The Pleasures of Cheever

Posted by @ 8:12 pm on January 19th, 2011

John Cheever, far right on bench, not in California, in front of trees

Some of you might very frequently pick up a book feeling certain that you will like it. This happens to me pretty rarely; usually only when I’ve read the book already, or when it is by Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf. So it was with particular relish when, still feeling the pang of having no more of Middlemarch to read, I opened The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever.

I’d only read Cheever’s stories, which I really love, whether the earlier perhaps more conventional ones or later so-called experiments like “The Swimmer.” Putting aside the question of whether “experimental” is or is not a troublesome descriptor of any art, I don’t think it fits well with Cheever at any stage in his career. One gets the sense with Cheever that he read widely and deeply, probably heavily in Shakespeare and the classics, took what he found useful and then made sentences that were all his own, without giving any thought to fashion and currency.

Sentences like:

We have all parted from simple places by train or boat at season’s end with generations of yellow leaves spilling on the north wind as we spill our seed and the dogs and the children in the back of the car, but it is not a fact that at the moment of separation a tumult of brilliant and precise images–as though we drowned–streams through our heads. We have indeed come back to lighted houses, smelling on the north wind burning applewood, and seen a Polish countess greasing her face in a ski lodge and heard the cry of the horned owl in rut and smelled a dead whale on the south wind that carries also the sweet note of the bell from Antwerp and the dishpan summons of the bell from Altoona but we do not remember all this and more as we board the train.

This isn’t the most representative passage from The Wapshot Chronicle in terms of mood or narrative style, but it is entirely representative of the level of prose. The back cover locates the book as a “family narrative in the tradition of Trollope, Dickens, and Henry James,” mentioning its picaresque quality, but if picaresque is the yardstick, then Cheever out-Dickenses Dickens by a hundred miles. To his credit, Cheever doesn’t tidy things up like Dickens, and the moments of absurdity, and the sprawl of the whole thing, are much more in the spirit of Fielding or even Beckett than James. Then again maybe Trollope is all of those things but I haven’t read him at all.

After I finished Wapshot, I read the Paris Review interview of Cheever. You can read it yourself but I thought I’d share a few gems:

I’m very much concerned with trees . . . with the nativity of trees, and when you find yourself in a place where all the trees are transplanted and have no history, I find it disconcerting….But my principal feeling about Hollywood is suicide. If I could get out of bed and into the shower, I was all right. Since I never paid the bills, I’d reach for the phone and order the most elaborate breakfast I could think of, and then I’d try to make it to the shower before I hanged myself.

I love when people talk about breakfasting or about the ills of California (cf “The Lady is a Tramp”: “hates California / it’s cold and it’s damp”), so for somebody to connect the two so effortlessly is really a treat. Plus, I like to think also that I’m very much concerned with trees.

And then:

I don’t work with plots. I work with intuition, apprehension, dreams, concepts. Characters and events come simultaneously to me. Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction. Of course, one doesn’t want to be boring . . . one needs an element of suspense. But a good narrative is a rudimentary structure, rather like a kidney.

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