The Easter Parade
Richard Yates, 1976

the seventh book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Colin Marshall

The Easter Parade is a novel that follows a character named Emily Grimes from her childhood in the 1930s up to just short of her 50th birthday in late 1975. What follows is a discussion of the novel that I had with recommender Colin Marshall via email over the course of the past few days.

AC So I try to plunge into these without knowing anything about them, and since I get them from the library and they usually come in solid library binding I don't even have back-of-the-book marketing copy to give me a clue what the book might be about. However, that does mean that I end up spending a lot of the beginning wondering, "Hmm, what's the premise here going to be?"

That was tough in The Easter Parade, in that it doesn't follow the dictates of, e.g., David Mamet in On Directing Film, which I just reread. Mamet says to start with the disordering incident and make the rest of the story about order being restored — no preliminaries, no time for the audience to see the characters going about their day-to-day lives and wonder what the story's going to be about. Everything that happens must further the story of how the problem gets resolved, and that resolution marks the endpoint of the story. But while the very first sentence of The Easter Parade suggests that the disordering incident of the book is the divorce of Walter and Pookie Grimes, it doesn't really qualify — the rest of the book isn't about Sarah and Emily putting their lives back together after the divorce. There's no fixed endpoint, nothing that makes the audience say, "When I learn the answer to this (e.g., will the man succeed in selling the pig or not), the story's over." The Easter Parade is basically just a string of incidents in Emily's life, and could go on pretty much indefinitely — until she dies, or until we reach the present (i.e., the mid-1970s), or until Yates arbitrarily decides that enough is enough. It's more biographical than dramatic.

CM I'll find no better point to break out Simpsons dialogue from 1991:

Homer: Save a guy's life, and what do you get? Nothing! Worse than nothing! Just a big scary rock.
Bart: Hey, man, don't badmouth the head.
Marge: Homer, it's the thought that counts. The moral of this story is, a good deed is its own reward!
Bart: Hey, we got a reward. The head is cool!
Marge: Well then, I guess the moral is, no good deed goes unrewarded.
Homer: Wait a minute! If I hadn't written that nasty letter we wouldn't have gotten anything.
Marge: Well, hmm… then I guess the moral is, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Lisa: Perhaps there is no moral to this story.
Homer: Exactly! It's just a bunch of stuff that happened.

Most of the narratives I enjoy do happen to fall under the "a bunch of stuff that happened" heading; I figure that, if someone wants to teach me a moral, they'd save us both a lot of time by just writing it down on an index card and handing it to me than embedding it in 300 pages of elaborately crafted lies.

AC That brings to mind the Douglas Adams quote I've mentioned a time or six: "If I'd wanted to write a message I'd have written a message. I wrote a book." But I'm not so sure I agree! Another thing I've said a time or six is that, if there's a set of emotions I want to convey, I can try to describe them — virtually impossible — or I can try to create a set of vicarious experiences for you (i.e., a story) that will make you feel the same way. And they might be very different experiences from what originally brought about those emotions in me. Similarly, there's something to be said for the notion that experience can change minds in a way that reading an index card, or even listening to an eloquent speech, can't. This is kind of random, but the L.A. Times had a story recently about a Republican state legislator who had sponsored an amendment to the Maryland constitution defining marriage as heterosexual, then flipped and voted for the bill legalizing gay marriage that is now on its way to the governor's desk. Why the reversal? He'd happened to wind up sitting next to some gay couples who were testifying at a hearing on the issue, and was moved, not by what they said, but simply by the experience of being around them and seeing their devotion to each other. Fiction may not have the transformative power of real-life experience, and obviously I don't want to reduce it to just an empathy-generating device, but there's something to be said for literature as a better vehicle for communicating a point of view than an index card.

CM And let's not rule out the possibility that I actually just prefer my messages finely chopped up into my fiction, like a pill in a cat's dish of food. Fine line between an artfully integrated message and no message at all, I suppose.

