Sweet sorrow | Books | The Guardian

The ending of a novel is often where it seems most artificial. Characters are rewarded or punished; problems, happily or unhappily, solved. A writer as attentive to the disenchantment of life as Richard Yates has reasons to avoid even a conventionally tragic conclusion, for such would mean putting events into a literary shape. The short story rather than the novel sometimes seems the natural form for this kind of realist. A short story does not have to answer the questions it raises; instead, it can be an episode snatched from life, its ending explicitly provisional. Yates was indeed a wonderful writer of short stories, as are some of the other writers, such as Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver, to whom, in his bleak precision, he is akin.

The ending of Revolutionary Road, sardonically achieved as it is, reveals indeed something awkward about Yates’s “realism”. The story of Frank and April Wheeler and their doomed marriage has run its course. We have reached its end when we return with Frank to the house where his wife, in effect, killed herself, haemorrhaging while trying to induce a miscarriage. Yet Yates cannot quite finish like this, the bereft Frank roaming his home, trying to recapture the sound of his wife’s voice. It is almost as if this would permit the character too much poignancy, too much sympathy.

So he adds an epilogue-like final chapter, turning the Wheelers’ domestic tragedy into, exactly, a story that their neighbours tell. “According to Milly Campbell, who told the story many, many times in the following months, everything worked out as well as could be expected.” “Many, many” times because she has learned a kind of delight in the telling, and because we hear this with her husband, Shep, who can hardly endure the “voluptuous narrative pleasure” in her voice.

It is a kind of estrangement technique. We learn of events that follow April Wheeler’s death through Milly Campbell as the “tragedy” shrinks to a slightly delicious neighbourhood horror story and her banal summary. There is a dramatic irony in her performance, for we know, as she does not, that her husband loved April Wheeler, and that his passion was consummated, clumsily, just once, in the back of a car. Blithely Milly tells anyone who will listen that “it was just about the most horrible thing we’ve ever been through in our lives”, before turning to him for confirmation. “Wasn’t it, sweetie?” The hapless Shep wanders into the garden to weep into his whiskey. Through him we know that April’s death has turned Frank Wheeler (“Very courageous,” says Milly) into a bore who cannot stop talking about his analyst.

Yates has returned us to the deception and self-deception that his novel has always been documenting. The second half of his concluding chapter gives us the repercussions of April’s death for Mrs Givings, the estate agent whose mad son has enjoyed day-release visits to the Wheelers. We hear her using the tragedy as a pretext for not having her son out of hospital. There will be no “bringing him into contact with outside people again”, she tells the doctor. And then we hear how she consoles herself by buying a puppy, with whom she happily plays as she tells her husband, Howard, that she has found new occupants for the Wheelers’ home. “Really nice, congenial people.” The catastrophe has been absorbed easily enough. “Oh, I was very fond of the Wheelers, but they always were a bit – a bit whimsical, for my taste.”

Her prattle carries us to the book’s deliberate anti-climax. Its final sentence is comically absurd, not tragic. Mrs Givings is talking in her usual near-monologue to her husband, Howard. As evidence that the Wheelers, whom she had talked of glowingly earlier in the novel, were “unwholesome, sort of”, she is telling him about the dead seedlings that she had discovered in their cellar (once a “gift” from her). As she expresses her outrage, however, she is interrupted. From this point, we are told, Howard “heard only a welcome, thunderous sea of silence. He had turned off his hearing aid.” Yates’s novel frequently notices what characters fail to notice about each other. Wilful obliviousness is its appropriate end.

· John Mullan is senior lecturer in English at University College London

· If you would like to respond to any of John Mullan’s columns email books@hafta-ichi.com

Source: The Guardian

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