John Cheever's stories are about swimming pools and tennis, sozzled cocktail parties and money either not much of an issue or a concern as people have fallen on relatively hard times. Affairs aren't uncommon, and regrets more than a few. It is a world with similarities to John Updike's and Richard Yates's. If we have southern writers including O'Connor, Welty and Capote suggesting a bible belt aesthetic full of suspicion, stunted lives and limited education, Cheever is one of the post-war commuter belt writers whose characters often live in gilded cages with inner lives of quiet desperation that might easily pass on the outside for a certain type of success. They frequently live the American dream as post-war prosperity but find they cannot so easily live with themselves. "Everyone keeps saying that about my stories, "Oh, they're so sad." " Cheever says in Paris Review. But their sadness is quite different from a writer with whom Hanif Kureishi compares him in the introduction to The Collected Stories, Anton Chekhov. Cheever's seems a very modern sadness, an ennui that suggests the good life is unattainable because the values sitting behind our expectations of what that life ought to be are messy and incoherent.
One of Cheever's most famous stories is 'The Swimmer', with the central character deciding one day that he will swim back home, moving from one swimming pool to the next in the comfy suburb in which he lives. They all have a pool: the Grahams, the Hammers, the Crosscups, The Howlands as we find over the course of the story that while Neddy Merrill swims from pool to pool, his life isn't quite how he imagines it. By the end of the tale he arrives home only to find the garage handles are rusted, the house is locked. He pounds on the doors, shouts, and then accepts the place is empty. It is a story of a man's denial as delusion, a quest through azure space as a trip down memory lane. If the story has had such resonance it might reside in the swimming pool as the contemporary Faustian deal. Modern man sells his soul for a seat on the sunlounger next to his very own pool of water. If owning a house is a sign of being one's own man; owning a pool indicates that you are more than keeping up with the Joneses, the Grahams, The Hammers and the Howlands. It was an image of ambivalent success in the late sixties as numerous films indicated the listlessness of the good life: The Graduate was made in 1967 from Charles Webb's 1963 novella, and The Swimmer(written in 1964) was turned into a film a year later with Burt Lancaster. David Hockney's famous 'A Bigger Splash' dates from 67 too.
Of course one doesn't only keep up with the Jones's, one might try and sleep with Mrs Jones as well. There is the suggestion this could be why Merrill's marriage to Lucinda fell apart and with it his life. One of the pools he swims in is that of his old mistress Shirley Adams. "It seemed in a way to be his pool, as the lover, particularly the illicit lover, enjoys the possessions of his mistress with an authority unknown to holy matrimony." But affairs are likely to create holes in matrimony, and gaps have continued to perforate other aspects of Merrill's life. In this type of environment, one can't fall apart without falling to the bottom. This is a social order that has a pecking order. When Merrill arrives at the Biswangers' he recalls they weren't welcome. "They were the sort of people who told dirty stories to mixed company. They did not belong to Neddy's set - they were not even on Lucinda's christmas card-list." In this milieu one might befriend Mr Jones and sleep with Mrs Jones, but you wouldn't tell a dirty joke to the pair of them. This is a world where everyone keeps up appearances, and where appearances are necessarily deceptive. In this case delusional too.
Of course deception includes a high degree of self-deception as well. In 'The Chaste Clarissa', Baxter is a womaniser with a couple of failed marriages behind him and a reputation for stinginess. Clarissa had recently married Bob Ryan and lives in Chicago. Baxter meets her holidaying at the upmarket Vineyard Haven and sets out to seduce her. He seems the sort of man who doesn't take other people's relationships seriously because he doesn't take himself too seriously either. Yet this wouldn't be the light-hearted figure looking for fun; more the cynic who wonders how he might disrupt other people's sense of stability and self. It isn't that he doesn't have real desire for the beautiful Clarissa, and his feelings do hint at showing an interest in hers. This is a newly married woman who looked different from the other, tanned wives at the beach. "Here was something else, and it took his breath away. Some of the inescapable power of her beauty lay in the whiteness of her skin, some of it in the fact, unlike the other women, who were at ease in bathing suits, Clarissa seemed humiliated and ashamed to find herself wearing so little." Yet if he wants to get to know her it rests in the biblical sense. When he tells her she is beautiful she replies that is "just my outward self. Nobody knows the real me." He realises that to seduce her he needs to flatter her not from hisdesire, but from her wish to be perceived in a particular way. By the end of the story he will get his end away by telling her how intelligent he thinks she is, though well aware that this is far from her most striking quality.
