Sunday, March 15, 2009

Do John Cheever's Stories Deserve a New Look?

In the quarter century since his death, John Cheever has been mostly neglected by students and scholars. He is enjoying some new attention this month because of the release of a new biography by Blake Bailey and the publication of his Complete Novels and his Collected Stories and Other Writings (both edited by Blake Bailey) by Library of America.

The books have been well reviewed in all the important places, and most all the reviewers raise the issue of the relationship between an author’s personal life and his or her work. All, of course, focus on Cheever’s alcoholism and his bisexuality, as well as his generally boorish behavior to his wife and acquaintances, which makes the LA Times reviewer, Susan Salter Reynolds, suggest that it may not be a good idea to read the biography alongside an author’s work.

This is the issue I would like to raise with this post. Having been educated in the Formalist tradition, my own view is that I do not need, nor even necessarily want, to know anything about the author’s life. In my opinion, an author may draw from his or her own life when writing, but other factors—his or her reading, use of language, knowledge of the short fiction tradition, etc.—are more important for my understanding and appreciation of the story. I am just not interested in gossip about the author’s personal foibles or weaknesses—too much like gratuitous prying. What do you think?

Another issue that a rereading of Cheever may raise is whether it is as a novelist or a short-story writer that one may most likely lay a claim on literary importance if one practices both. Is a great novelist unlikely to be a great short-story writer and vice-versa? Most all the reviewers agree that Cheever’s short stories—121 of which were published in The New Yorker-- are more accomplished and more important than his novels. David Propson in The Wall Street Journal says that Cheever’s stories form “an essential part of the postwar canon”—forming a link between F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike. Jonathan Dee in Harper’s agrees that none of Cheever’s novels approach the “mastery of the stories.”

Perhaps the most poignant review is the one by John Updike in The New Yorker; for it may be his last review for the magazines. With a title of “Basically Decent,” Updike identifies himself as a reader “often enraptured by Cheever’s prose and an acquaintance who generally enjoyed his lively company.” Updike also focuses more on Cheever’s stories than his novels.

Cheever first made his impact as a short-story writer in the 1950s with The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953). He continued to publish important stories for the next two decades, climaxing his career with The Stories of John Cheever winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. Cheever is one of only five writers who have won the Pulitzer for fiction since that prize was instituted in 1948: Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1966), Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (1970), A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler (1993), and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000).

I went back to my battered red paperback of The Collected Stories and re-read the following: “The Enormous Radio,” “O Youth and Beauty,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” The Country Husband,” The Death of Justina,” and “The Swimmer.”

I did not feel the same pleasure in reading these stories as I did when I first discovered them many years ago. “The Enormous Radio” and “The Torch Song,” two of Cheever’s Hawthorne-like fables, seemed too easy and predictable for me this time around. “Oh Youth and Beauty” and “The Country Husband,” two of Cheever’s more realistic stories seemed to focus on stereotyped characters. Is this because I have read so many stories since I first read Cheever that I am jaded? Or are these stories just a bit too conventional? Maybe so many other writers since Cheever have modeled their works after him that I now have that strange feeling that what once was so original now seems the copy. I made the terrible mistake of rereading Catcher in the Rye a few years ago. Holden, who I once so admired, I now thought was a smart-mouthed brat. I wish I had not reread it. I wanted to hold on to Holden.

The best-known story from Cheever's late collection, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (1964), is "The Swimmer," which combines a common theme of earlier Cheever stories--middle-aged men trying to hold on to youth and some meaningful place in life--with his penchant for the fantastic seen in such early stories as "The Enormous Radio."

The complexity of this story of a man's decision to swim home from a party through his neighbors' swimming pools derives from its subtle combination of fantasy and reality. Although the action is presented as a real event, clues increasingly point to a distortion of time in the story. Because the protagonist must be allowed to believe that his metaphoric swim through the future and past is an actual swim in the present, the reader is never sure which events in the story are real and which are fantasy. The metaphoric nature of the swim is suggested by Cheever's presenting the protagonist as a legendary explorer and the pools as a "the river of life."

Frank Perry directed a screen play by Eleanor Perry of the story in 1968, featuring a still statuesque (maybe just a bit gone to middle-age) Burt Lancaster as the protagonist Ned. The film focuses very nicely on a character trying to transform himself into a legend, keeping the reader somewhat unsure if he or she is witnessing reality, a fantasy, or a fable. If you ever teach short fiction and film, it is a good film with which to explore this ambiguity.


Anonymous said...

I believe his stories indeed do need a new look. This is because the story doesn't clearly show the journey that the main character is taking. Also, because this story in particular, seems more metaphoric than the author may have wanted it to.

Anonymous said...

Only being familiar with one piece by John Cheever, The Swimmer, I had not realized that the theme of middle-aged men attempting to keep a grasp on youth was a common theme among his works. It is something I had not been aware of while reading The Swimmer either, though, looking back on the story it seems quite obvious. My interpretation of the story was: while engaging in the same activities over and over may continue to produce the desired effects for a given amount of time, they will begin to diminish, whether in literal or perceived amount or intensity, or in some other way, if they are engaged in excess. Limiting oneself to only certain behaviors is very likely to lead, not necessarily with realization, into a perhaps harmful, but certainly unfulfilling life- as signified by the protagonist’s empty house at the end.

D Smith said...

I believe Cheever has a real talent with writing short stories based on the facts given previously. No new look is needed for his short stories. Cheever has won awards for a reason, so whatever he has been doing is working. The best thing for Cheever to do is write stories for himself and whatever he produces will entertain people regardless. The swimmer was not confusing or bleak, it just requires more attention to understand. Metaphors included in the story were actually a useful aid in reading the story.

M D Lewis said...

Time is certainly a theme tampered with. Ned begins "youthful" even in his old age. Though he seems to be youthful, we all know, nothing lasts forever. Days are racing by, but due to his alcohol induced stupor he seems not to notice. Water and drunkenness seem to fill his days, which all seem to be a blur. Ned's escapades in the neighbor's backyards depict the fleeting time, from a friend he's lost contact with and was oblivious to his illness to an old mistress who is completely repulsed by him now. The day turns into night, the leaves fall; autumn inception is upon them. Ned's muscles ache and he begins to tire, longing for a drunk to null the pain. Ned slowly went through the motions; Cheever captures flawlessly the ephemeral youth of man.

D Clark said...

It's says something to Cheever's ability as a writer than even though he died 30 years ago, his stories are still being read and praised as much as they are. His use of time lapse in this story is top notch. Plus, he finds a great way to mix Ned's acceptance of fantasy, and his displeasure in reality. Which is a problem that many people have nowadays.