AC Now if this is biography, it raises the question of why Emily Grimes's life is more interesting than that of someone chosen at random out of the phone book (as in the mid-1970s there were still phone books).

CM I'm tempted to just say, "Because Richard Yates writes about it so well."

AC Speaking strictly in terms of his prose style, I found myself thinking that Yates seemed to be of the "get out of the way" school — the language here is very simple, very straightforward… transparent even. (Maybe I got this impression because my copy used what looks almost like a schoolbook font.)

CM I've read no other twentieth century American novelist who can describe his characters and their reactions to their lives with the same sort of nearly savage acuity. That, combined with his ability to capture the hydra-headed nature of disappointment (and sometimes shame).

AC On the other hand, maybe this isn't "mere biography" at all. By the end of the book, I began to see a schema behind the novel, and it was this: one of the big themes in just about anyone's life — especially for a woman of the mid-20th century, I'd think, given the culture of the time — is whom to partner up with. And while I guess there are people who serenely say, "Oh, yes, when I met Anastasia I knew she was The One!", I am not one of these people. Hell, when I go to San Francisco town for pizza I have to spend 45 minutes gaming out whether to drive or take the train. So for me being in a relationship means that a lobe of my brain is constantly fretting over "what if I make a permanent commitment to this person and then meet my real soulmate? but then what if I don't and then never meet anyone who's nearly as good a match?" The Easter Parade, it seems to me, is an exercise in letting both sides play out and comparing the result. Sarah is the quick committer, gets married right out of high school, and winds up stuck with a wife-beating, racist chud. Emily is the non-committer who goes through ten men who get named and "a good many" more who don't — and you can't really blame her for not pairing up with any of them permanently, as all these relationships are dysfunctional to greater or lesser degrees — yet she ends up old and alone. It seems like Yates's cheerful message is that there's no point worrying about committing because you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

CM I used that exact phrase — "damned if you do and damned if you don't" — in a blog post I wrote about The Easter Parade when I first read it. The way Yates writes it, while both Emily and Sarah are indeed ultimately damned, no one factor damns them; poor choice of mates alone, or non-choice of mates alone, doesn't account for why their lives hit the rocks. Yates writes it neither as their fault nor as not their fault. The men to whom they attach themselves bear some responsibility, but how much does it really add up to? Their downtrodden father and delusional mother didn't really help, but if you try to blame them, you just start wondering how much their own parents screwed them up.

But when life disappoints, isn't that exactly the way it does it — from somewhere within a fog of cause, responsibility, and even effect so widely and thinly diffused that the search for a conclusion only bewilders you further? This, to my mind, elevates the novel to something beyond a polemic about how midcentury American women, torn between the claims of domesticity and an economically and socially accelerating zeitgeist, couldn't get a fair shake. Sure, society doesn't give Emily and Sarah much of a running start, but a lot of the men in the book lead even bleaker lives!

No other Yates novel revolves around women. Most of his other books are so male-centric that, given your evident greater interest in female characters, I might actually disrecommend them. Given that, I ask, do you find Emily and Sarah convincing? Does Emily seem real, or does she read like the male author in drag?

AC I guess I would put myself in the convinced camp, insofar as there was one point that I turned the page and was kind of surprised to see the name "Richard" up in the corner. Like reading The Bell Jar and seeing it attributed to "Sylvester Plath." But then again, what do I know? When I've been writing a female narrator or female filter character for a decent stretch, I often surprise myself by passing a mirror and not seeing that girl looking back at me… but I don't know how convincingly female those characters are. (I remember someone once reading my story "December" and the first thing she told me was that she didn't believe for a second that the narrator was a girl. Hélas.)

