Richard Yates Yates, Richard (Vol. 8) - Essay

Yates, Richard (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yates, Richard 1926–

Yates is an American novelist and short story writer. His novels deal with loneliness and the inability of people to deal with the demands of everyday life in contemporary America. He is probably best known for his novel Revolutionary Road. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The journey from innocence to experience, from illusion to reality, has long been a traditional undertaking of the novel. "Easter Parade," the fifth novel of Richard Yates, plays with this tradition as he describes a journey from innocence to renewed innocence, from illusion to fresh illusion.

"Easter Parade" explores the lives of a woman and her two daughters; it is a sad tale of marriage and divorce, and a still sadder one of sexual liberation….

"Easter Parade" is a spare, yet wrenching tale. Yates enters completely and effortlessly into the lives of his characters. There are no calligraphic embellishments of any kind, no stunts, nothing flashy. The author is wholly absorbed in his story; his prose is very close to the rhythms of actual speech.

Yates is capable of speaking eloquently on the death of the family with a casual, deft question. When Emily visits her sister in the state hospital where both Sarah and Pookie are confined, she asks Sarah how to reach her mother's building. "And Emily instantly realized what a foolish question that was. How could Sarah know the location of any other building when she was locked into this one?"

The image of mother and daughter locked into separate stone buildings in some vast impersonal construction is never underlined by the author; it is nothing spectacular, but its strength is considerable and cumulative, and, when compounded with others like it, takes on the solidity of brick upon brick….

Taking upon himself a seemingly thankless task, Yates writes powerfully of exasperating people, of people who refuse to shape up, of experience that never ripens into wisdom, of reality persistently shunned, but never evaded for long. (p. 4)

A. G. Mojtabai, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 19, 1976.

[For many years it] appeared self-evident that [Richard] Yates, who is now fifty, was not, and would not become, a prolific writer, and then, suddenly, two … novels in two years, Disturbing the Peace last fall and The Easter Parade now. The fact is all the more remarkable when one considers the kind of writer Yates is: careful, scrupulous, exact, faultless, every inch a purveyor of le mot juste, the antithesis of someone like, say, Thomas Wolfe. His pages must have been reworked many times, but it is impossible, seeing them in print, to imagine them in any other, earlier state.

And the creative outburst is more remarkable still when one considers the consuming desolation of Yates's world, perfectly uniform in its misery throughout the five books. Loneliness is part of it, what Yates has himself called "the spectre of personal isolation that haunts everyone." His characters need, as Forster wrote in Howards End, "only connect," and yet they almost never can…. Profound human inadequacy is part of Yates's world, and so, more superficially, are alcohol and hospitals…. For all Yates's supreme mastery over his materials, it sometimes seems a wonder he can go on. It may be, however, that now he has arrived somewhere we had every reason to hope for and no reason to expect. (p. 632)

Most of Yates's fiction "works" [because] … the incidents that constitute the plot seem always to grow out of the characters and never to be arbitrary…. Yates can tell us in advance [the future of his characters] because he knows that the character he has drawn can behave no other way, and we know it, too. It is in the inevitability with which his characters' lives proceed that Yates shows that tragic art is still possible.

A recent essay by Gore Vidal in the New York Review of Books got a friend and me to talking about some of the limitations of contemporary fiction. Generally agreeing with Vidal's severe critique of several of our most prominent writers, my friend said that the problem with our fiction—he meant American novels since World War II—was its dearth of characters who were convincing and, more, memorable as characters, who led the reader to be genuinely concerned with them as with complicated, sympathetic, real, and yet individualized human beings. We tried to name exceptions to this generalization, characters who inspired the happy fallacy of having one regard them as people independent of the books where they live (as one can regard Jake Barnes and Jay Gatsby), and didn't get very far: Holden Caulfield, Sebastian Dangerfield, a few of Bellow's creations. This list can surely be extended, though I doubt very far, but it will imperatively include a dozen or more characters in the work of Richard Yates, not only his protagonists but also slighter figures like John Givings in Revolutionary Road and Charlie and Dr. Spivack in Disturbing the Peace. There is no more certain sign of Yates's importance among our writers. (p. 634)

Mark Taylor, "Modern Tragedies," in Commonweal (copyright © 1976 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 24, 1976, pp. 631-34.

[The] real magic of Yates's art [is] the ability to command our interest in … submissive characters, lost navigators who refuse to rechart the doomed course of their lives. (p. 285)

The prose of The Easter Parade is remarkably spare. Story is never sacrificed to metaphor and the characters are always seen through their actions, or lack of action, rather than through the linguistic manipulation of their author….

The Easter Parade is about [a] denial of feeling. It is about the tragedy of failed family life and the repeatedly self-defeating choices of its member-victims. In this, his most powerfully affecting novel since Revolutionary Road, Yates insists upon, and earns, our intense attention to people who move like dreamwalkers toward their sad destinies, who try to compensate through careers or sexual encounters for the absence of real human involvement. It is relentless in its despair until a thin note of hope is sounded at the very end as Emily speaks, taking an apparent leap into consciousness:

"And do you know a funny thing? I'm almost fifty years old and I've never understood anything in my whole life." (p. 287)

Hilma Wolitzer, in Ploughshares (© 1977 by Ploughshares, Inc.), Vol. 3, Nos. 3 + 4.