Posted by: zhiv | December 11, 2008

James Wood and Richard Price on Yates and Revolutionary Road

We’ve known for a long time that this December would arrive and go through its twists and turns, but that doesn’t make you any more ready for it.

I guess I’ll start by talking about my television set, appropriately enough for all of this 50s material, which was the Age of Television, along with so many other things, like Advertising and Anxiety.  A few years ago I bought the last of the great Sony projection TVs, and didn’t pay a whole lot of money for 65″ and HD, not much more than a thousand dollars.  It’s the size of a Smart Car, and we built a custom “entertainment center” which has bookshelves on the sides, because it’s so deep or wide or whatever the hell it is (I’ve been thinking about getting my son to help me start putting photos up on this blog, and this might be the perfect opportunity.)  It’s a pretty good set up, with the multiple speakers and everything, not exactly state-of-the-art by any means, but it gets the job done, watching movies and sports.  Sometimes people walk into the back den, making their way past more than a few bookshelves en route, and they say “wow–that’s a big TV!”

As I was leaving the office on Monday night my assistant stopped me, with a smile on her face:  “X (my boss/partner) got a screener–I thought you might want this.”  And she handed me an Academy screening copy of Revolutionary Road. 

I drove home confused.  I could end the suspense and be watching  the movie on my big TV, just like a number of Academy members and their families.  My wife had a friend over, who happened to be a person to whom I gave a copy of Revolutionary Road.  “Don’t you remember?  You made me read it!” she said.  I had been planning to watch the 4-16 Clippers find a new way to lose, and that’s what ended up happening.  I lost my nerve.  I wasn’t ready.  I wanted the movie experience to be a true movie experience.  RevRoad is already enough like Mad Men, which I already watch on my TV.  The women had been ready to watch the movie, if I had made any sort of move, but they ended up chatting away and the window passed.

So the movie is out there and I could see it.  There are press screenings and Q&A screenings and people are seeing it and writing about it, and I probably shouldn’t be shy. 

And I’d also like to be cruising around the internet and seeing what people are saying and organizing things a bit, perhaps.  I saw the Richard Price piece a few days ago.  It’s apparently the introduction to the edition that James Wood is reviewing, interestingly enough.  Price has his own abundant Hollywood connections, of course, and I had heard from his former agent that he was in awe of Yates, along with a version of the story of the reading that Price relates in the introduction.  Price follows Richard Ford and Richard Russo as members of the “writer’s writer” introduction club.

James Wood is a different order of magnitude.  I guess it’s good that I tested out my “review of a New Yorker review” machine last week on Adam Gopnick and Freaky Johnson.  I can talk about James Wood in the same easygoing way that I talk about my TV.  Somehow I completely missed the whole thing where he became the preeminent literary critic of our day, just a giant, absolute whiff, and I only started to hear his name about a year ago, maybe a little while before that.  Huh?  Who?  What?  Put it down to the day job, or the fact that I’m an amateur, whatever.  What do I know?  That’s right–nothing.

I have to say that I’m kind of proud of the fact that I’m actually well-versed enough in Yates to know about every single thing that Wood is talking about.  That’s a lie.  I haven’t read Cold Spring Harbor yet, dammit!  He got me, right at the end.

Wood’s piece is obviously a major, important piece of Yates criticism, and there aren’t that many of them.  It’s dense and layered–careful now, can something be dense and layered at the same time? is it really dense?  or is it just layered?  It would be nice to get this right, but that’s part of the problem of doing it on the fly–, a formidable essay that says a whole lot about what Yates was saying.  He even throws Mad Men out there, tossing it off in an aside, but coming back to explain what he means a bit later, an interesting bit on the cheat of how we root for Peggy Olson to succeed at her copywriter job–but he doesn’t mention how we were crushed when Joan Holloway had her job as a script reader snatched away from her.  So we could spend lots of time talking about Wood on Yates, but I can’t really dig in right now.  I will say, however, that Wood does a really good job exploring Yates and male identity, and reading the stories from 11 Kinds of Loneliness and Revolutionary Road leads one naturally enough in this direction.  It’s meaty stuff.  But what’s missing?  As one blog commenter said about the novels past Rev Road, “it’s Pookie and Pookie and then more Pookie.”  It’s amazing, actually, that Wood makes it all the way through his pass at Yates and never mentions his mother, especially when examining his attitudes towards masculinity and women.   We get the Dad and his absence, along with his hands, we get April’s absent parents, we get the war (but no Shep Campbell, unfortunately), but the primary, original source for Yates’s deep ambivalence towards women, and towards women who have to work and raise children, or should be, but choose to be artists instead,  never gets mentioned.  Just saying.

Good stuff. And great in all sorts of ways, Wood articulating wonderful details and elements, but especially nice to recall this fantastic line, which the one or two careful readers of this blog will know sounds the depths of my own affinities with Yates:  “It’s as if everybody’s made this tacit agreement to live in a state of total self-deception.” 

How great is that?


  1. I’m in the middle of the Wood article now and thought of you immediately … I guessed you’d have something up on it! The article was beginning to make me feel uncertain about Yates, though — it was Wood’s description of a couple of his stories with male characters who are absolutely assholes to women that did it. I’ll have to finish the article, obviously, but I’m wondering what I’ll make of it.

  2. Yates’s men often are vile to women but I think Yates is wrongly accused of misogny, if that doesn’t sound like a paradox. He is more misanthropic than misogonist. The point is that his women are no picnic either and that everyone is to blame for what happens in his work. That things will go wrong is never in doubt (and that puts off a lot of readers) but what interests him is the how and why and everyone is implicated.

  3. What she said.

    I can see how Yates would sound more than a little scary from the Wood review, especially to a female reader who doesn’t feel a need to read about the complicated and quietly desperate and destructive men that Wood dissects so well. But as KCJ says, it’s balanced. RevRoad, which I believe D. has read, shows the basic approach at its best–no one is really to blame, everybody doing their best, but it’s not good enough at all and life is pain. I’ll try to pick this up and say more later, but the main thing is that the stories, virtually all of them, are extraordinary in one way or another.

  4. Every time I read one of your posts there’s something I’m dying to respond to. Here I’m confused — the only Woods piece I was aware of was a “review” of the movie tie-in edition of RR not of the Omnibus with the Price intro. Hence no mention of Dookie. Is there another article out there where he addresses Easter Parade and Eleven Kinds? And even Price’s intro?

    I agree that the piece I saw, on RR, was breathtaking. Again and again he hits on exactly what it is about Dad. “The beautifully alert poise of his prose” !

    I had that identical sense of huh? about Woods, but aren’t we lucky to have him!

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