Thursday

A Triumph Over Chaos: The Remarkable Story-World of John Cheever


Short fiction is a difficult genre, not only for writers but for readers. Entering a new story-world is like lowering yourself into cold water. It’s uncomfortable. It takes effort. With a novel, you only have to do it once and you are transported for hours, days, and weeks. That time is much more limited with a short story; you must settle for a sense of exhilaration, a frisson of pleasure or dread, or at the very least a somewhat modified outlook on your day. Most people don’t take the plunge. 

I love short stories, but even with the best of them I find there’s usually an element of holding my nose to swallow the healthy medicine. This is true even with great masters of the form, like Hemingway or Denis Johnson or Alice Munro or Flannery O’Connor. So when the seven-hundred page brick of The Stories of John Cheever landed on my bedside bureau, I eyed it with some trepidation. I’ll just sample it, I thought. Read a few stories to familiarize myself with the work of a famous American mid-twentieth century writer. Keep it in the stack for a few months, dip in and out. 

Well, that’s not what happened. I devoured the book from the front cover to the back, which means, I believe, that I’ve now read just about every piece of short fiction in Mr. Cheever’s oeuvre. And I’m here to tell you: it’s a hell of an oeuvre. Some stories are better than others, but there are no dogs. I found them to be like potato chips. You can’t eat just one. Once you start, you have to finish the whole bag. And at no point did I experience that feeling of boredom, of virtuous martyrdom in the cause of Art, that I get from too much short fiction. 

It seemed to me that it would be worthwhile to ponder some of the reasons why. I marked this passage from “O Youth and Beauty:”
Then it is a summer night, a wonderful summer night. The passengers on the eight-fifteen see Shady Hill – if they notice it at all – in a bath of placid golden light. The noise of the train is muffled in the heavy foliage, and the long car windows look like a string of lighted aquarium tanks before they flicker out of sight. Up on the hill, the ladies say to one other, “Smell the grass! Smell the trees!” The Farquarsons are giving another party, and Harry has hung a sign, WHISKEY GULCH, from the rose arbor, and is wearing a chef’s white hat and an apron. His guests are still drinking, and the smoke from his meat fire rises, on this windless evening, straight up into the trees.
And this one, from “The Trouble of Marcie Flint:”
Then I thought about other places where I would like to be – Nantucket, with only a handful of people left and the sailing fleet depleted and the dunes casting, as they never do in the summer, a dark shadow over the bathing beach. And I thought about the Vineyard and the farina-colored bluffs and the purple autumn sea and the stillness in which you might hear, from way out in the Sound, the rasp of a block on a traveler as a sailboard came about.
In these passages you can get an idea of the flavor of Cheever’s prose and the acuity of his descriptive powers. But they only hint at the totality of the world he creates. It’s not a particular place, though the fictional wealthy suburb of Shady Hill is a frequent scene of action (but so are Manhattan, Nantucket and Rome). Yes, the focus is on a certain privileged class, and it’s true that in some ways wealthy people are inherently fascinating as subjects. But it’s more than that. Cheever takes the familiar mid-century, upper middle class milieu of eastern America and turns it into something irresistible. It seems to me that Cheever is the closest thing America has to a direct literary descendant of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Many of Cheever’s characters are not admirable, but most are at least engaging in their originality and specificity. But it’s not so much the characters as the settings that keep us reading. The stories are permeated by the fragrances of a lost world, tragically beautiful and comically ugly. It’s a world both comfortable and exotic, both familiar and fascinatingly strange. Consider this passage from “The Seaside Houses:”
Fishing in the spring woods, you step on a clump of wild mint and the fragrance released is like the essence of that day. Walking on the Palatine, bored with antiquities and life in general, you see an owl fly out of the ruins of the palace of Septimus Severus and suddenly that day, that raffish and noisy city all make sense. Lying in bed, you draw on your cigarette and the red glow lights an arm, a breast, and a thigh around which the world seems to revolve. 
How Cheever managed to create such a fully realized and endlessly compelling story-world does, I must admit, remain a bit elusive for me. But I suspect the author himself knew exactly what he was doing. Here’s a hint of it from “The Death of Justina:”
Fiction is an art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice . .
More than anything, then, Cheever’s stories represent a triumph over chaos. They reassure us that our own world is not an empty place. Hidden within it are secret treasures of order and beauty, and the stories teach us how to use our perceptions and emotional intelligence to uncover them. And in the end the story-world remains for us to return to, like a summer lake or a refreshing suburban swimming pool. No grimacing adjustment is required as we immerse ourselves in the water of the next story.