Easter Parade

9780312278281_p0_v1_s114x166book by Richard Yates
Annotation by Lorinda Toledo

Richard Yates is an author who is not afraid of ambitious stories.  He has an innate understanding of the deepest fears of the human psyche, and the human struggle to find happiness and meaning.  Through carefully crafted scenes, he shows – in deftly woven emotion and external plot – that despite the Grimes sisters’ best efforts, they cannot escape the burden of their parents’ legacy.  The Easter Parade is almost a novella (only 180 pages) but within that short space, Yates guides the reader through an innately paced 50 years of complex life for two sisters, Sarah and Emily Grimes.

The story is ostensibly told in the voice of an omniscient narrator, but the viewpoint is actually Emily’s.  Five years her sister’s junior, Emily suffers from a fear of being alone, and this fear, along with her innocence, colors her perspective of the story throughout the book.  Like Sarah, Emily’s entire life is shaped by her parents divorce; and, from the book’s opening line, Yates succinctly sets up the narrative to be that of a long history:

“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back, it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce” (295).

As a result, the reader is not confused or distracted wondering what this story is about; nor is the reader jarred by the rapidity of the sisters growing older.

The book is divided in three parts, which helps moderate the passage of time.  This format allows Yates to jump ahead many years and then catch the reader up in just a sentence or two:

“Whenever Emily thought about her sister over the next few years – and it wasn’t often – she reminded herself that she’d done her best” (421).

Part One covers the girls’ childhood and adolescence, all the way up until both their marriages.  Part Two covers how their marriages affected their adult lives, and what sort of people they’ve become in order to avoid making their parent’s mistakes.  Emily divorces her first husband, after he confesses in lewd, unfeeling detail that he hates her body because of his own inability to perform sexually.  Instead, she pursues a life as a career woman and has a string of men who come and go over the years.  Sarah, on the other hand, sees marriage as a refuge, and hopes that it will save her:

“I’ve always thought of marriage as being – well, sacred…I was a virgin when I got married and I’ve been a virgin ever since” (416).

She invests in this belief even after it is revealed that her husband, a handsome man who Emily once lusted after, has been beating her “…once or twice a month for about – well, twenty years” (413).  Part Three covers the downward spiral of Sarah and Emily.  It is the reckoning of how the choices they’ve made play out at the end of their lives.

Despite Yates’ promise in the opening line that the Grimes sisters’ story will not be a happy one, the narrative twists and turns with high and low points, giving the reader the sensation of riding a car climbing up a winding path toward the top of a mountain.  You stay despite the fact that you’ve already been told that without fail, the car is going to drive off the cliff.  Rather than being a spoiler, it creates built-in tension.  Each chapter makes a neat little arc that begins with a new stage of the girls’ life.  For example, chapter two begins with the girls having reached puberty — “It was Sarah who gave Emily her first information about sex” (301) — and then ends with a pivotal moment that leads to the next stage in the next chapter:  “They were married in the fall of 1941…”(315).  Yates also tends to maximize his use of the seasons to indicate the passage of time and to create foreshadowing; in this case indicating that Sarah is about to enter an unhappy marriage — more like a brutal winter than a bright summer.

Yates provides enough morbid clues along the way that when bad things happen, tension builds and draws the reader in even more.  For example, a tackle shop sign bearing the words “Blood and Sandworms” (349) is mentioned as the sole distinct thing about the town in which Sarah lives, and it is the perfect metaphor for the life she has with Tony and their three boys.  Tony is a brutal man, but no one aside from Emily ever acknowledges it – and even she ultimately prefers to look the other way in order to keep living her own life uninterrupted:

“If Sarah had left her husband she might want to stay with her sister for a while – maybe a long while – which would inconvenience Michael Hogan [Emily’s casual lover]” (416).

Still, Yates keeps the reader invested in the story because he provides enough glimmers of hope that you press on, thinking that things don’t seem all bad, maybe it will actually work out for these characters.  The most obvious example is the scene in Sarah and her sweetheart head out to the Easter Parade, dressed up and happy:

Emily and [her mother] watched from the windows as the open car rolled past on its way uptown – Tony turning briefly from the wheel to smile at them, Sarah holding her hat in place with one hand and waving with the other – and then they were gone…
…The picture came out the following Sunday in a pageful of other, less striking photographs.  The camera had caught Sarah and Tony smiling at each other like the very soul of romance in the April sunshine, with massed trees and a high corner of the Plaza hotel visible behind them…
…Emily knew how important it was to have as many copies as possible.  It was a picture that could be mounted and framed and treasured forever (314).

That is really what The Easter Parade is about – the hope that people cling to in their lives, just as the photo of Sarah and her soon-to-be betrothed represents a kind of mythology of life’s happiness for the Grimes sisters.

