Sunday, January 25, 2009

'The Stories of John Cheever'

Impeccable. I have been reading these stories for weeks now, and I finally finished them tonight. As I read I tried to think about what kind of holistic picture Cheever was creating; what this body of work (representing more than thirty years of a writing life) was conveying. The quick answer, boiled down to a near-cliche, is "suburban angst." There was plenty of that (men in desperate affairs with their neighbors' wives; women crying out for a life beyond the kitchen and the nursery; the patter of conversation waiting for the morning train; the alcohol-soaked evenings) and I loved it. Many of his stories took place on a few streets in the Manhattan suburb of Shady Hill, featuring a familiar litany of family names ("The Farquarsons, the Beardens, the Bentleys...").

The greater thing, though, was his portrayal of universal emotions in such a specific time and place. At our present cultural moment the domestic life of the 1950s is treated with a knowing wink and nod, but Cheever won't let you escape with that kind of pat analysis. His characters are the same tangled mess of contradictions, jealousies, desires, aspirations, and disappointments that we are today. This book made me think of my grandparents and their young adulthoods. Although at times Cheever veered into the coldness and near-irony of "Revolutionary Road," over the course of this volume he was able to flesh out something richer, more alive, more true.

I can't imagine what it's like, as a writer, to have thirty years of work in one fat, proud volume. I wished I could have known when each of the stories were written, for a better sense of context. Appearing chronologically, the first half of the book seemed stronger to me. The stories were set in New York apartment buildings with elevator men and servants' entrances, and then moved to the post-war utopia of Shady Hill. In the last section of the book, Cheever the technician was in full force, with stories frequently set in Italy, with disarmingly explicit sex and unmannered cursing -- it was a shock. It seemed as though Cheever's moment had passed, and that he knew as much.

I was tempted to devour this book, but I tried to pause between each story, to take a moment to consider it as its own independent thing, before diving in to the next. Individually, these stories are impeccable and beautifully written and jarringly true; collectively, they are miraculous -- dozens of voices crying out for something more or something genuine, cacophonous yet harmonious. I really loved this book. Cheever was the genesis.

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