Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Richard Yates

I picked up the novel Revolutionary Road over a short plane trip this weekend and couldn't put it down. I remember half-watching the first part of the film adaptation starring Leo and Kate Winslet but finding the dialogue false and sentimental. Two words could not apply less to the novel.

Though people often compare Richard Yates' style to the stripped down prose of his contemporaries like Carver and co., it is actually much more complicated and, for lack of a better description, pretentious-in-a-good-way. Every page turns up a stylistic flourish--a surprising metaphor, a shift in point of view, a parenthetical, or a well-placed exclamation point (gasp!)--that Gordon Lish would've stabbed with red pen.

Still, I couldn't help being frustrated in the end that the novel bears the 1950s stamp of stand up men and hysterical women.

I'm sure I'm over simplifying here. Richard Yates, like Mark Twain (to quote Michael Chabon), was an "artist" and his characters are people without exception.

Having said that, if you're not half in love with Frank Wheeler by the end of the book, you're not "female," the definition of which I'm borrowing from the novel's paranoid schizophrenic character, John Givings.

Richard Yates in the 1960s

Revolutionary Road was Richard Yates' first novel, and before that, he was a journalist and a speech writer for Robert F. Kennedy. It may not be such a surprise that two of his marriages ended in divorce.

Though none of his books were in print at the time of his death in 1992, Richard Yates has relatively recently become a cult figure and the predictable pick for any hipster's "favorite writer."

I recently read the Brooklyn-based writer, Tao Lin's sardonic little novel entitled "Richard Yates." The protagonists are fictional characters named Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osmond and the novel documents their destructive, co-dependent relationship through gchat transcripts and terse, often spot-on descriptions. I was perplexed by the title before reading Revolutionary Road and, despite the superficial connections, have to admit, still am. I suppose Richard Yates' time and ours are times in which alienation comes easy. Also, as I said, many hipsters like to cite Richard Yates as a favorite writer, a fact which may be closer in line with the intentions of the Tao Lin I came to know.

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