But as for that "fog" you mentioned… it occurs to me that there are two effects a text can have that might be ends of a spectrum, or might be different axes, or might be totally unrelated: one, it can provide the shock of recognition, and two, it can produce new understandings. (And of course what one person recognizes — "I've thought that very same thing!" — might be a brand new idea to someone else.) The shock of recognition is a big part of generational polemic — you know, "the songs on the soundtrack to this movie are the songs of our youth" — and it can also be very personal: "Someone else has felt that way? Then I'm not alone! And I really thought I was!" But these days I'm more into new understandings. I can appreciate someone making acute observations about that feeling of confusion about how we get ourselves into fixes, but even better is to have that confusion dispelled. It's why I'm into history: you've got this jumble of events, and then the historian finds the narrative within the fog bank, and it crystallizes into chains of cause and effect — sometimes fractally complex ones, but still.

That said, there were elements of this book that gave me that feeling of recognition… one of the chief ones being the way that time just sort of melts away. Yates is pretty nonchalant about playing with narrative duration, and will casually slip in an "over the next few years" here and there. Up until I was twenty or so this would have seemed crazy to me — every day was An Event — but nowadays I often catch myself saying things like, "So in 2007 I started that project and worked on it for the next few years." And there have been a few cases now when someone has asked me how long I've been with whomever I was seeing at the time, and I've said "oh, about six years," and in some cases the person asking is kind of stunned and asks, "So why didn't you either get married or break up after a couple of years, the way normal people do?" and all I can really say is that, I dunno, those six years just kind of got away from me somewhere along the line.

CM Speaking as another fellow in a going-on-seven-years-unmarried relationship, I hear you. But I do also find that Yates' illustration of life's mechanisms of disappointment here almost count as a new understanding. The tendency to pin life's disappointments on single, specific people, choices, or events runs so strong throughout humanity that the way Yates illustrates the futility/impossibility of assigning blame retains the power to startle — to my mind, at least.

AC Yeah, it certainly beats the polar opposite, which you find in, e.g., some of Atom Egoyan's lesser films: "let's start our movie with an enigmatic scene! now let's spend two hours teasing out what was going on in that scene and how that single moment was responsible for all of the characters' subsequent dysfunction!"

CM My personal interpretation comes shaped, to some degree, by reading Yates' other novels as well.

AC It's definitely interesting how texts take on a new complexion when you see them in relation to the author's whole body of work. Just recently it came up again how, after I read the rest of Orwell's novels, Nineteen Eighty-Four suddenly seemed to be first and foremost a tract on British poverty.

CM Frank Wheeler, the "hero" of Revolutionary Road, spends that entire novel complaining that he's above his suburban house and tech-writer job while desperately sabotaging his wife's efforts to move the family to Paris and get Frank into the vague "creative" life he boastfully longs for but, in the words of James Wood (whose article on Yates I recommend), is too unimaginative even to envision. Emily and Sarah Grimes embody a similar combination of strong desire with utter directionlessness, which, in Yates' world, gets you punished. (He strikes me as weirdly Buddhist in that way.)

James Wood calls Frank Wheeler "Yates without the writing." Emily Grimes strikes me as another version of just that. Yates actually said things like "I am Emily Grimes," explaining that he believed no reader would believe a male character who was so weak, who ended the novel weeping about reaching fifty years of age without understanding anything at all.

This reminds me of a recent chapter of Michael Apted's Up documentary series, maybe 49 Up, when three of the subjects, now middle-aged divorced and/or generally disappointed women, lament how, growing up in sixties and seventies England, "We were told there would be opportunities." But what specific sort of opportunities had they imagined themselves seizing? You can tell that even they don't know.