He seduces her not with his first pass however, and when she initially rejects him he feels not at all the guilt of someone who has tried it on with a married woman, but the dejection of a man whose technique has failed him. "Baxter was aware that he had only himself to blame; he had moved too quickly. He knew better." The right technique was to tell her not what he thought about her but what she wanted to hear about herself. "You're very intelligent...you're so intelligent." "It was as simple as that." Clarissa might want to keep her appearance, and keep appearances up, but most important of all is to appear a certain way in the eyes of others, and Baxter seduces her with an image of herself that he will claim to share. It isn't true as he listens to her talk about her resistance to progressive education, that women shouldn't dye their hair and that she doesn't put much faith in fancy diets. She doesn't justify anything she says: they remain merely opinions. But coming from a mouth Baxter so wants to kiss, this sounds okay to him as he insists she is so smart. This is a happy ending from the point of view of the characters. Baxter will get laid and Clarissa will feel bright, but the overriding ethos is despairing. It is another of Cheever's infernal liaisons, another story suggesting that his stories aren't sad, but sometimes literally demoralizing. A sad story can often nevertheless leave us with an ethical uplift. We accept that a couple cannot remain together and feel sadness towards this failure. Films like Brief Encounter, Casablancaand Now Voyager are all examples of this mild melancholy at opportunities that cannot be. But they remain moral works. Cheever's are often amoral tales, which means that the moral rests not in the characters' actions, but in their behaviour contained by an ethos that goes beyond the diegesis.
In the films we mention the characters remain good people in difficult circumstances. In Cheever's they are weak people who cannot be identificatory figures but instead are cautionary ones. The identificatory figure in a work of art is a person whose values we might wish to possess. A cautionary character is someone whose behaviour we might wish to learn from but at one remove. Anybody finishing 'The Chaste Clarissa' and feeling chuffed that Baxter will get his cherry, is refusing to accept that certain things should remain forbidden fruits. Now of course if one of the characters was the injured party then at least we would feel that the identificatory would be more pronounced than the cautionary, but Baxter isn't much of a character, and Clarissa isn't that much better. She refuses seduction not because she is a married woman, but because Baxter hasn't seduced her in the right way. He hasn't yet played into her false sense of who she is.
We could be sounding hopelessly moralistic, but our intention isn't to insist on prescriptive behaviour. It is to muse over why Cheever is right to wonder whether his stories are sad or not. Any moral aspect we want to insist upon is contained by a semantic distinction. If we were to say that someone left their wife and kids for another woman, if we applied the word sad we would be doing so towards the wife and kids rather than towards the husband. It isn't sad that he has left from the perspective of thinking of his behaviour. We would be more likely to think not of his sadness (sad though he may be), but his recklessness, his selfishness, his stupidity. If Cheever's stories usually aren't sad it rests partly on the notion that he often does show reckless and selfish men. He doesn't want us to judge them simply, but complexly, and sad does not do them justice. If we think of 'A Country Husband', what are we to make of the husband's infatuation with a young woman helping around the house? "Now the world is full of beautiful young girls, but Francis saw here the difference between beauty and perfection. All those endearing flaws, moles, birthmarks and healed wounds were missing, and he experienced in his consciousness that moment when music breaks glass, and felt a pang of recognition as strange, deep, and wonderful as anything in his life." This is clearly a sincere feeling, and the story might well have been sad if Frances had resisted making a move on young Anne, and if he had resisted saying negative things about her boyfriend when asked if he could help the boy find a job. Instead he reckons "any kindness done for him would backfire in everybody's face... " Yet