Tuesday 30 September 2008

'Everybody knows how persuasive and treacherous fantasies can be'.

I wrote almost four months ago with my thoughts on reading the first 400 pages or so of John Cheever's Collected Stories. Well here's part two. You'll see from the picture on the left that my copy now has some lovely creases down the spine, there are plenty of pen marks and post-it's to mark those memorable passages and a sense of achievement on my part for having got through them all. I don't mean that in a bad way, far from it, but to have read almost 900 pages of short stories along with everything else this year I consider to be no mean feat. The man who deserves the real accolades is Cheever himself of course. I'll admit to not knowing much about him before reading these stories other than that he was a contemporary of William Maxwell and that he wrote The Swimmer. The tiny bits of biog I have picked up along the way (his alcoholism and struggles with his sexuality) have already shed a new light on many of his stories, but whilst reading them I was hoping to bring a fresh eye to 'the Chekhov of the suburbs'.

I noticed a return to some of the themes of his earlier stories initially. The malevolent power of a woman in The Music Teacher, whose eponymous villain is cast in a witch like role, exerting some kind of occult influence over the life of the narrator before meeting a violent end in the story's climax. There are several men in unhappy marriages; one beset by visions in The Chimera, as a means of finding solace from his abusive wife. Many of his stories are about change and The Seaside Houses shows brilliantly the influence of a building on its occupant as our narrator finds himself first fascinated by the traces left by the owners of a house he rents in the summer and slowly finds his character changing in line with what he has supposed about this other man.

Then there are the more experimental stories like Metamorphoses which is made up of four short tales of just that, beginning with Larry Actaeon who suffers a fate similar to his classical namesake and finishing with Mr Bradish who in his efforts to give up smoking finds himself suffering from hallucinations: the people he encounters taking on the form of various cigarettes, which is funny at first but will end with him being carted away by the police after attacking a small girl. Or A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear in which he lists those elements he wishes to eliminate from his fiction (many of which he returns to in later work): 'All scornful descriptions of American landscapes', 'All lushes' and rather hilariously 'All parts for Marlon Brando'.

He became famous as a chronicler of suburban life; the politics of society, the rounds of cocktail parties, the glances of men on station platforms. Showing, I think, the falsity of the set-up and indeed the limitations of living that life. That is why there also seem to be so many stories about change. In The Country Husband he does both at the same time. Francis Weed is brought face to face with his mortality when his plane is forced into an emergency landing. When this experience rouses no interest on his return home he finds himself contemplating that most un-suburban of things: risk-taking (but in the most suburban of ways: an encounter with the babysitter). But this is Shady Hill

'There was no turpitude, there had not been a divorce since he lived there; there had not eve been a breath of scandal. Things seemed arranged with more propriety even than in the Kingdom of Heaven'.

It is another character that articulates the limitation I mentioned earlier:

'I've thought about it a lot, and what seems to me really wrong with Shady Hill is that it doesn't have any future. So much energy is spent in perpetuating the place - in keeping out undesirables, and so forth - that the only idea of the future anyone has is just more and more commuting trains and more parties. I don't think that's healthy. I think people ought to be able to dream big dreams about the future. I think people ought to be able to dream great dreams.'

Now I grew up in the commuter belt around London and I'm still waiting to read a great short story set in Orpington!

And then we come to The Swimmer, a short story that spawned not only a feature film starring Burt Lancaster (which asked 'When you talk about the swimmer will you talk about yourself?') but a Levi's ad. All from a 10 page story. It's difficult to know what to say about such a well known story that hasn't already been said, so I'll be brief. For me the most striking thing is how the ambition of Neddy Merrill's idea of "swimming the county" comes up against the creeping reality of his situation. We are the one who becomes aware that all is not well in Neddy's life, we are the one who realises the significance of the changing weather, even the changing season, and we are the one who begins to dread that moment when he reaches home because we know what he doesn't; that it will be empty. Brilliant.

Reunion is a story which almost trumps it actually. Incredibly short, but one of those which seems perfect; no more or less than it should be, containing fantastic character and seeming to say so much. What it actually says is just enough to get your brain whirring in all sorts of directions. As a treat here's a link to a New Yorker podcast featuring Richard Ford not only discussing but also reading Cheever's story. As Ford says there; Cheever is a writer who 'somehow must be kept from slipping out our notice'.


Anonymous,  3 October 2008 at 15:37  

William, you really need to stop posting great stuff like this on the last day of the month, as it almost immediately disappears from your Recent Posts list (or else maybe you can reformat that list so it doesn't collapse previous months' posts).

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I recently bought the UK edition of this, on the basis that the print is larger than the US edition I already have, and so it will be easier to read (and about 100 pages longer). I don't mean that my eyesight is failing, but that there's something offputting about reading such brilliantly rich and involved prose in small type: too much stuff per page, or something.

The Reunion podcast is brilliant, isn't it? It was only when I listened to it, having already read the story on the page a few times, that I picked up that crucial element near the beginning:
how the narrator knows, even before his father acts the way he does, that he will end up like him.

William Rycroft 3 October 2008 at 17:23  

I can't bear small type either John. I once bought an edition of Moby Dick with decent sized typeface which, despite weighing in at 1.5kg, made the reading experience so much easier.

Your right about the reading of Reunion. Sometimes stories do need to be heard out loud. With study we tend to have this reverence for the written word and forget that storytelling comes from an oral tradition. The down side of this is that nowadays I have to listen to teenagers on the bus recounting entire, mundane conversations to their friends ('This is me: blah blah blah. This is 'im: blah blah blah. And I was like: whatever') But with Reunion, and its strong character voices, it almost demands to be read out.

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