Crazy Suburban Pop Culture Moments this past week: John Updike’s "Couples" and the novel and new film, "Revolutionary Road"

As part of my continued interest in a field I’m calling “Suburban Studies,” or, more appropriately, “Crazy in Suburbia Studies,” I recently acquainted myself with two notable and recently newsworthy depictions of the despair of suburban life.

First, as I mentioned in an earlier post eulogizing the passing of John Updike, first man of American letters and chronicler of suburban ennui extraordinaire, I was going to crack open a paperback copy of one his novels that I have sitting on my book shelf. This is his infamous 1968 novel Couples. (I probably bought it a couple years ago at the now closed independent and used bookstore, Bonanza Street Books, formerly in downtown Walnut Creek.)

It’s not a happy-skippy book. I’m only about 100 pages into it, but I’ve already been introduced to a fair share of marital discord, sexual frustration, family dysfunction, infidelity, chronic drinking, and dissatisfaction with the whole American dream. The book has been called an “intellectual Peyton Place,” which is probably true. The characters are all prosperous, educated, well-read—some with advanced degrees—and should be able to figure their way out of the traps they think they find themselves in. Also, the author is John Updike, so the prose is poetic, smart, and precise in its depiction of the inner and out lives of people yearning and suffering for some notion, that they can’t define, of better, more meaningful lives.
Like the TV show Mad Men, Couples takes place in the early 1960s, the Kennedy era, supposedly a time of optimism about America’s new economic prosperity and central place in global political and cultural power. In America, the suburbs were booming, with new residential developments to house a growing, prosperous population.

With regard to the changing American landscape, here’s a passage where one of the main characters, Piet Hanema, himself a homebuilder, contemplates the housing boom of which he’s a part. He’s driving through his hometown, a suburb of Boston, on his way to one of his building sites, located, as he soon discovers—but apparently something that wouldn’t raise eyebrows among historical preservationists back then—on the site of an old Indian burial ground.

His spirits slightly lifted as he passed the Prostestant cemetery, fan-shaped acres expanding from a Puritan wedge of titled slate stones adorned with winged skulls and circular lichen. Order reigned. Soon cemeteries and golf courses the last greenswards. … He drove through pastel new developments, raw lawns and patchwork facades, and up a muddy set up ruts besides which hydrants and sewer ports were already installed, in obedience to town ordinances, to his site on Indian Hill. The bulldozer had arrived…

This landscape passage is filled with that brooding sense of life passing you by, of loss, of death. And, again, of alienation. As I write this, my husband, who read Couples in college, points out the irony of the title, Couples. The book, he says, is ultimately about isolation and separation.
Speaking of that brooding sense of life passing you by, of loss, of death, and of isolation, I also went to see the film version of the 1961 Richard Yates’ novel, Revolutionary Road. The film stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as April and Frank Wheeler, an attractive but unhappy young couple living in a Connecticut suburb in the late 1950s. The film was one of the most hotly anticipated prestige films of 2008, and it was considered a shoo-in for Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and its two stars. Alas, it didn’t do as well as expected, critically and popularly.
I can see why it wouldn’t catch on, at least as a popular hit. The characters are not easy to like and the story, like Updikes’ Couples, is not happy-skippy. Like Couples, it is full of marital discord, sexual frustration, alienation, family dysfunction, too much drinking, and dissatisfaction with the whole American dream.
Given my crazy ways, I liked the movie. Actually, I liked the movie more than I thought. I was wary of it, not because I shy away from dark, difficult, complicated movies with dark, difficult, complicated characters, but because I read Yates’ novel a year or so ago, and I loved it. It’s often considered the original anti-suburban novel, way before Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm or Tom Perrotta’s Little Children.
I was sure this film adaptation of Revolutionary Road would disappoint. Also, I was not a big fan of American Beauty, the 2000 anti-suburban Best Picture-winning film directed by Sam Mendes, the director of Revolutionary Road (and husband of Kate Winslet). I found American Beauty’s statements about the dark side of the suburban dream to be a little too easy and cliché. Revolutionary Road, the novel, does its job with a lot more subtlety, and I wasn’t sure Mendes was up to the task. I also worried that the story would be overshadowed by the personalities of the film’s two stars, in their first re-teaming as an on-screen couple since that overblown Academy Award-winning 1997 blockbuster Titanic.
But I came away from the movie thinking that Mendes and Co. managed to pull off a pretty good adaptation and to nail what Yates considered to be the central theme of his book: “If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”