the boy's only conspicuous character flaw in Francis's eyes is that he is Anne's boyfriend; Francis' desire for her leads to one's disgust at him. We might not be able to help ourselves being instantly smitten, and it could have been on Francis' part a sad realisation of his own middle-age and his wife's fading beauty. Earlier in the story Frances thinks of his wife Julia, saying, "she paints with lightning strokes that panorama of drudgery in which her youth, her beauty and her wit have been lost." Before the end of the story, Francis will hit his wife and she will threaten to leave, but he will also acknowledge the state he is in and visit a psychiatrist. Yet sad wouldn't be the word that comes to mine to sum up this emotionally subtle tale of a weak, lost man. But what word might? Resignation might be closer to the mark, reflecting an aspect of personality that sadness might eschew. In 'The Swimmer', 'The Chaste Clarissa' and 'The Country Doctor' we have men who act impetuously, selfishly, and perhaps even childishly. They might be mean, dishonest and weak-willed, but the stories themselves enquire into the nature of consciences and consciousnesses. These are men who are quite distinct, but they all share a resigned attitude to the human condition. There is of course cynicism in Baxter's seduction of Clarissa, but there is also a resigned sense that humans like to deceive themselves, and he will seduce her on the basis of that self-deception. In 'The Swimmer' resignation passes through immense denial. Here is a man who looks like he has destroyed the family life he once had, and all that is left is a house in wrack and ruin. He is still unable to confront the truth, but we might feel the resignation he will have to face. When near the end of 'The Country Husband' Francis is making a coffee table, finding "some consolation in the simple arithmetic involved and the holy smell of new wood. Francis is happy", he has avoided it would seem the catastrophe that befalls Ned. Yet resignation would still seem to be the word. When he goes to the psychiatrist and says he is in love, this isn't with exclamatory pleasure, but resigned acceptance that it is an illness rather than a cure.
When asked the Paris Review whether he thinks fiction should give lessons, Cheever replies: "No. Fiction is meant to illuminate, to explode, to refresh. I don't think there's any consecutive moral philosophy in fiction beyond excellence. Acuteness of feeling and velocity have always seemed to me terribly important. People look for morals in fiction because there has always been a confusion between fiction and philosophy." But is this really the case? We might think that some art forms are more unavoidably ethical than others. Instrumental music and painting would seem to concern themselves less with morality than theatre and literature for example. We might wonder what Beethoven's Ode to Joy and Schubert's Death of the Maiden say, no matter if the former incorporated Schiller's poem and the latter comes from the poetry of Matthias Claudius. When we listen to the music without lyrics and without context the moral point would be hard to decipher. We may be dismayed and disgusted by the genius of Francis Bacon and the dubious aesthetics of Gunther Van Hagens. We may even feel in the title of many a painting and the symbolism suggested, that a moral system is being played out. But it is quite different from that evident in a narrative form. Often our reaction to a painting will be instantaneous or contextual. In other words we might immediately turn away from a painting that shocks us, or be angry to find out that Van Hagens used real bodies for his sculptural work. Yet narratively oriented art seems to lend itself well to asking ethical questions within the diegesis and over a period of narrative time. Reading 'A Country Husband' we might be disapproving as Francis makes a pass at Anna, horrified when he lies about her boyfriend, angry when he hits Julia, and pleased that he will try and sort himself out by seeing a doctor. The story will generate in us a series of moral reactions, and the better the writer the more nuanced these reactions are inclined to be. Yet to pretend morality and fiction have nothing in common would be to miss much that makes it great. It isn't that we should confuse fiction and philosphy. We accept that fiction is one of the arenas in which philosophical questions can be asked - much more so than in painting and music.
