EscapeBlog

Revolutionary Road — Corporate Desperation, 1950’s Style

January 22nd, 2009

leonardodicaprio1The 2009 Academy Award nominations were announced today and it looks like Revolutionary Road will not be taking home any Oscars despite lots of critical praise and Golden Globe love.

I haven’t seen the film yet. I love Leo and Kate, but my love for Richard Yates’ novel is even stronger and I’m not sure any movie can do it justice.

Revolutionary Road is about two people trapped in an American dream they never wanted. Frank Wheeler has a good corporate job that he hates. April is trying not to go mad with boredom as a suburban housewife and mother. Frank and April always dreamed of greatness, expected greatness. Instead they are stuck in mediocrity that is just too comfortable to escape from.

Anyone who has felt stifled in Corporate America will identify with Yates’ descriptions of Frank’s office purgatory:

“At first glance, all the upper floors of the Knox Building looked alike. Each was a big open room, ablaze with fluorescent ceiling lights, that had been divided into a maze of aisles and cubicles by shoulder-high partitions. The upper panels of these dividers, waist to shoulder, were made of thick unframed plate glass that was slightly corrugated to achieve a blue-white semi-transparency; and the overall effect of this, to a man getting off the elevator and looking out across the room, was that of a wide indoor lake in which swimmers far and near were moving, some making steady headway, some treading water, others seen in the act of breaking to the surface or going under, and many submerged, their faces loosened into wavering pink blurs as they drowned at their desks.”

Frank Wheeler feels above all of this dreariness. After all, he has no intention of staying.  He has bigger plans (though no clue what they are as yet). But when his wife April proposes abandoning their stiflingly comfortable life to take off for Paris with their two children, Frank is  afraid to walk away. After all, corporate life wasn’t so bad:

“It was his bright, dry, daily ordeal, his personal measure of tedium. It had taught him new ways of spacing out the hours of the day — almost time to go down for coffee; almost time to go out for lunch; almost time to go home — and he had come to rely on these desolate wastes of time between pleasures as an invalid comes to rely on the certainty of recurring pain.”

You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens to Frank and April. Richard Yates is an extraordinary writer. And whatever the strengths of the film, it cannot possibly capture the dark  and brutal brilliance of his prose. Yates was  inspired by his personal experience as a publicity writer for the Remington Rand Corporation in the 1950s. Remington Rand was an early American computer company (also known for selling pistols and typewriters), probably much like Knox Business Machines, where Frank Wheeler toils his life away.

It’s amazing how much 1950’s corporate life resembles today’s corporate life. Today, we just have more technology, longer days, and no job security.  In those days, escaping from Corporate America was like walking away from a sure thing. Now there are no guarantees — which makes work life more challenging in many ways, but also makes the corporate trap a little bit less seductive.

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6 Comments
Mark McClure

Pam – 1950s, Wow!
That seems a frighteningly real description of some current corp office environments too?

“It was his bright, dry, daily ordeal, his personal measure of tedium. It had taught him new ways of spacing out the hours of the day — almost time to go down for coffee; almost time to go out for lunch; almost time to go home — and he had come to rely on these desolate wastes of time between pleasures as an invalid comes to rely on the certainty of recurring pain.”

I wonder what he’d make of the Japanese offices for foreign corps where the cubicle partitions are but waist high? I preferred those because I could actually see real people.

In many ordinary Japanese companies (that I know of), the cubes don’t exist and staff sit side by side in joined together rows of desks. Kind of like school in a way.

Bosses are in rows with their backs to the windows. There’s both a dictatorial and a homely, we’re all a clan feel to such a layout. No hiding out of sight, that’s for sure.

Pamela

That’s really interesting, Mark. I have done some research on “Corporate Japan,” but have not had the opportunity to spend time in Japanese corporate offices. I would love to learn more about how Japanese workers feel about their “bright, dry, daily ordeal.”

Edwina

I want to read this book and I don’t want to read this book. I’m afraid I will identify too well with Frank and April. Scratch that – I KNOW I will. It’s like a prisoner reading a book about incarceration.

Carrie

This is my favorite book of all time. When I first read it several years ago, I was shocked at how current it still felt even though it was written in 1961. Some things never change.

Edwina, read it! It’s beautifully written and has a touch dark humor. If you identify with Frank and April, consider it a more desirable wake up call than a heart attack.

vera babayeva

wow, very well written and very well said. Great post. I saw the movie and was touched by it. While I related to it more from the relationship side, you know the married life and Frank getting his wife pregnant to succumb her dreams, etc.

I love that movie and plan on reading the book.

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