This is the world of Mad Men: 1960s New York and advertising, men earning enough money to support their families whilst feeling strangely alienated from them, trying to find some deeper meaning and purpose, but not quite succeeding. Except, of course, Richard Yates was the original and the writers of Mad Men have been influenced by him. This is not as moving a book as Revolutionary Road, possibly because it only presents one man’s point of view, nor is it as subtle, but it’s nevertheless a masterly description of a disturbed psyche who refuses to help himself.
Yates is one of the best authors to scrape away the thin veneer of comfortable, civilised, well-adjusted lifestyles and expose the despair and sense of emptiness lying beneath. Our main protagonist John Wilder was not wildly successful at school and university, but has made a reasonable career for himself in selling advertising space. One night, on his way back home from a business trip to Chicago, he has a nervous breakdown and gets sent to Bellevue mental hospital for a few days, where he feels like the only sane person in a sea of madness.
This experience marks him profoundly, but it estranges him further from his wife Janice (who craves nothing more than normality) and his sulky pre-teen son. His psychotherapy sessions are a joke, he goes to AA meetings without any intention of giving up his drinking and he embarks on an affair with a young girl, Pamela, believing she will help him to reinvent himself and resurrect his childhood dream of becoming a film producer. Needless to say, everyhing he touches turns to rot. There is a lengthy impressionistic scene describing John’s descent into paranoia and violence which is chilling, but perhaps even more sinister is the final resignation and incarceration. (Hopefully that’s not a spoiler alert – you just know there’s not going to be a happy ending with a book by Yates.)
John is not the most sympathetic character; at times you may find it hard to even pity him. He is obnoxious, selfish, stubborn and self-pitying. Yet he is also riddled with doubt and lack of self-esteem. He is so obsessed, for instance, about being too short, that he sees even the big moments of American history entirely through his self-centred perspective. Here’s what he has to say about the assassination of JFK:
He felt sympathy for the assassin and he felt he understood the motives. Kennedy had been too young, too rich, too handsome and too lucky; he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse. His murderer had spoken for weakness, for neurasthenic darkness, for struggle without hope and for the self-defeating passions of ignorance, and John Wilder understood those forces all too well. He almost felt he’d pulled the trigger himself…
Many readers think this is one of the weakest of Yates’ novels: it is true that it feels rather disjointed and episodic. There are some great set pieces and memorable scenes, but jerky transitions. I found it can still be ‘enjoyed’ (if that’s the right word) on its own terms, and it’s this ‘anti-American dream’ stance which makes all of Richard Yates’ work so interesting.
You can’t help feeling that if John Wilder had read Matt Haig: Reasons to Stay Alive he might have found a way of managing his life better. Haig’s book is a very personal description of his own experience with an apparently sudden attack of depression in his twenties and he is careful to explain that each person’s depression is different. Yet it also contains very wise statements about perceptions (and self-perceptions) of depression, brings in other people’s views on finding reasons to keep on going on, raises many important points for a serious debate about mental health.
Anyone who has experienced depression or known someone with depression will find this a very useful and at times quite uplifting book. It is not a self-help book, nor is it a systematic autobiography of the darkest hour and coming out of it. There is quiet humour, but none of the manic energy which spoiled Furiously Happy for me. There are some very well-written scenes that convey just how it feels to try and cope with panic attacks and overwhelming depressive pain.
What was most interesting to me was that the author was very sceptical (as I am) of medication and that he found alternative ways of dealing with his depression. I found his conversations between ‘then me’ and ‘now me’ very revealing, while his descriptions of being overly sensitive and anxious spoke to me directly. The only criticism I would have is that perhaps the structure is too loose, it tends to jump around between subjects. But what brilliant subjects can be found here: Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations; Things depression says to you; Boys don’t cry and many more, each worthy of a lengthy discussion in its own right.
I’ll close with a couple of quotes out of the many quotable passages in the book, one that links back so well to the Yates novel:
Life is hard. It may be beautiful and wonderful but it is also hard. The way people seem to cope is by not thinking about it too much. But some people are not going to be able to do that.
I’m not talking about all that What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger stuff. No. That’s simply not true. What doesn’t kill you very often makes you weaker. What doesn’t kill you can leave you limping for the rest of your days. What doesn’t kill you can make you scared to leave your house, or even your bedroom, and have you trembling, or mumbling incoherently, or leaning with your head on a window pane, wishing you could return to the time before the thing that didn’t kill you.