Yates shows in this novel that it is possible to encompass many years and layers of a characters life into one succinct tale.  As a writer, I often struggle to show the depth of a character’s life within the pages I have written, but it is what a good writer strives to do.  Not every book needs to cover a character’s entire life, but it is a skill to be able to do so.  Whether or not that is the case, it is essential that any written work is crafted to make use of all the various layers of a character’s life – whether it be through peripheral characters, family life, setting or seasons.  In The Easter Parade, Yates has mastered this, and as a result had created a skilled portrayal of the search for the meaning of life – and that is perhaps the most formidable task that any writer can hope to achieve.

The Easter Parade

Easter Paradebook by Richard Yates

annotation by Neal Bonser

One of my favorite complements a music writer ever gave my band went something like this: “All of these songs felt as if they already existed and they were just waiting for the right band to come along and discover them.”

That’s what Yates’s prose is like. The sentences already existed in a completely natural state, and Yates just came along and unearthed them, found them in some magic box buried in Iowa or Boston or wherever he was at the time. His biography clearly indicates the exact opposite. He tortured himself for these sentences and didn’t even think much of them once they were written. (I read in something online that he thought Easter Parade “too slight” or something like that to be of consequence. Why do we writers do this to ourselves? And I’m feeling undeserving to be putting myself in Yates’s category right about now.)

The cumulative result of these sentences is that the story unfolds just as naturally as the sentences. There’s no questioning a plot turn. No questioning a gap in time, why some events are dramatized and some are summarized. The storytelling quality of the novel is so right on the money. It just feels correct. Unquestionable.

I usually try to read novels with an eye out for how I can learn and improve my own writing by reading this work. Reading Yates reminds me of watching a guitar player who is so much better than me that I’m not even sure what he’s doing. Most guitar players I watch and say, “Okay, that was cool. Interesting choice. Maybe I should try that.” But some are just so innovative that I’m just baffled and learn nothing.

Yates is not innovative. He works in the milieu of realist fiction. He’s not flashy. But whatever the truth is behind its creation, his prose feels effortless. My prose is like wringing blood out of a wash cloth that I just used to staunch the blood flow from my forehead. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic.

I think what I can learn from The Easter Parade comes from Yates’s biography. Writing was torture for him just like the rest of us. He had the doubts. But look at what he created. Not much craft analysis going on here, but I somehow come away from this rather depressing novel encouraged and wanting to make more of my own writing. Sentence by sentence.

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Roadbook by Richard Yates

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

This book was such a great read on so many levels. I got into it right away with the theater group, with a few wistful memories toward a teen reading of Marjorie Morningstar . But Yates manipulated that fifties nostalgia, proving that all of the hopes and dreams of the theater troupe turned out to be nothing but blue gel romance and it was really just another suburban disappointment. It was interesting that Yates took us here first, like a wide view of a small town before honing in on the intensity of April and Frank’s marriage. Each step forward brings us into their close world so that once we are inside the marriage we get a wonderful theatrical feeling of claustrophobia. First the troupe, then the social tension with canceling an evening with the Campbells, then we are in the car in one of those wretched fights of a bad marriage that doesn’t make any sense but goes back to the beginning of the relationship. It is obvious, from here that this is not about two people working out their problems, it is about two people trying like hell to ignore them and to forge forward with a normal semblance of life.

Yates was able to take simple and familiar elements of the suburban environment and have them reflect his character’s inner struggles. I could write a five page paper about Frank’s stone walk. Yates captured the humidity, the stupid backbreaking work of getting nowhere and not only the pain of the task, but the frustration that sets in when he realizes that he has accomplished nothing. The stone sitting too high after so much labor and the children observing this was such a fantastic “aarrgh!” Without having to say it, Yates gives us that David Byrne, “My God, how did I get here?” A thing of literary beauty.

This one scene in Revolutionary Road was enough to remind me to pay attention to what I can exploit more in my characters’ environment.

Yates revealed April to us carefully, in increments. Toward the beginning, we are given her difficult background, the fact that she’s a bit cold because of it and the fact that these two can’t seem to find each other because they manage to turn away at exactly the moments they should have been reaching out. His technique of putting in conversations the way Frank would have wanted them to go is a lot of fun. I’m thinking of stealing it, to show how difficult it is for my hero to find purchase in their new world, but I’ve got to introduce the erraticness of their real conversation first.

April’s plan for Paris and the fever that both she and Frank catch for it is gorgeously written. Here is where we get the first inkling the girl may be off her nut and here is where we get the sense that Frank might actually really love her. He is so happy to see her happy and she is so enthusiastic, that the two get riled up together, both so grateful to be in agreement about something, that they spin it into giddiness. And through this frenzy and hope, and joy, Yates lets us know somehow that we are truly in a tragedy and these two are headed somewhere really awful. The title itself lets us know that despite putting their house on the market and telling everyone they know, they are never going to leave Revolutionary Road.