The novelist Richard Ford, in a 2000 essay about Revolutionary Road, the novel, in the New York Times Book Review, picked up on another central theme of the book. He writes: “To a casual passer-by, the Wheelers’ lives might not seem so different from their neighbors’—the pleasures and anxieties being the available, expectable ones: tipsy, twilight dinners with other like-minded homeowners, easy shots to and from the commuter line, the comfort of being indistinguishably in the culture while staying solidly in command of life’s fundamental choices.”

But in reality, the Wheelers, like many of the rest of us, Ford wrote, “suffer from a wan inability to keep the frustrations of youth’s passage precisely at bay, the fatigue of the workplace grind, and the puzzlement of keeping life interesting and vigorous while maintaining the nuclear unit intact.”

The thing about the Wheelers is that they want to believe they are “above” the conventional and stultifying, conforming aspirations of the American suburban life-style. They want to believe they are special.

To prove they are special, April, the frustrated suburban housewife and mom, comes up with a desperate plan of escape. Frank will quit his dull corporate job, and they will sell their cozy suburban home and move themselves and their two young children to Paris, where, in a grass-is-always-greener-across-the-Atlantic fantasy that Frank harbors, “people are really alive.”

But it turns out that the Wheelers are not so special. Frank, at 29, is actually, as Richard Ford writes, a “deluded, dissipated bore who imagines himself as an intense, nicotine-stained Jean Paul Sartre-sort of man,” while April struggles “to set a go-nowhere life onto new rails that will lead her family (or more particularly lead her) to Paris and a main chance at freedom.”
Circumstances arise—or, as we say, s— happens—that threaten to derail the Paris dream, and both April and Frank let themselves be done in by these circumstances, perhaps because, as Ford said, they lack “the moral vigor to control” them.

Possibly, the most poignant moment in the film comes when April faces a certain reality about herself and her husband and tells him, “We’re really not that special.” Somehow, that struck me as a terribly human realization that a lot of us have to come to: we’re not that special in a way that we have convinced ourselves we need to be.

After that moment of realization for April and Frank, tragedy, of course, ensues. I won’t say what the big tragic event is, in case you haven’t read the book, and you’re thinking you might want to brave this movie. It might not lift your mood, but it will get you thinking. And that’s not always a bad thing is it?

Meanwhile, as I write this, it’s Sunday morning in suburbia. A cloudy Sunday morning, with bare winter trees visible outside my window. Revisiting the world of Couples and Revolutionary Road is, yes, thought-provoking and a way that can be exciting. But right now, both works’ sense of loss, loneliness, and essential misery at the heart of human life—whether you live in the supposedly dull, stultifying suburbs, or in more “alive” Paris—is probably not the best pick me up.

I’m about ready to sink into one of my crazy moods, and I don’t really want to let that happen.

My husband just popped in the room to say that he and my son are going to head to Starbucks in a half hour. That’s their occasional Sunday-morning rituals Starbucks on Walnut Creek’s Locust Street, where they will indulge in breakfast sandwiches and hot chocolate. My husband invited me to come along, and I think I better go. Enjoy some time with the two most important people in my life. Also, I also hope those clouds mean rain today. I love rainy days.

3 thoughts on “Crazy Suburban Pop Culture Moments this past week: John Updike’s "Couples" and the novel and new film, "Revolutionary Road"

  1. I was also pleasantly surprised by the movie version of Revolutionary Road, since I was a big fan when I read it a few years ago. I think the movie does a better job of giving the wife’s point of view than the book did.


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