An MA student, Rubén, asks me to supervise his dissertation on Richard Yates’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road –a novel I promised myself not to touch ever after seeing the film adaptation (because of its very ugly plot). Yet, what can I do? I like his proposal to consider 1950s masculinity and so… I must read Yates. Another student, Diana, an undergrad, has asked me to work on the representation of love in contemporary fiction for her BA thesis. Since she’s in Dublin as an Erasmus student, I have persuaded her to focus on an Irish author. After some searching, we’ve fallen in love with Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1997). I read the two novels back to back over the weekend and I come to the conclusion that we don’t choose books: they seek us out (to help our reading lists cohere).
Still reeling from the impact of Nancy’s death in Oliver Twist when read aloud in class (just imagine Dickens reading that in public, as he did on his famous farewell tours), I’ve had to face something not so different in Yates’s sickening portrait of American 1955 suburbia and in Doyle’s stark portrait of Dublin’s working-class life in the 1980s and 1990s. The three texts have male novelists consider the plight of abused women, though, of course, the specific nature of the abuse and the social condition of the woman in question is very different. Also, the narrative technique.
Dickens, who could report with such chilling effect the death of a real young woman in one of his sketches (as I commented on), turns Nancy’s murder at the hands of her pimp, Sikes, into something lurid. It seems that the stage adaptations of the novel further sensationalised Nancy’s death, making the scene far longer for the audience to hiss the villain to their content. I do puzzle about why Dickens chose this ugly scene as a set piece for his public readings, 30 years after he wrote it. I just fail to see how the philanthropist that worked to rescue prostitutes from the streets could also be the performer who made piles of money out of Nancy’s death. It seems cruel to me. Still, I know his on her side.
Yates’s novel is that kind of text whose outstanding literary qualities you can easily miss if you focus on the asphyxiating suburban lifestyle it portrays –that this novel made me physically sick is, I believe, an indicator of its effectiveness. Although no academic work has, seemingly, reflected this, Yates anticipated by a couple of years Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) with the heroine April Wheeler. The novel, narrated in the third person, has however this odd problem: it is mostly focalised through the point of view of her husband Frank, quite the average 1950s conformist. He is abusive in the sense that a good deal of the novel deals with his attempts to tame depressive April into being a happy wife, including a ferocious battle over their third child, which she wants to abort. Yet, I can’t tell whether Yates is on his or her side and I very much suspect that many rightwing, pro-life activists might find much to admire in this sad American tragedy.
Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors is the kind of novel that makes you say that stupid thing: ‘My God! How could this male novelist use a first person female narrator so convincingly?’ Stupid since the novelist’s job description includes necessarily a capacity for empathy with any character. Yet, Doyle’s narrative technique is certainly very impressive. Poor Paula Spencer is particularly convincing as an example of how love is most of the time self-delusion, and also in her difficulties to come up with a coherent memoir of her life as a battered wife. Just as Dickens will not justify the behaviour of villains like Sikes, Doyle refuses to justify Charlo’s –which to me is quite right. Some people (whether men or women) are rotten apples and we need to protect their victims before we think of treating them as victims.
As happens, one of my favourite novels is Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), as I admire very much Ellis’s ability to write a first person narration focused on a horrific killer (of women and men, even animals). I have also read with great pleasure Jonathan Littell’s faulty but enticing first-person portrait of a Nazi officer in The Kindly Ones (2006). I don’t know, however, whether I could put up with a story about couple-related abuse narrated by the abuser (man or woman). I don’t even know whether this would have the desired effect of shaming abusers or whether it would rather, as often happens with the news, generate copycat abuse.
Do read Yates and Doyle and consider. Also Dickens, always and ever! (And thanks Rubén and Diana, for the joy of supervising exciting academic work).