John Givings is such a great character and so well written. Givings enters like Lear’s fool and calls it like it is. Of course it is the insane man that sees that their trip to Europe is a great idea. Frank observes this and here is where the doubt for him sets in. Givings also creates a great turn of angle on the view of his parents. We had seen Mrs. Givings as interfering, well meaning neighbor, and her husband as dotty and disconnected but her son’s view of her exposes her for the fraud she is: just trying to make nice and impress. Howard’s reaction to his son’s misbehavior and his irritation with his wife lets us know that there is a lot more going on with him than we’d first thought. Mrs. Giving’s life revolves around making things nice and Yates is careful to wrap the story up with her. Mrs. Giving is the voice of Revolutionary Road, smoothing over the suburban morass. We end with her cutting off visits with her son and of course, with Howard turning off his hearing aid.

The tension around the final climax was so cleverly built. I did love Frank’s big-man thoughts as he went to break up with his tootsie. It seems he didn’t really need a new job or a new life, just a promotion and for his wife to be nice to him. He is so together when he goes home to find his wife completely unhinged, it’s a great contrast. Yates captured the drama of an all-night fight, when everything comes out and time takes on peculiar proportions and how, finally, a body needs sleep. Frank’s hoping it was all a dream the next morning was such a nice detail and completely true to the surreal qualities a midnight fight carries. Once April fixed him breakfast, I was sure she was just going to kill herself. Suicide’s such a constant literary device, so her different approach was a nice twist. She didn’t want to die, she just didn’t want to have another child.

Brilliant, too, was Frank’s reflection after arguing with April to keep the baby, that it might be a kid he didn’t even want. We had gotten no sense of his having any real affection for his children, so it was obvious from the beginning that this deep month-long argument was simply based in his wanting to win. There are so many layers to a marriage, particularly a bad one, and Yates was so careful to show it through circumstance and dysfunction rather than calling it like it was. He could have said outright, “she was incapable of love because of her childhood, he was trapped because of the children ” but it would have said so much less about these two than their wrangles, poor decisions, brief hopes and self destructiveness.

This book an incredibly useful reminder that to make a relationship between two people real, all of the layers and subtleties need to be addressed.

Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Roadbook by Richard Yates

annotation by Devin Galaudet

Several years ago I started reading a book by Michael Chabon named, the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Within a few pages, I found myself reading the book slower and slower. I loved the book and within a hundred pages I decided to limit the amount of pages I was reading it at one time. I settled upon three. It would eventually take several months to finish it, but glad I took the time I did. I wanted to savour it and appreciate it as a great piece of writing and story telling. Turns out I was not alone. Kavalier and Clay became the Pulitzer Prize winner for 2001.

This was my big problem with Revolutionary Road. Within ten pages or so, I wanted the same time to slowly read Revolutionary Road. Normally I would just drag it around with me reading it in the bathroom, waiting to pick up my kid and later kicking around what I had just read. No such luck.

I had to read this one quickly, plowing through it in airports and, in fact, skimming chunks at a time and annoyed with what I was doing, while I was doing it. What made matter worse was the same applied with the other required book for the month, The Things They Carried – I would have chosen to read this one slowly as well.

So what did I like that made me want to read it slowly? For starters, the book starts out in the third person plural – and does it well. Who the heck does that? I must say just the attempt was captivating because it is unusual and appropriate to the rise and fall of the entire company, which could be a bit of an analogy for the whole novel in its hopeful beginning and that eventually snowballs into tragedy. The initial “they” could be talking to the Wheelers in general by presenting a charming young couple that take that same nose dive in personally tragic turns.

Yates does a great job in unraveling what I thought I knew about the idyllic 50s and Happy Days by presenting a seemingly upwardly mobile couple and showing their increasing flaws before turning their lives into a tragedy with April Wheelers death from a botched abortion. I imagine a very dangerous topic in 1961. Moreover, Yates has this ability to tell this story better than the story itself might suggest. Unhappy couple find themselves above the Jones and more than their suburbanite lives suggest. In their plans to escape.

The narrative, as well as the dialogue, was serious, believable and at times pretty funny. I think at one point Frank listens to Bart become more dignified by using words like, “obviously and furthermore” instead of “fart and bully-button. And then toward the end when the faceless morass of doctors were describing the end of April by using only bits of disjointed dialogue that pulled the reader into a chaotic situation and/or listening with chaotic ears. Both were engaging and effective.
I also have there are subtler things going on so I likely missed lots of details and literary devices. So I will be rereading this one again over the next few weeks, maybe months because there is a lot here to digest and learn from. I have also picked up Yates’ collection of short stories.