Of course, some writers have produced fiction or theatre that will limit the representational and narrative possibilities so that the idea of good and bad behaviour becomes irrelevant. Some of Beckett's work is an example of a permutational aesthetics that relies on an aesthetic mode that makes moral propositions hard to justify, as in 'Ping' or Quad for example. Yet when he says that "Proust is completely detached from all moral considerations", or that "moral values are not accessible and not open to definition" (A Companion to Samuel Beckett) we would be inclined to disagree with the former and say it all depends in relation the latter. Yet, like Alain Robbe-Grillet or B. S. Johnson, Beckett seemed well aware that the writer can easily find himself in a moral system because of the narrative system so deployed. If the writer wants to escape morality it will be done not by creating morally ambiguous characters (morality would stll be there), but by undermining the system of representation that underpins narration. This would mean calling into question character itself, the temporal order of events, the plausibility of the spaces we find ourselves in. If these aspects are undermined, so also will moral assumption. Writing in For a New Novel, Robbe-Grillet says "it was absurd to suppose that in the novel Jealousy...there existed a clear and unambiguous order of events, one which was not that of sentences of the book, as if I had diverted myself by making a pre-established calendar the way one shuffles a deck of cards. The narrative was on the contrary made in such a way that chronology would lead, sooner or later, to a series of contradictions, hence to an impasse."
It would be the impasse that refuses morality, but though Cheever sometimes creates narratives that are so subjectively explored that we can't easily say what is real and what is in the characters' head (as in 'The Swimmer'), he does not push the story beyond good and evil: the stories remain within the moral realm. Even in 'The Swimmer' we will be making some sort of judgement when Ned thinks in breaking up with his mistress that "it was he who had broken it off, his was the upper hand, and he stepped through the gate of the wall surrounded her pool with nothing so considered as self-confidence." The question in relation to morality isn't one of eschewal, but one of modulation. What distinguishes good fiction from bad is often the degree to which the writing accepts but complicates an ethos that biblical stories or fairy tales necessarily simplify. It can be here where the writing takes place. What do we mean by this? Imagine if someone writes that "Paul had a gleeful grin on his face as he ground the gun into Richard's temple. Richard wasn't scared. He knew his death would save the world. He knew the bomb was ticking nearby and in less than a minute the world would be rid of an evil force." The sentence asks for no nuance at all. But what about these? "There would be no point in saying that she looked so much more beautiful than she did on our wedding day, but because I have grown older and have, I think, a greater depth of feeling, and because I could see in her face that night both youth and age, both her devotion to the young woman that she had been and the positions that had yielded graciously to time, I think that I have never been so deeply moved." ('Goodbye. My Brother') "I've often thought of going to visit my only daughter and her own true love, and now at last I was making this journey. In my reveries the meeting would take place in some club. He would come from a good family. Flora would be happy; she would have the shining face of a young girl first in love. The boy would be serious, but not too serious; intelligent, handsome, and with the winning posture of someone who stands literally and at the threshold of a career. I could see the fatuity of these reveries..." ('Ocean') "You could not say fairly of Ralph and Laura Whittemore that they had the failings and the characteristics of incorrigible treasure hunters, but you could say truthfully of them that the shimmer and smell, the peculiar force of money, the promise of it, had an untoward influence on their lives." ('The Pot of Gold') In the first remark we quote from Bowles we might seem to have a man who no longer finds his ageing wife beautiful, in the second someone expecting his daughter to make a good match, and in the third a couple who appear materialistic. Yet the need to escape a narrow notion of appropriate behaviour can give to the writing a subtlety of expression that removes the moral absolutism and replaces it with a comprehension of ethos. The character sees his wife has aged, but sees in her an older version of himself that looks kindly on her and who might look kindly on him. The immediate judgement becomes reflective compassion as the writing manages to convey, through a potentially critical observation, a fuller empathy.
We see the same nuance in the other comments too. The father wants the best for his daughter, but who can make such a statement without qualifying it, without questioning what they mean by it? Whose best is that: the father's notion or the daughter's? Would that best be a son-in-law who is the equal to the father, more successful or slightly less so? Does the father want to be replaced or does he just want to be augmented? Good writing can take a statement like wanting the best for someone and interrogate its assumptions and this will keep the writing fluid and sensitive in the manner in which our cliched example does not. In the remark from 'A Pot Of Gold' imagine how a writer without Cheever's need to play fair to the perception would have couched it? "A couple of gold diggers would do almost anything to make a success of themselves." The ethical need to see life complexly, to view people with manifold and often contradictory needs and desires, keeps the writing malleable, very far from the sclerotically tabloid or from possessing a thick-headed Hollywood heroism.
