John Cheever, Surprisingly
Saturday, 2 July 2011
I feel no shame in admitting that I bought The Stories of John Cheever, a pulitzer winning anthology, simply because I’d heard Cheever’s name whispered in The New Yorker podcasts and seen it scrawled in The Paris Review.
I knew basically who he was––a literary behemoth––but thought (skimming the 700-paged, microscopic type-faced anthology) that he was also talented but stuffy, important but missable.
Of course, as can many times be said, I was wrong. The collection shocked and impressed me.
Cheever’s stories have an authority and voice reminiscent of Hemingway, but completely devoid of singular, totalizing dramas and dimensions. He portrays the American family as if he’s got them in perfect focus, watching from some high plain. His deft hand details the enormous conflicts that grow out of a family tension, ubiquitous in most of his dramas.
Though the miseries are not uncommon––piety, adultery, jealousy, greed––the characters, often plucked from the environs of New York, beg the reader’s sympathy, admiration, and scrutiny. Cheever expertly paces the stories; a flood of problematic loves and losses is checked by a series of wonderfully orchestrated locks, restraining melodrama in beautiful, real language.
He allows the American nightmare to be established, implicitly, in carefully produced prosaic confines.
However, many authors can claim an apt and affecting portrayal of life’s capriciousness––I do not especially favor Cheever for his basic expertise, though he would be a worthy read resting on that laurel alone.
What I found most admirable was his fondness for surrealism. Imagine, a giant of the American Literary Canon appealing to mystical implausibilities!
From a relevant journal article:
“Any reader intrigued by Cheever’s thought and writing can find repeated instances of his metaphoric use of the concept of the chain, arch, or link. This structuring device bridges the distance between the increasingly horrifying American nightmare and an idealized, seemingly Jungian dreamworld of archetypes, doubles, light and shadows, personae, and masks.
Cheever believed this realm might give individual lives a vision of completeness and transcendence. In describing the shaping of his fiction to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in 1969, Cheever said: ‘It’s almost like shaping a dream … to give precisely the concord you want … the arch, really. It’s almost the form of an arch.’ Or as R. G. Collins interprets Cheever’s remark: ‘It seems an accurate description of Cheever’s view of successful fiction, a dream that becomes an arch tying together the universe of the inner being.’
However, when one begins to explore the implications of this linkage, a reader is surprised at how thoroughly the metaphor runs through Cheever’s writing. Nonetheless, Cheever’s protagonists have enormous difficulty in making these bridges connect their dream visions with reality.”
Though much of the anthology featured stories grounded firmly in realism, every ten or so a gem of this strange enterprise would make its appearance: Cheever exposes his characters as liars, has his narrator admit he’s incarcerated, or allows an auxiliary character to be murdered.
Sometimes, the hints are stronger: As in A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear, where the narrator (assumedly Cheever) lists a few roles he’ll never write for. Among them: “All parts for Marlon Brando.”
Accordingly, Cheever’s prose is more interesting than the forceful, muscley Brando. His ‘surrealisms’ inch their way quietly into stories, demonstrating the uncertainty of a world one might otherwise become inured to. Otherwise, John’s stories could be diluted into identical progressions of climaxes and rifts.
Cheever remains worth reading because of the poetry of this peculiar oddness. One can’t get too comfortable among the furnishings of a world which, at any minute, might be revealed as the fantasy of a criminal.
“Many of Cheever’s narrators use their imaginations and speech as mediation between senseless reality and an ironically coherent dreamworld. This process involves them in two immediate problems. First, the arch, bridge, or chain that is the Cheever protagonist’s device for conveying the quality of dream may convey situations and plot, but it is grossly inadequate to reproduce the texture and essence of dream.
These Jacob’s ladders fall before even the most superficial Jungian analysis. Secondly, the language—gesture, intonation, and semiotic—of the dream state is hardly the articulated speech of contemporary Westchester. Therefore Cheever’s narrators are always confronted with the dilemma of translating the speech and thoughts of dream into the language of surreal Bullet Park.
Thus the Cheever protagonist desperately clings to his bridges and wants to destroy them; he or she desires passage between dream and debilitating reality while sensing that no means of satisfactory translation may ever be attainable.”
Some favorite stories: The Golden Age, The Angel of the Bridge, A Vision of the World.
Well, enough of that. To commemorate a great writer and give his prose some longevity, I’ll be posting some good quotes in the next few days.
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