Thursday, 12 June 2008

'when almost everybody wore a hat'

Collected Stories
by John Cheever

It's difficult to find the time to read when you have a baby so, for once, I opted for short stories as the perfect accompaniment to a bus journey into town and to give my addled brain a rest. Those lovely chaps at Crockatt and Powell (recently voted No.1 in the best book shops in The Independent) had a copy of Cheever's collected stories when I popped in a while back and I've been slowly working my way through them. At almost 900 pages with over 60 stories I thought I'd post my thoughts gradually so here's part one.

In his preface Cheever notes the embarrassment of having his immaturity documented in some of these stories. For us reading them now they're more like documents from a lost world, not so much innocent but certainly a New York from a different time entirely, with social structures and hierarchies as clearly delineated as the grid work of streets that mark it up. The photo on the cover shows a lift attendant and in a few of the early stories he uses the attendant or building superintendent as a perfect tool to show us this structure. It isn't just the difference between the attendant and those that live at the top of the building he shows but with the traffic in between floors we see the movement of those rising in the world, those holding on by their fingertips and those making the slow and shameful journey to the ground floor and out of the door onto the street. One notices the hole in the ladies gloves or the repaired rip in a dress which shows those struggling to stay up a class, living beyond their means and courting catastrophe because it is the only means of survival.

The Enormous Radio (the title story of his second collection) is a striking modern parable which is extraordinarily prescient in our age of reality TV. A man buys an expensive radio for his wife's enjoyment but she finds that as she tunes through the stations she can overhear conversations from other apartments in their block. After her initial shock she is captivated by her aural voyeurism and when her husband falls asleep that night she goes back to the living room and turns on the radio. She is comforted that her own life isn't as unhappy as the lives she tunes into but the next day it isn't conversation she hears but arguments and violence and she pleads with her husband to call a man to fix it. 'Our lives aren't sordid, are they, darling...we are happy, aren't we?', she asks and her husband reassures her. The expensive radio repair causes him to argue with her the next day and in this short outburst he vents every secret of their life together making them just another shocking instalment in the drama of real life.

Cheever creates unease very well. In The Cure, where a man attempts to 'cure' himself of his failing marriage, he is haunted by a presence outside his house which causes him to lose sleep. He doesn't know who it is or what they hope to see but when a friend says that she can see a rope around his neck he realises that this presence is waiting to watch him hang himself. It is the impetus he needs to make things right with his wife. In Torch Song Cheever creates the ultimate femme fatale in Joan Harris, known as the Widow ('she always wore black, and he was always given the feeling, by a curious disorder in her apartment, that the undertakers had just left'), who passes in and out of the life of our narrator Jack. It is only years later when he is very ill himself and she comes to see him, to care for him, that he sees that she is almost death's attendant; the men in her life have all passed away and now she has come for him. He sends her away 'There are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful years ahead of me, and when they're over, when it's time, then I'll call you...and give you whatever dirty pleasure you take in watching the dying, but until then, you and your ugly misshapen forms will leave me alone.'

The Pig That Fell Into The Well is a story about a story. It entices you in with one of those perfect Chekhovian lines:

'In the summer, when the Nudd family gathered at Whitebeach Camp, in the Adirondacks, there was always a night when one of them would ask, 'Remember the day when the pig fell into the well?'

This is the story that keeps the Nudd family together. In the same way that they convene each year in the same place, they need a touchstone to remind them who they are. What Cheever shows so brilliantly is the elasticity of the story. It can, and indeed must, be told differently each time, just small changes but necessary to even out the imbalances in the family. Somebodies role may become larger one year or their virtues exaggerated because they need encouragement. And what the story really helps to preserve of course is the Nudd's picture of themselves, the myth of their perfect summers. And whilst they laugh away at themselves they can ignore their failures and lack of achievement.

Those are a few of the stories that have stood out in the first 400 pages but they are remarkably consistent in their strength. He may well have been embarrassed about his early work when looking back, as we all are, but that says more in favour of what he went on to achieve rather than any deficiencies in his first forays in storytelling. Bring on the next 500 pages.


John Self 20 June 2008 at 08:20  

I think you will find the next 500 even more striking. Much of his most famous work, like 'The Swimmer' and 'Reunion' is from the later stories, and often dramatic and even experimental.

I say that as someone who hasn't actually read many of them myself! I've been picking little bits here and there since I bought the US edition in New York a couple of years ago. Problem is that it's only 700 pages, which means the type is much smaller and the stories harder to read - or to want to read - as a result. They have the UK edition you've pictured in my local Waterstone's and I am seriously considering replacing my US edition with it.

I've also read his last three novels: Bullet Park, Falconer and Oh What a Paradise it Seems!. Certainly the first two are terrific. I just recently picked up the earlier Wapshot novels and look forward to getting to them soon.

PS - stop making every single blog entry on a subject that interests me! I haven't got time to make all these comments!

William Rycroft 20 June 2008 at 15:47  

My apologies John, but thank you for all your comments (not to mention helpful suggestions).

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