One of my handful of readers, KCJ, who is writing a dissertation about Richard Yates, said in an email that “as to Yates’s mental illness you will have to read Disturbing the Peace; it’s an extraordinary account of mental decline. How he did it as deftly as he did while almost always very nearly going through the very thing he is describing is astonishing.” She was responding to my remarks on Bailey’s biography of Yates, when I said that “one thing that we learn in reading the biography, although I believe this appears in some of Yates’s work that I haven’t read yet, is that Yates wasn’t just dealing with fierce alcoholism, and compulsive smoking with lungs which were ruined in the war, but full-blown mental illness, babbling psychotic breaks.”
I wasn’t really thinking about reading another Yates book right away. I still have a Jewett book to finish, and I’ve been working on Annie Fields and who knows what else. More importantly, however, I have a strong sense that there’s only so much Yates left, a case of fine literary wine that will be gone all too quickly and very soon. But, against that, I guess I’m a big fan and sucker for the “mental illness genre,” such as it is. I suppose that a big part of my interest in Virginia Woolf stems from her personal psychological complexity. The whole “fine line between genius and madness” thing fascinates me, along with crazy people in general, but especially those who are able to turn pain and distress into art and literature, and express an alternative viewpoint. And let’s just say that I’m not exactly the most stable, easy-going, uncomplicated and conservative guy myself.
At first blush I would say that, relatively speaking (to Yates’s other work), I found Disturbing the Peace a bit uneven and insubstantial, but classic and masterful in its own way. Yates maintains his singular, deft voice and craft, which are fully satisfying, for me at least. Pretty good story very well told, and all that. And the fact that Yates was able to compose this book and write in that clear, engaging, supremely truthful voice is fairly amazing, as the Bailey biography and KCJ’s reaction attest. By all rights Yates should have been dead in a terribly lonely room or a gutter somewhere, but he managed to hold out, and with this book, and perhaps in part by using it to get “the crazy thing” out of his system, he actually embarked on a surprisingly productive later phase. There’s an intriguing process going on in this novel, and that’s what I’m primarily going to babble about.
There’s a strong purgative element in the narrative here, as if Yates is using the book to distance himself from his own experience of madness, pushing it further and further away before retiring it into an institution at the end. This is a standard response to a breakdown, an attempt to find a way in which it seems to have happened to somebody else, but finding it laid out in a very artfully constructed work of fiction is rather extraordinary. Yates seems to have created the character of John Wilder as a vessel for his own most difficult, shameful, and harrowing experiences. In the first part of the novel we feel Yates inside of Wilder’s newly formed skin, blinking to a sort of life after death/dissolution–the death of the integrated, socialized self–wandering around amongst the lost souls of Bellevue, piecing together a version of being, one that is capable of walking back into the world. When I say that the novel seems uneven, it’s because this first section of the book is so powerful, real, and “close”–it’s a document by a survivor, his best effort at remembering and recording a journey to the underworld. It’s detailed and coherent and of course artful, although it doesn’t seem that way; it seems accurate, honest, and a little raw. But more importantly, it’s as if Yates has created John Wilder as a character with the specific purpose of putting his beloved objective correlative to use, for very personal reasons. Wilder is a sort of living and breathing talisman for his own feelings and experience. If Yates can express the emotional turmoil of madness through John Wilder, it somehow won’t be such a private and isolated personal experience for him anymore. Or something like that. I’m sure my argument here doesn’t make sense, but it seems to me that Yates puts Wilder into the forge of Bellvue, releases him as a sort of object, and then plays his own authorial cat-and-mouse games with him. This of course isn’t so different from the standard process of fiction and characterization, but Yates’s own stated penchant for this approach prompts the thought, and this story and its subject matter seem to be an especially extreme version of the device. Objectivity and ”distancing” are of course essential components of fiction, and Revolutionary Road and Frank Wheeler are great examples of the basic approach, creating an accessible, universal Everyman and showing his disaffection and emptiness, his growing sense that despite seeming to be in the middle of things he’s no more than a ghostly and marginal presence (good luck with that, Leo). Disturbing the Peace begins in that ghostly world, and takes that disintegrated approach to character as its starting point and premise. The “peace” and mindless hum of everyday life reigns supreme, and the creation of a conscious being within it is nothing more than a mild disturbance.
