity to a soldier in a squalid, anonymous coupling in Central Park.
Sarah, the prettier of the two, marries, but her husband beats her. Emily loves a series of weak men who treat her poorly and winds up alone and bitter, a drinker like her mother. The effect is at once cruel and sweet, heartbreaking and brutal. It does not, and with each humiliation we feel more for her. Ultimately her fate is one we all fear: "There were worse things in the world than being alone. She told herself that every day. She does not endure, and she certainly does not prevail, but in her defeat she too is human—too human, really—and deserving of our empathy. They spoke now of his body of work and raved over the effortless elegance of his prose and the depth of his tragic vision.
His life had become regimented. Sam Lawrence had persuaded Delacorte to pay Yates in advance for his books and then had put him on what amounted to a monthly salary. If he was going to run short of money, he could pick up part-time teaching gigs to fill the gaps.
Revolutionary Road and Doing What You Love
Under these new living conditions, Yates thrived. He greatly loved my sister—I think that must have been the main reason for his generosity to us—but he and I, after I was eleven or so, seemed always bewildered by each other. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement between us that, in the dividing process of the divorce, I had been given over to my mother.
Much as I might wish it otherwise, I did prefer my mother. I knew she was foolish and irresponsible, that she talked too much, that she made crazy emotional scenes over nothing and could be counted on to collapse in a crisis, but I had come to suspect, dismally, that my own personality might be built along much the same lines.
In ways that were neither profitable nor especially pleasant, she and I were a comfort to one another. This complex, generous voice is only the second first person Richard Yates used in his fiction, the first being the voice of his alter-ego Robert Prentice in "Builders. The voice only appears momentarily.
Only late in the novel do we suspect, correctly, that the narrator of the foreword is the hapless William Grove, in the beginning a victim of the worst schoolboy humiliations, and painfully self-conscious, but gradually across the novel learning to respect his own abilities. Their anglophile education is just a thin veneer over a savage pecking order based on money, looks, and athletic skill.
The shining ideals trumpeted in their brochure are a joke. Tawdry secrets abound, like the wife of a disabled teacher sleeping with the French instructor, and looming behind everything is the war, hungry for more boys.
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By the close of the novel—the matching half of the present day first person frame—the characters actually have matured. But all of that, William Grove reminds us, is in the past, and all gone, as is his chance to thank his father and seek his love. They praised the first person frame but hammered his choice of material and lack of deep characterization.
Constellations - Revolutionary Road and the Elegiac Form
Not a major work, the consensus ruled. By now, the tide of American writing had turned, and the plain style and concern for unheroic characters Yates had remained true to was coming into vogue. After being called old-fashioned much of his career, Yates—in retrospect—was now hailed as having been ahead of the curve.
But the new fiction only superficially resembled his. And the new authors rarely moved time or favored omniscient narration the way Yates did. In its stylization and severity the new fiction simplified the positions of author and character, choosing as a default mode a neutral, unjudgmental stance and asking the reader to abide by the same rules; and the characters often seemed so flat and cryptic, emblematic, without desire or fear, that this tack seemed appropriate. They were rootless, aimless and clueless, either innocent or desolate and sometimes a numb combination of the two, adrift in a senseless commercial world.
Part of this was generational. The novelist, like the tyrant, has complete authority over his subjects, and must rule with at least occasional benevolence or risk revolt.
Toward his more limited, ignorant characters Yates can be pitiless, even vindictive; but toward those who make an effort, however primitive, to retain their dignity—an English prostitute, a secretary who aspires to write radio plays—he is generous. Yates does not go wrong when his nostalgia flirts with sentimentality This is a problem that recurs both in these stories But the very best writers can show us our silliness and vanity, or worse, in characters whom we cannot dismiss so easily.
Yates does not play favorites; the world, according to his vision, grinds all his characters down alike, and—as in Kafka—the more they struggle, the more painfully they fail. Along the way, Yates revisits familiar territory: Michael, who fought in World War II, is an aspiring poet who hates his corporate day job, and eventually the couple leaves the Village where their dearest wish is to have artistic and interesting friends and lands in dull suburbia, where the pressures of their unrealized ambitions and romantic yearnings drive them apart.
Both Michael and Lucy are plagued by a crippling self-consciousness and lack of confidence. As the years pass and we watch Lucy go through a number of selfish lovers and Michael repeatedly trying to bolster his self-esteem by sleeping with younger and younger women, the Davenports become pathetic and bitter, searching but never finding even a temporary peace. Besides: now that he was older, and now that he was home, it might not even matter how the story turned out in the end.
The meaning here is ambiguous: it may be that Michael has reached some maturity, finally come to terms with the disappointments of life, or it may be that he has resigned himself to that aloneness. Regardless, the tone of the last sentence is restful and signals to the reader that for now at least Michael has given up the struggle.
His continual pursuit of women grows stale dramatically, and Yates would have done better to pare down or even summarize a few of the later scenes. The elegance and economy that distinguish his finest work are missing here. Still, critics elsewhere conceded that as a novelist, technically Yates had few peers and continued to be true to his own particular vision. The novel shares its time frame, its characters and its method with his other work, and on the whole succeeds in delivering the world of these people. This uneasy combination of acceptance and revulsion leaves the reader no distinct place to stand in the attempt to re-create the world Mr.
Yates wishes to evoke.