Advance warning: not only is this blog post not going to mention knitting, it is also going to contain some very confused, ill-expressed semi-opinions about self-identity, art, feelings, and stuff. It’s also going to include some fuzzed-over personal stuff that no-one is interested in, for the selfish reason that writing it down might help me make some sense of it at last.
Last week, I started re-reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, because a twitter friend mentioned he was reading it and suggested (or joked about, anyway it doesn’t matter) a ‘twitter book club’, which sounds like tremendous fun, because let’s face it, we live in a social media age in which none of us ever has an experience for any reason other than wanting to ‘share’ it with other people.
My copy of Revolutionary Road has been collecting dust on a shelf since 2011, when I abandoned it after a hundred pages or so, consumed by an existential despair that I was no longer able to keep at arm’s length. 2011 was, for me, a year of not seeing things through. I couldn’t watch a movie – I’d get frustrated with the meaninglessness of it all within ten minutes and switch it off. I found it difficult to relate to other people and felt completely alien and isolated, while at the same time trying desperately hard to appear nonchalant and at ease in social situations. I drank too much (one of my more cheerful memories is of sitting alone on a riverbank at dusk, swigging lukewarm Carlsberg from the can and singing My Terrible Friend by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart to bats as they hunted mosquitoes over the water). I met someone I thought was wonderful and had an unacknowledged semi-relationship that we both pretended meant less than it did until it really did mean nothing to him and it fizzled out as quietly as it had begun (in retrospect maybe I should have told him that I thought he was wonderful, but then (and now, to be honest) I was characterised first and foremost by a crippling fear of rejection). I lived in a squalid houseshare with people I detested and tried my best to avoid. I convinced myself that I was a better person than they were because I cleaned up after myself and didn’t snort coke or eat artisan pizza or hang my own terrible paintings around the house like some kind of provincial hipster-wannabe. This was the context in which I first picked up Revolutionary Road.
In that context, there were passages in Yates’ prose that made me experience physical pain as I read them. Frank’s aloofness and superiority, affected so as to conceal a subconscious awareness of his own ordinariness, was far too close to home. His inability to relate to his wife and children; the desperation with which he wants to be liked and admired by his colleagues and neighbours, whom he despises; his hyperawareness of his actions and the reactions he desires from them – in my destroyed mental state at the time, these character flaws went from being tragic devices to confirmation of the worthlessness of existence. Are we not all like Frank deep down? Mired in circumstances, paying lip-service to pipe dreams, sneering at the drudgery to which we are ultimately married?
At one point, I was reading the novel on a train back to my parents’ place for Christmas, and I paused to compose disparaging tweets about a tracksuited tween who sat opposite me. Then, at some point in the journey he made some remark or offhand generous action that showed him to be a more compassionate person than I had allowed for, having summed him up solely on his appearance. I’ve never hated myself more. I shelved Revolutionary Road and a couple of weeks later got a prescription for Citalopram and a CBT journal (which I never kept, but should have).
Revolutionary Road was not, of course, responsible for that bottoming-out. However, since then I’ve always associated it with that feeling of hopelessness and self-loathing, and I’ve hesitated to give it another go, until now.
I’ve been amazed at how differently I feel about it now. Obviously, our own present circumstances affect how we interpret – and enjoy – art, but the gulf between how I was feeling then and how I feel now has been made clear to me in picking this book up again. I can feel some sympathy with Frank and April’s ennui and exasperation at a world that offers them less than they desire, without seeing myself tragically reflected in it. I don’t know, maybe it’s just that in the process of ageing, I’ve had to accept that there are limitations on my aspirations, and that the combination of idealism and disappointment will ultimately end up as cynicism, so it’s best to avoid hoping for too much.
Anyway … I’m only a third of the way through yet, so I will refrain from analysing further at this point. Certain qualities in the novel remind me of Hitchcock’s classic Rope; a psychological thriller in which a pair of Nietzschean sophists convince themselves that the murder of one of their peers is justified. In both works, the protagonists (antagonists?) convince themselves that they are different – superior – to others, and that allows them to behave in a manner that is forbidden to ‘lesser’ human beings. I suppose that all of us are guilty of such feelings sometimes, to a greater or lesser extent. I was also reminded of Lolita, which I suppose is more relevant as it’s more contemporary with Revolutionary Road – although here it’s the way in which relationships with others are used and abused to soothe and conceal those existential terrors that we all experience.
Right, I think I’ve got in over my head now and I’ve got things to do so I’m gonna hit ‘publish’ and get on, but not before segueing awkwardly thus:
Speaking of Nietzschean sophists, Fanfarlo’s third album finally dropped a couple of weeks ago and I think it’s great so here’s a song from it: