A bold opening move, since it makes you envision a slog ahead: okay, so having established his characters’ ultimate unhappiness, he’ll just deterministically trace it from one probable cause all the way through the next fifty years. But that thing about the parental divorce now seems to me like a red herring: Emily and Sarah Grimes come from divorced parents, sure, but so many other hard-to-identify factors weight down on them that the search for one or even a few “main ones” can produce nothing. They “fuck” themselves, but their circumstances also do it, their parents also do it, their men also do it, humanity as a whole also does it, you and I probably also do it — but none do it intentionally, let alone maliciously.
Sarah, the older and more immediately pretty sister, rapidly settles down with a lowbrow semi-Englishman who beats her and produces three sons. Emily, the younger, relatively bookish sister to whom the narrative sticks closely, goes to college, signs on with an advertising agency, and bounces without prolonged satisfaction from man to man to man. Almost everyone around her eventually slips up and reveals themselves as a pathetic figure, then dies. Her father, a beaten-down copy desk drone working at a newspaper he hates, goes first. Her mother, a flighty alcoholic with rotting teeth and complex delusions of bon viveur-ism, takes much longer. Sarah, whom Yates paints as maybe too dumb to realize the grim, stunted banality of her family life, goes last.
This leaves Emily alone at the novel’s end, unemployed and flipping through her address book in desperation for human contact. Her former lovers, many of them cultural and financial medium- to medium-high rollers, have married or died. Only her favorite nephew Peter remains, and ringing him up strikes her as a near-ludicrous stretch. She does it anyway, which prompts him to invites her to stay with his new family in New Hampshire. But the moment she arrives, Emily drops into an obscure emotional turmoil, totally freaking out by the time she spots bicycles in Peter’s garage:
“So you bicycle!” she called to him across the top of the car. She had gotten out quickly, still trembling, and snatched her suitcase from the back seat; then, because a good loud sound was needed to punctuate her rage, she slammed the car door with all her strength. “That’s what you do. Oh, and what a lovely sight it must be, the two of you out bicycling with little what’s-her-name on a Sunday afternoon, all tanned and leggy in your sexy little cut-off jeans—you must be the envy of all New Hampshire...”
I have a sense that this scene, the novel’s last, exists to deliver the culmination of Emily’s rage at neither her nor anyone in her immediate family’s life having “panned out,” especially as compared to what she extrapolates from her scant data on Peter’s. But what would their panned-out lives have looked like? At no point do Emily, Sarah, nor their mother “Pookie” develop a clear idea of what they mean to achieve; they just sort of swim along like blind cave fishes. Yates writes that Pookie’s life “seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called ‘flair.’” Even with some idea of what she wanted, Yates seems to doubt that even the reasonably intelligent Emily could’ve gotten there: “Do you know a funny thing?” she says to Peter after she tires herself out with the hopeless j’accuse. “I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life.”
Does Yates use The Easter Parade to make some kind of feminist statement? You could easily close the book and think, “Women: damned if they do, damned if they don’t.” Sarah reaches deep dissatisfaction by way of marriage, family, and alcohol; Emily reaches deep dissatisfaction by way of a education, a career, and “liberated” serial monogamy. Yet Yates rolls out red carpet over which they still somehow walk the plank: Sarah’s looks let her write her own ticket with the menfolk, and Emily scores a plum job at an ad agency not only free of Mad Men-type discrimination but run by a woman. Not only does their femaleness not hold them back, but I have a hard time finding a way in which Yates doesn’t make it a great advantage.
All the way through, I kept thinking of Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. To the extent that Yates’ Grimes sisters “fuck” themselves (in Tao Lin’s parlance), they do it by not doing anything in particular, by not acting with anything resembling decisiveness, just like Heller’s equally mid-century malaise-y Robert Slocum. Yet despite this, all three characters labor under strong, amorphous desires: Sarah Grimes for something maybe like marriage and family, Emily Grimes for something maybe like intellectuality and independence, and Robert Slocum for something maybe like comfort routine. In this way, Slocum mirrors Frank Wheeler of Yates’ own Revolutionary Road, whose wife April wants him to attain something maybe like a “creative” life in Paris. (Emily and one of her many men actually try this, but it works out as well as anything does for Richard Yates characters.)
I feel like Yates might have a certain formula in mind here: strong desire + lack of intention = a whole lot of not fun. This seems inherently wrong to say about a bearded, leathery, embittered, chain-smoking, non-college-educated World War II veteran bent on chronicling a certain strain of decadent American mediocrity, but I’ve come to think of him as a kind of Buddhist novelist. Maybe lower-case-b buddhist novelist, but still, his worldview attributes very few of humanity’s problems to outright malice, and I doubt his characters would have fared worse on the Eightfold Path.