And so the games begin–and enough with the airy speculation on theoretical concepts at work here. As pathetic and intriguing as John Wilder is in the first part of the book, the story goes to great lengths to contain him and keep him from coming to life. Blake Bailey, amongst others I’m sure, mentions how DtP exposes the lie that Yates was immune from the postmodern metafictions that dominated the 60s and 70s. Yates’s realism was highly crafted in the first place, and that artistry adapts itself quite easily to the complicated project at hand. Having assembled a character out of fractured pieces, he finds a number of ways to show that his world isn’t real and might not even exist. John Wilder returns to his wife and child, who barely seem to know he’s there. Paul, his best friend and guide in and out of Bellevue, a sort of doppelganger with whom he shares a small Village apartment for clandestine affairs, who ends up as his wife Janice’s “true husband” at the end of the story, is named “Borg,” perhaps in a nod at 60s/70s sci-fi. The fact that Wilder is good at his job of selling ad space in a scientific magazine shows the emptiness of his enterprise; the “real” world is dead, technological, and occupied by automatons. These are basic disaffections that are familiar from RevRoad and its artful realism, as is the exquisite scene when Wilder barely manages to swim out to the raft on the lake and becomes fixated on the beautiful young girl. She’s alive somehow, and he isn’t; she’s a swimmer and a diver (like his wife and child), and he’s just barely capable of moving through the water to get back to the shore so that he can get his next drink, empty his next bottle. We feel Wilder holding himself together, on edge and all nerves in the manner of the rehabilitated mental patient, and when he sees the girl on the raft we know he doesn’t even begin to have the strength to make it back to his old life. Was it ever there at all?
And then the second half of the book begins, which is playful and humorous, although it’s a very dark little joke–isn’t that all we are, Yates is saying–and more than worthy of Pynchon and Barth, stronger, funnier, and more deeply existential and human because of its starting point in Bellevue. The story seems real enough that it’s easy to miss the comedy, especially since it’s not all that funny, or at least not until you realize that Wilder’s notus and he’s not Yates either, and he’s “just” a 60s/70s untethered wild man and play thing. Wilder’s foil for his journey into the era’s house of mirrors is Pamela, a big mod leap forward from April Wheeler, and one could spend a good amount of time analyzing Yates’s women in comparison to each other. The dynamic of the transition from RevRoad is that April and the consequence of her fate, which was literally aborted, is reduced to Janice, while Maureen and her inconsequence is expanded and embraced in Pamela, all in the service of a walk on the “wild” side.
Interestingly, for me at least, the empty heart of the joke here is the movies and the movie business. John Wilder and Pamela are two more 20th century characters who are ruined by cinema. Wilder has always loved the movies and role-playing (one could easily find good supportive details in the film references), and his bond with Pamela is forged when they discover a mutual love of film. Pamela uncovers and shares Wilder’s secret dream of being a producer–the job of doing nothing. This begins the first of Yates’s convolutions, folding the story onto itself very neatly, just like making an omelette, as Wilder adapts his Bellevue experience into the subject of a low-budget independent film, the production of which actually goes very smoothly, although it is never finished. Smoothy that is, except for Wilder and his sanity. The execution of this entire section is just amazing, partly because of its underground, furtive status. Wilder is on a fake vacation and lying to his wife about a business trip in order to make a secret move about himself and his experience of madness. How great is that? So great that he succumbs to delusions of grandeur and suffers his second breakdown–even better! He rebuilds himself once more and begins drug therapy (with a shrink named “Brink”), before falling under Pamela’s spell once more, and they try to do the movie thing the “real” way and move out to Los Angeles. This conclusive move is only more devastating and degrading than everything else Wilder has already been through, and when his madness inevitably returns it is closer to its hostile, aggressive, and angry roots, back to the basic rage of fear and loathing seen in Yates’s story “The B.A.R. Man.”
And so the major thrust of the second half of DtP is the exploitation of the story of madness that, as I said, Yates crafted so carefully in bringing Wilder to life, and this storyline creates the extreme distancing effect and the objectification of Wilder and his madness. But Yates goes further and shows a determination and commitment to enjoy the “fun” of postmodern storytelling. If we were thinking that John Wilder, by the time he’s making the underground movie of his breakdown, isn’t Yates, he makes sure of it by appearing in the story as Chester Pratt, the gifted author of “Burn Down All Your Cities,” who has a serious drinking problem. Pamela goes to live with Pratt in Washington DC while he is writing Civil Rights speeches for Bobby Kennedy, but she leaves him because of his alcoholism, which prompts her return to Wilder and their move to California. Pratt is a raging drunk who is squandering his gifts as a novelist, but at least he’s not crazy like Wilder. Just to show that he’s having fun in earnest, Pratt is hired as the screenwriter for the Hollywood version of Wilder’s Bellevue story, and in Wilder’s final disintegration he knows that Pamela is returning to “Chet.” In L.A., the story and characters truly become a hall of mirrors. There are a number of pithy details, as the Hollywood characters critique Wilder’s movie story, talking about how his work in advertising is a mundane cliche, and we hear Chester Pratt’s private analysis of how he is going to turn Wilder’s little tale into a commercial film that just might be worthy of his talent and effort, allowing him to regain his squandered gift and buy him time to write a novel.
I found DtP to be a compelling read, but not as satisfying as Easter Parade. But as with that book, writing about it spurs a number of discoveries of its complexity and richness, and its depths and accomplishment really start to emerge upon analysis. This book seems to have been liberating for Yates, as one can imagine, and it is very well done–others will do a clearer, more careful, much better job of revealing its worth and complexity over time. As hard as it is to process fully, this dark story of madness, with its signature devastating view of the American male and the human condition, does seem somehow to have been Richard Yates’s idea of fun and a good time.