Lisa's Notebook

Writing Exercises by Lisa McNulty.

Revolutionary Road: How Not to be Interesting

I recently re-read Revolutionary Road (say that three times fast). It’s a book I find compelling precisely because I don’t exactly connect to it. I am delighted by the manner in which I don’t connect to it. The central idea of the book is that the characters, Frank and April Wheeler, perceive themselves as more interesting than the people around them, as stifled by the oppressive conventionality of American suburbia, and as longing for escape. Frank recalls a past in which he was seemingly filled with potential:

The army had taken him at eighteen, had thrust him into the final spring offensive of the war in Germany and given him a confused but exhilarating tour of Europe for another year before it set him free, and life since then had carried him from strength to strength. Loose strands of his character—the very traits that had kept him dreaming and lonely among schoolboys and later among soldiers—these seemed suddenly to have coalesced into a substantial and attractive whole. For the first time in his life he was admired, and the fact that girls could actually want to go to bed with him was only slightly more remarkable than his other concurrent discovery— that men, and intelligent men at that, could actually want to listen to him talk. His marks at school were seldom better than average, but there was nothing average about his performance in the beery, all-night talks that had begun to form around him—talks that would often end in a general murmur of agreement, accompanied by a significant tapping of temples, that old Wheeler really had it. All he would ever need, it was said, was the time and the freedom to find himself.

When still in this bubble of considering himself exceptional, Frank meets April Wheeler, an ‘exceptionally first-rate girl’ with ambitions to be an actress. In the narrative he writes of his life, it was the fact that she fell pregnant with this child which led him to (temporarily! almost ironically!) take a job at his father’s old firm and buy a house in the suburbs.

The book opens years after this, with an amateur performance of the Petrified Forest. April takes the starring role of Gabrielle, with Frank in the audience enjoying playing his own role of proud husband of a beautiful and talented actress. Initially she clearly is quite good, but the actor meant to be the romantic lead opposite her has been taken ill and replaced by the director, who is quite unsuited for the role. This unexpected change takes its toll on everyone’s performance, but most notably April’s, whose acting gradually degenerates over the course of the play. She flinches from the false congratulations of her friends in the audience afterwards, and she and Frank have a terrible fight in the car on the way home, in which all of their frustrations about the ordinariness of their lives comes to the fore.

After some reflection, April comes up with a solution. The experience of the play has left her feeling disillusioned but determined:

My God, I’ve even gone as far as to work up this completely corny, soap-opera picture of myself—and I guess this is what really brought it home to me—this picture of myself as the girl who could have been The Actress if she hadn’t gotten married too young. And I mean you know perfectly well I was never any kind of an actress and never really wanted to be; you know I only went to the Academy to get away from home, and I know it too.

The apology for the fight is itself a kind of performance. She re-casts herself as a repentant wife who has wronged her husband’s talent by holding him back. Her proposed solution is radical: Frank is to quit his job, and they are to move the whole family to Paris, where Frank briefly lived when his life was interesting. April shall get a job to support them and (presumably) gets a nanny for the children, and Frank is finally to have ‘the time and freedom to find himself’. He will eventually emerge from this into whatever career will leave him the most fulfilled.

Frank’s actual response to this is a kind of panic. This is the sort of thing that his image of himself as an interesting person leads him to believe he should want. And he certainly enjoys the fantasy. The reality, however, is that Frank does not so much want a radically different life as much as a life in which girls want to go to bed with him and intelligent men want to listen to him talk. Over the course of the novel, the first of these desires is satisfied by having an affair with a woman at his office, and the second by an offer of a promotion into a new area of the company. He is, in fact, satisfied with this, but cannot fully admit even to himself that he is satisfied with this. It does not look sufficiently interesting from the outside, and the fact that the experiences feel sufficiently interesting from the inside must mean that he is himself a less interesting person than he previously believed. When April unexpectedly gets pregnant, scuppering the plans to move to Paris, she is genuinely and overwhelmingly frustrated, but Frank is relieved. He is able to hide these feelings of relief from himself to a degree because he can play the role of Responsible Husband and Father, but the relief is obvious to the reader.

There are a couple of ways in which I don’t connect to this story.

Firstly, Frank and April consider themselves interesting people who have missed out on the opportunity to do interesting things. Basically, they lack the trappings of interestingness. I have the trappings of interestingness. The most publicly obvious ones are that I have an interesting job (I’m a philosopher of education), and an interesting home (I’m a houseboater on the Thames in West London). These are sufficient for me to easily have mildly ‘huh, how interesting’ conversations with strangers. However, I’ve had those trappings long enough to realise that many ordinary sounding homes and jobs are not in fact significantly less interesting to experience than mine are. They are just less interesting for other people to hear about. (And about as interesting to talk about. I assure you that there are only so many ways to have the ‘what is it like to live on a boat?’ conversation).

I’m also unconventional in some other ways which aren’t so immediately apparent and which only emerge among people I really trust. I suspect this is true of many if not most people, but of course I only know it is true of the people who really trust me. In this sense I don’t really connect to the performative aspect of Frank and April’s desire for interestingness. I’m not driven by a desire to be perceived as interesting, except perhaps by people I myself find particularly interesting. Unless I already know you very well, I am instinctively reluctant for you to know how weird I am.

And I suspect that you probably don’t want me to know how weird you are, either.

This is a small tragedy of its own within the book. The story introduces another couple, Shep and Milly Campbell, who are initially presented as a sort of foil. In a sense, the couples are best friends, but Frank and April are reluctant to characterise the relationship this way, regarding the other couple with a kind of affectionate disdain. Frank and April dominate conversations when the two couples meet up for dinner. Shep and Milly are presented as the less intelligent and interesting pair. They are ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘friendly’ and ‘bouncing’ and provide ‘admiring company’, an opportunity for the alpha couple to perform. Shep is “massive and dependable, a steadying influence on the group”. When we first see Shep alone, however, we are given an unexpected backstory:

The stolid peasant’s look that glazed his face as he worked was only an occasional expression with Shep Campbell nowadays—he saved it for his shoe-shining mood or his tire-changing mood—but it held the vestige of a force that had once laid claim to the whole of his heart. For years, boy and man, he had yearned above all to be insensitive and ill-bred, to hold his own among the sullen boys and men whose real or imagined jeers had haunted his childhood, to deny by an effort of will what for a long time had been the most shameful facts of his life: that he’d been raised in a succession of brownstone and penthouse apartments in the vicinity of Sutton Place, schooled by private tutors and allowed to play with other children only under the smiling eye of his English nanny or his French ma’m’- selle, and that his wealthily divorced mother had insisted, until he was eleven years old, on dressing him every Sunday in “adorable” tartan kilts that came from Bergdorf Goodman.

In short, the tragedy of Frank and April is that they missed a trick. Shep, their sort of whipping boy of boringness, has in his own way achieved the rebellion they idly fantasise about, simply because he is living in accordance with his own tastes and values and not those he was raised with. He has no trappings of interestingness, but his story (like everyone’s) is far more complicated than is apparent from the outside. Dissatisfied with their lives, disconnected from their community, Frank and April sought refuge in the idea that they were extraordinary. But there is no more uniting, invigorating, and mind-expanding an experience than finally figuring out how ordinary we really are.


If you'd like to hear about my upcoming courses and events, like "How Not to Think Like Sherlock Holmes" or "The yet to be named Philosophy course based on Doctor Who." please sign up to my mailing list and I will very very occasionally send you information about these things.