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Friday, July 01, 2011

The Stories of John Cheever: Complexity, Comparison and an Exercise on the Readable

So many years ago, I used to pound into my students little minds the purely rude act of beginning a composition with a quote.  I will make an exception here because John Cheever is, well, John Cheever.  The fact that the man was a genius is another reason.

"For lovers, touch is a metamorphoses.  All the parts of their bodies seem to change, and they seem to become something different and better.  That part of their experience that is distinct and separate, the totality of the years before they met, is changed, is redirected toward this moment.  They feel they have reached an identical point of intensity, an ecstasy of rightness that they command in every part, and any recollection that occurs to them takes on this final clarity, whether it be a sweep hand on an airport clock, a snow owl, a Chicago railroad station on Christmas Eve, or anchoring a yawl in a strange harbor while all the stormy coast strangers are blowing their horns for the yacht-club tender, or running a ski trail at that hour when, although the sun is still in the sky, the north face of every mountain lies in the dark."

A few things before we go over this amazing passage from the story "The Bus to St. James."  I had not read Cheever outside of one story in some anthology probably during my undergrad years.  Reading this collection of stories has been one of those rare literary gifts that remains with the reader forever.  Cheever achieves that particularly difficult medium of style that is, or has been, the death valley to so many other readers.  The readability of Cheever's short stories rests in his ability to make a epiphany passage as the one above, and still get description and action of more concrete passages right.  For example, a fairly common passage can take the form of action and description with the simplicity of holiness: "He turned and walked toward the glass doors at the end of the lobby, feeling that faint guilt and bewilderment we experience when we bypass some old friend or classmate who seems threadbare, or sick, or miserable in some other way."  This is from "The Five-Forty-Eight," and it shows both description and action in such a basic way that anyone reading not knowing it is the work of John Cheever might think it is the work of some novice or amateur.  But it is, as I said, in this very simplicity that Cheever's style shines.  The passage from "The Bus to St. James" has been, I believe, unfairly compared to a couple of F. Scott Fitzgerald's passages from "The Great Gatsby" and "Tender is the Night."  It just so happens that the two passages that some critics have gone as far as claiming them to be plagiarized are some of my two most favorite passages by Fitzgerald.  Here is the one from "The Great Gatsby" and I'll let you be the judge: "One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time.  Those who went further than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o'clock of a December evening with a few Chicago friends already caught up in the gayeties to bid them a hasty good-bye.  I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This or That's and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances and the matching invitations.... When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly in the air.  We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again."

I can see the connection with the Christmas theme and mentioning of trains, etc., but a claim of plagiarism seems to me wildly overboard.  The style and craft of John Cheever came about because of his insightful and keen eye to real human emotions.  The ability to write an epiphany as good as Fitzgerald's only proves Cheever's genius.  He is one of those forgotten writers of the late 20th Century, the one a reader discovers, albeit too late, and one is glad to have found this generous mark in the sea of Post-Modern American literature.

Setting and description (isolated from action) is another one of Cheever's major achievements.  In "O City of Broken Dreams," again Cheever achieves the distinct descriptions that puts a reader inside of the story: "When they had finished their supper, they went out into the street.  Mildred-Rose walked between her parents, holding their callused hands.  It was getting dark, and the lights of Broadway answered all their simple prayers.  High in the air were large, brightly lighted pictures of bloody heroes, criminal lovers, monsters, and armed desperadoes.  The names of movies and soft drinks, restaurants and cigarettes were written in a jumble of light, and in the distance they could see the pitiless winter afterglow of the Hudson River."  The reason I am including this passage when writing about description is clear; this is one of those great passages of description that remains with the attentive reader for a long, long time.  The only way I could recommend John Cheever's writing more is if he ran for president and I endorsed him wholeheartedly.

Back to the epiphany passages.  Here's the other passage from Fitzgerald that was mentioned by critics as having "influenced" Cheever a bit too much.  This is from "Tender is the Night."  "They were still in the happiest stage of love.  They were full of brave illusions about each other, tremendous illusions, so that the communion of self with self seemed to be on a plane where no other human relations mattered.  They both seemed to have arrived there with an extraordinary innocence as though a series of pure accidents, so many accidents that at last they were forced to conclude that they were for each other. They had arrived with clean hands, or so it seemed, after no traffic with the merely curious and clandestine."  After teaching "The Great Gatsby" for over 10 years and memorizing most of the book, I found this little gem in "Tender is the Night" so amazing I also decided to memorize it word by word.  If Cheever was influenced, then he was influenced by the very master of the lyrical and poetic.  It is my opinion that no other writer was able to capture the essence of fiction with such facility as F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I've held this view since I first read "The Great Gatsby" and after going on a Fitzgerald rampage and reading everything in he wrote, I had to declare him the undisputed champion of American letters.  Many people consider this choice a sort of too common place one... you know, the people who smirk at you when you say you love Bach, Mozart or Beethoven because they listen to Mahler and Stockhausen.  Back in graduate school, one of my professors asked us at the end of the semester what our favorite book was, when I said "This Side of Paradise," he looked at me like I had just fallen through the ceiling.  But I digress... I really feel that Fitzgerald has a companion up there at the top... John Cheever is a true writer.  If you cannot drop everything and read the entire collection of John Cheever's stories, here's a list of what I consider the best of the bunch.
1--The Season of Divorce
2--Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor
3--The Five-Forty-Eight
4--The Housebreaker of Shady Hill
5--The Sorrows of Gin
6--The Duchess
7--The Scarlet Moving Van
8--The Lowboy

I am afraid that if I keep including more and more I might as well just list them all.  They are all excellent.

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