Freedom and Revolution

28 02 2011

Freedom and Revolution. There are still some places in the world where these words evoke drama and idealism. But when we use them with reference to ourselves, what they mostly elicit is cynicism and irony, as in the titles of two books I’ve read recently, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. These titles suggest something stirring and political, but what they in fact address is the more prosaic problem of how might live in a place where freedom is a given and the revolution is over.

Reading the two back to back, they provoke an urge compare and contrast. Both books are set in Middle-class America. Both feature the story of a couple, while simultaneously attempting to convey the spirit, feel, and tone of an era. What makes the comparison interesting is the fifty-year time lapse between them. Revolutionary Road was published in 1961. Freedom came out just last year. Chronologically speaking, Patty and Walter Berglund could be the children of Frank and April Wheeler.

You want to believe that given the fifty year gap, the books will be very different, and they are in many ways. Revolutionary Road unfolds in what we might now call the times of Mad Men, where people conduct themselves according to stringently coded norms of style and behavior, and difference of any kind is scarcely tolerated. The men and women of Freedom, on the other hand, happily disregard the expectations of others, and blaze their own trail on their own terms.

What struck me, however, is how in several ways, they’re actually quite similar.

Why not start with the women? Both Jonathan Franzen in 2010 and Richard Yates in 1961, have created female protagonists who have effectively lost themselves. These writers, both exquisitely sensitive to nuances of character, time and place, have given their heroines the same sense of a dead end. It’s interesting to notice just how it plays out: Patty Berglund’s best years are when she becomes a “stay-at-home” mom (Then term, and its notion of electivity, didn’t exist in 1961, yet the core situation that it conveys hasn’t changed). Franzen describes her as enthusiastically living out the role of the “enviably perfect mother”, and her crises doesn’t occur until her children grow up and leave the house, at which point she descends into drinking and depression. April, living as she is in the late fifties, lacks the language and societal affirmation for her sense of emptiness and ennui in her housewife role (and it is in fact not merely a role, but a complete identity, bestowed on her by the world). It’s painful to watch April try, like a trapped fly, to solve the conundrum of how she ought to live. When the book opens, she is trying to realize her dream of becoming an actress by taking part in a local play. When that fails, she devises an escape plan – her and Frank will pack up their two young children and go to Europe, where Frank will finally be able “find himself” while she supports the family. (Her need, practically bleeding off the page, to find herself, is a subject which doesn’t occur to her. Did Yates purposely write it this way, or did it simply never occur to him?). This too, doesn’t pan out, ostensibly because April gets pregnant.

It is perhaps the great change in women’s lives in the last 50 years that makes Patty, as opposed to April, seem so pathetic. Patty is free in exactly the place where April is trapped. Of course Franzen was making a statement here about the titular freedom he is questioning. What does seem noteworthy is that both women instinctively try to escape their existential predicament through men, or more specifically, through affairs with their husband’s best friend. Patty’s coy pursuit of Richard Katz leads to divorce and emotional oblivion. For April, the nihilistic misery of her encounter with Shep Campbell ends in death. It seems that fifty years, and a revolution in our understanding of women and their lives, has not made much of a difference. (Some might point out that both of these stories, and their women, were written by men. Yet I have yet to hear anyone say that this aspect of the plot is unauthentic.) The extramarital affair with the closest available man is still the escape route of choice, through which a woman might break out of her life in a desperate, but doomed grasp at self-realization.

Moving on to the men, both Frank and Walter are trying to make their peace with the American Dream. While Frank regards it with disdain and irony, Walter prides himself on defining himself in opposition to it. Funnily enough however, it turns out that the joke is on them. On both of them. Frank is seduced into the Dream with promises of promotion and money, while Walter, clever, noble, and naïve, is tricked into engineering his spiritual and professional downfall with his own two hands. The Dream really is just a dream, and truth, cold and lacking in glamour as it turns out to be, lies only in the personal/familiar sphere. It is in this sense that Freedom is, in spite of everything, the more optimistic work. Walter and Patty eventually reclaim each other, but for Frank there is no redemption; just as there was no redemption for the stifling mindset of his times.

Interestingly, the male protagonists in these novels cheat too, both with women from their work places. It’s nice to note that while Frank’s partner of choice is a secretary (Did anybody say Mad Men?), Walter’s affair is with a woman not only his professional equal, but of different race. It is perhaps in this detail that we feel the effect of those fifty years at its strongest.

Somewhat less obvious, but definitely thought provoking is the role of the rebellious “outsider” in these tales. In Revolutionary Road, this is clearly John Givings, the son of the local real-estate agent – and a certified resident of the local mental hospital. Freedom, with its 2010 ideas of what constitutes otherness has Richard Katz – the inadvertent rock star. Both these characters enact the age old part of the fool who tells the truth. John Givings comes across as rude, obnoxious, and lacking in all sense of propriety, but he also has a quality of cutting though every decorous nicety that dictates the prevailing social behavior of the sane. Oddly enough, it is with him, and only with him, that Frank and April have social exchanges that feel honest. Richard Katz’s otherness works in a very different way: blunt, cynical, and smug, he’s the man Walter could never be, and the guy Patti could never have. His very presence has an aura of both coolness and authenticity that torments Walter and Patti even as they fall under its spell. Obviously, the concept of otherness has changed to become less threatening and more accessible, such that its attraction feels potent and powerful, drawing us in rather than frightening us. What doesn’t seem to have changed is the fact that both of these so-called successful couples are in need of a truth-teller who says what everyone knows but cannot speak.

Finally, the two novels invite a literary comparison. Franzen’s seems to spread out, replete as it is with detailed descriptions of not only relationships, characters and situations, but memorabilia of the times – our times. It is entirely and constantly self aware – as if writing a record for future generations. Yates’s, on the other hand is nuanced, focused and sharp. There are far few characters, and we know far less about them than we do about Franzen’s, yet we end up knowing everything we need to know about who they are and the world they inhabit. Without long lists that characterize the era, or wordy portrayals of overly imagined characters, Yates manages to convey a powerful sense of what limits the Wheelers, what shapes them and delineates the borders of their world.

As a reader, I loved Freedom, but I am in awe of Revolutionary Road. Franzen appears to me a juggler, frantically doing jigs in the air to please the crowd, while Yates seems as coolly knowing as a prophet. At the ending of Freedom, Patty and Walter return to each other. It is an ending of hope, one that warms the heart, but makes you wonder what all the fuss was about. But in Revolutionary Road, with April dead and Frank estranged from his children, (because in 1961, the notion of a father raising his children alone was, well, revolutionary) the focus turns to Shep Campbell, and his unsophisticated, dumpy , wife Milly. It was perhaps her lack of sophistication, her innate dumpiness that made him dream of the beautiful and sophisticated April Wheeler, but if April represents fantasy and Milly reality, Shep knows, by the end of the book, where he’ll be making his bed.

Looking at her now in the lamplight, this small, rumpled, foolish woman, he knew he had told the truth. Because god damn it, she was alive wasn’t she? If he walked over to her chair right now, and touched the back of her neck, she would close her eyes and smile, wouldn’t she? Damn right she would.

I have to admit that I had a lot of fun reading Freedom; I loved the familiarity of it, and the gratifying shock of recognition that its chatty narratives bestowed. But it is this ending, earned in the wake of Yates’s tragic story, that will stay with me longer.

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