AC Even though it's sort of tangential, for me that calls to mind that Oliver Cromwell quote: "I know what I would not have, but I do not know what I would have." It also brings up the issue of all those begun-and-bogged-down magazine articles and biographical sketches from both Emily and Sarah. As I may have mentioned at some point, one of the main reasons I keep updating my Calendar page, even though it takes time away from much more important projects, is that at least Calendar articles are something I can finish in a matter of a few days. (As opposed to these other things that are 80% done after one time period, then 90% done after another period of equal length, then 95% done after another, then 97% after another, then 98%, then 98.5%, then 98.6%…)

CM And this brings me to one more seemingly important element of the book's worldview, and Yates's, that I'll run by you. While, as you said, the book does present something of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" assessment of the mating game, I actually wonder if it doesn't go deeper than that. Here I'll reference a late Yates novel called Young Hearts Crying, which follows the decades of separate ways of a man and woman take after their marriage falls apart. They both harbor creative ambitions — his of poetry and dramaturgy, hers of proving in any possible way that she didn't need her vast inheritance — that reach half-realization at best, and even then only sporadically. Time and again, year after year, they find their aspirations sidetracked, reduced, undone, or otherwise defeated by all the calories they expend in their increasingly desperate search for sleeping partners, or grappling with all the hassle introduced once they happen into them.

Sounds a little like Emily Grimes, right? And I might argue that even Sarah spends down her potential this way, although she does it more quickly. It seems to me that they, as well as Michael and Lucy Davenport of Young Hearts Crying, as well as Frank and April Wheeler of Revolutionary Road, reach their undoing not so much through bad choices of mates as through squandering so much of their life on the mechanics of mating and its attendant anxieties. Their years do indeed "just sort of melt away," but they tend to melt away as a result of, as Yates appears to me to write it, misplaced attention. We've talked about how Yates characters get punished for directionless desire in general, but I think there's something in the idea that their screwing, as it were, comes even harder from blindly following a very particular set of impulses: (a) find someone to get with, (b) latch on to the first reasonable option that floats into orbit, (c) worry that there might be someone better out there to get with, and (d) see (a). Yates writes this as going on for his characters' entire adult lifetimes while the plays go unwritten, the articles get bogged down, the "creative" lives go unlived, the "opportunities" go unidentified. Then they look back, at what feels to them like all of a sudden, and wonder why they understand so little.

AC Here's something I don't understand: what's with the title? When my brother was in junior high he once complained about how a book might be 800 pages long and on page 450 the protagonist might mention in passing that his shoes needed cleaning and then the whole book would be called My Dirty Shoes. The Easter Parade seems like a prime example of this sort of thing, given that the only mention of an Easter parade comes when Sarah wants to skip one to go driving with her then-fiancé Tony. What gives? I guess the idea is that on the day of the Easter parade Sarah gets her picture taken and it's a captured moment of hope before her life turns to shit. Though since the book is more about Emily than Sarah, I also thought the title might refer to the parade of failed relationships that constitute Emily's story. I still feel like I'm missing something, though.

CM My best guess here is that the day of the Easter parade marks the final point at which either Sarah or Emily's life seems uncomplicatedly promising. Or maybe, needing something to call his manuscript upon its completion, Yates just Dirty Shoesed it. (I certainly can't think of a more suitable title.) Either seems about equally plausible to me.

