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January 18, 2011


You almost can’t blame him; surely this is the first instinct of anyone outwardly gearing up to make a big change. Anyone preparing to do that — myself included — needs to raise a formidable amount of inward-looking vigilance to avoid falling into the same pattern.

I don't know. My main reaction to the novel is that I would like to punch Frank Wheeler in the face, and possibly Richard Yates as well.

The glossy numbing rot of tightly circumscribed suburban striving is something that usually interests me, but Yates's relentless contempt for his characters overrode any sympathy I might have had for his themes. It is fine to write about vacuous jerks, but it is overbearing to annotate every encounter, every inner monologue, every f***ing page practically, with authorial contempt for said vacuous jerks (to make double extra certain I know how to feel). Just give them to me bare, and let me figure out for myself whether or not I hate them.

All the novel's action flows from Frank's inner narcissist: it kills his wife, wrecks his kids, scorns his friends, and (constantly, neverendingly) fishes for validation from precisely the cozy vacuity he affects to disdain. Frank is interested in cultivating a praise-garnering personal narrative, not actually extricating himself from the eudemonic atrophy he spends so much time critiquing/ironically dismissing. He doesn't want to be different, because that would involve risk and actual physical separation from the people he condescends to, in which case who would be there to listen to him expound about how different he is? Rather, he wants to gesture at being different while staying right where he is. Best of both worlds there: he gets the safety and predictability of structured banality, and he gets to scoff at the rubes who don't "get it" while those same rubes tell him he's awesome and a rebel.

Navel-gazing men barely notice anyone else, and this indifference is not benign (even moreso in 1955, I suppose). Frank wants credit for empathy, for responsibility, for sophisticated adulthood, but he undertakes not a single action that does not redound to his own ego-fulfillment. Basically, he just takes. His marriage to April becomes an unintentional fait accompli, based on her not wanting him to feel bad, and him having no clue this is going on:

What a subtle, treacherous thing it was to let yourself go that way! Because once you'd started it was terribly difficult to stop; soon you were saying "I'm sorry, of course you're right," and "Whatever you think is best," and "You're the most wonderful and valuable thing in the world," and the next thing you knew all honesty, all truth, was as far away and glimmering, as hopelessly unattainable as the world of the golden people. Then you discovered you were working at life the way the Laurel Players worked at The Petrified Forest, or the way Steve Kovick worked at his drums - earnest and sloppy and full of pretension and all wrong; you found you were saying yes when you meant no, and "We've got to be together in this thing" when you meant the very opposite [...]

This edifice of innocuous little lies becomes impregnable over time; eventually you are trapped in this thing you loathe, and you barely know how it happened. The difference is that April genuinely loathes it and understands its implications, is in many ways a genuine victim, whereas Frank is just posing.

As to those implications, here is an "ancient man" telling us the novel's Big Important Theme:

He may have forgotten the shape of his first wife's smile and the sound of her voice in tears, but by imposing a set of numerals on her death he has imposed coherence on his own life, and on life itself. Now all the other years can fall obediently into place, each with its orderly contribution to the whole.


He has brought order out of chaos.

So: we choose Structure (tidy communities comprised of tidy houses on tidy streets) over the sloppy churnings of life, and in so doing obliterate the interesting parts of ourselves. We submit to pointless nothing work, anonymity, serial pettiness. Ultimately we begin to mistake this coping mechanism for virtue, i.e. this is a thing we do because it is right and true, not because it eases our angst. We gloss the sacrifices, re-categorize them as choices borne of integrity.

I'm not sure the novel is successful at illuminating the particular ways in which this dynamic manifests, however. Not that they're not there: for Frank, a succession of pats on the head (from his job, his boss, his mistress) stand in for accomplishment. Mrs. Givings confuses activity with purpose. Yates indulges a reverie for nearly every character wherein he or she wrestles with the vague but persistent idea that they've missed something (ugh). And so on. But he seems to want to attribute this state of affairs to the weakness/wickedness of individuals rather than the infrastructure of anodyne self-congratulation that coaxes them into acquiescence.

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