AC I guess the last observation I'll make has to do with the novel's treatment of Emily's sex life and how it fits into the commonly accepted timeline of 20th-century Western culture. Emily was born in late 1925, putting her at the older end of what Howe and Strauss called the Silent Generation, and so her story is supposed to go like this. She's a little too young to participate in the G.I. Generation arc of participating in WWII, getting married young, and having lots of babies (which is what Sarah, at the younger end of the G.I. Generation, does). But Silents are adaptive, so they mimic their older counterparts; e.g., Emily marries Andrew Crawford right out of college, apparently because it's The Done Thing, even though the relationship is clearly doomed from the outset (and the marriage consequently lasts for less than a year). Then when the G.I.s' babies grow up into idealist Baby Boomers and launch the Sexual Revolution, the Silents latch onto that and, in their 30s and 40s, try on a very different set of sexual mores. This is basically the story of The Ice Storm, for instance. The "masturbation studio" at the end of The Easter Parade is a nod to this sort of narrative, I think. But this isn't really Emily's story at all! Peter calls her "the original liberated woman," and she lives what I've been taught to think of as a post-Sexual Revolution lifestyle, except she does it in the 1940s and '50s. And what struck me is that there's little suggestion in the novel that Emily is unusual in being a bright, college-educated career woman who sleeps around. That sex becomes part of a relationship pretty much immediately seems to be just as de rigueur in the '40s/'50s of The Easter Parade as it is today, and the notion that these characters would be shocked by modern sexual mores seems silly. Any shock value goes the other direction — e.g., the Pill wasn't approved for contraceptive use in the U.S. until 1960 (and wasn't approved for unmarried women throughout the U.S. until 1972) and thus we are casually informed that Emily has had multiple abortions. Or take the way that not only does Emily lose her virginity at age 17 to some guy she's just met, whose name she doesn't know, in Central Park, but that there is the suggestion that in the '40s Central Park was a de facto orgy pit, because the edge of a meadow near 59th Street was the closest thing teens in '40s New York could find to privacy. (There's a similar moment in George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying of 1936.) Did you think Yates was trying to issue a corrective to the narrative of the Sexual Revolution? Was that narrative already entrenched by 1976? Or, I suppose I should ask, am I wrong in thinking that that narrative is entrenched now? I also wonder whether my reaction to the '40s/'50s stuff is idiosyncratic, given that I've always been pretty sheltered. Maybe for most people, even today, parkland sex and pregnancy termination are a matter of routine.

CM Yes, the flat way Yates relates all this suggests not, to me, the refutation of an entrenched narrative (Sexual Revolution, etc.), but… a narrative. Given Emily's generational status, these elements will surely give any reader born after the Boomers pause; they startled me a little when I stepped back. But I suspect that, back then, all the Liberated Women like Emily existed just far enough into the margins that to dip a toe into the water was to take a dive.

I recoil slightly at Emily's behavior today, but only, I think, because I'm used to the female continuum we have today: the traditional virginity-marriage-reproduction plan on one end — the Sarah Plan, more or less — and the man-to-man, periodic abortion, occasional one-night stand ("this was sordid") plan — the Emily Plan, with most women landing somewhere in the middle. Nowadays, rejection of the Sarah Plan doesn't force you straight to the Emily Plan. Do you suppose this sort of thing hasn't become so much liberated as simply less binary?

AC That's an interesting hypothesis. Let me try to find some figures… here's a history professor at Florida who says that the premarital sex rate for women tripled from 1940 to 1960. Here's Kinsey saying that the premarital sex rate for women was 27% for those (like him) born before 1900, but 51% for those born (like Sarah and Emily) between 1900 and 1930. And then here's a study from 2006 putting the rate at 88% for those born in the '40s (and four out of five of those had premarital sex before 1970). So it does seem that there was some real movement in that premarital sex went from Not the Usual Thing to, with Sarah and Emily's generation, a 50/50 proposition (as with the two of them!)… and by the '50s, yes, apparently it would have been expected for Emily, as a single twentysomething woman, to have sex with her beaux. Expected, but not accepted — here's a study saying that as late as 1969, over 75% of Americans stated that they were opposed to premarital sex. Over the course of the 1970s, this dropped to 35%, and I reckon that that — attitude, not practice — is what constitutes the Sexual Revolution as we think about it now. (I guess in this respect the '50s are like the Bible Belt today, where thousands upon thousands of teenagers take virginity pledges and then 88% of them break them.)

This all reminds me that, when I read something that's actually from the '50s, I am often struck by how a lot of the folks then thought they were already living in the counterculture. (I mentioned in my writeup of The Disappearance that some characters transmit their astral selves to other dimensions via a walk-in mandala… and that was in 1951, not 1971.) We think of the decade as "the staid, buttoned-down Fifties," but it seems that in many respects the big cultural shift of the mid-20th century was already underway.

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