At the beginning of the essay we talked about the Cheever milieu, the tennis courts and the swimming pools, the cocktail parties and the adulterous, the materially good life spiritually enervated. In 'Basically Decent', Updike says "Like Kafka and Kierkegaard, Cheever felt his own existence as a kind of mistake, a sin." We needn't concern ourselves too much with why this might have been so (well explored in Cheever'sJournals), but this gives to his work a scepticism towards the materialistic that provides it with often great texture. There are few religious figures in his short stories, but there are numerous spiritual crises. Thus his work isn't infused with religiosity (as we frequently find in 'Bible Belt' writers like O'Connor, Capote and Welty), nor with the resurrective Catholicism of Greene, Spark and Waugh. What interests Cheever is draining the materialistic of its pleasures and wondering what might be left. Desire as a negative might be some sort of answer. The luxurious becomes the usurious: that somebody is exploiting or taking advantage of someone else, or at the mercy of others because of their need for the good life. In 'O City of Broken Dreams', a playwright, with his spouse and child, heads for New York hoping to make it big, and instead falls out with a major producer and in love with a young woman who turns his head and puts it in a spin. The play has been based on a woman from central character Evarts' home town, and the producer after the dispute proposes that she should sue him as it doesn't take long for his life to fall apart in the city of broken dreams. The story ends with Evarts planning to get out of the Big Apple before becoming properly corrupted. He is an innocent abroad who hasn't left his country, and where Evarts hasn't made his mark, but the small bite he takes from what has fallen from the tree of life leaves him more than a little shaken. Here we have Updike's notion of original sin in Cheever manifest in a tale where anything biblical is no more than suggestive and metaphoric. His work hints at the mythic rather than invokes the religious. What he so often wants to explore is how people become promptly compromised by their desires; how it weakens their sense of self.
Three final things come to mind. One is the mythological that Cheever admits to drawing upon; the second the privacy of the world, its capacity for secrets, and the third, how frequently his characters become smitten. In the Paris Review Cheever says, in response to a question about the biblical and the mythological, "it's explained by the fact that I was brought up in southern Massachusetts, where it was thought that mythology was a subject that we should all grasp. It was very much a part of my education. The easiest way to parse the world is through mythology. There have been thousands of papers written along those linesLeander is Poseidon and somebody is Ceres, and so forth. It seems to be a superficial parsing. But it makes a passable paper." The question isn't to find the mythological, but to explore a first principle that sits beneath the mythological and brings out a characteristic that the myth well covers but which cannot simply be accessed. If one accesses the myth too directly then the detail becomes secondary. What matters is the detail allowing manifest the first principle. One finds the first principle; one doesn't furnish it. If the writer thinks thoroughly enough about a situation there is a good chance it will chime with an aspect of that thing he is trying to find - loss, frailty, hubris, lust, greed - with their mythical components. T. E. Kennedy for example draws on the myth of narcissus and the story ofThe Odyssey to analyse 'The Swimmer'. ('Negative Capability and The Swimmer'.) We could see 'The Chaste Clarissa' as a play on the Trojan Horse, or a variation of the riddle of the Sphinx, with Baxter finding a way in to the fortress Clarissa through wiliness, and solving the riddle of her personality through realising she wanted to be seen as other than people would see her. Yet this would be to reduce the stories to mythical precision, when what is vital to their energy is disparateness. As Cheever says, "what I love is when totally disparate facts come together. For example, I was sitting in a caf reading a letter from home with the news that a neighboring housewife had taken the lead in a nude show. As I read I could hear an Englishwoman scolding her children. "If you don't do thus and so before Mummy counts to three" was her line. A leaf fell through the air, reminding me of winter and of the fact that my wife had left me and was in Rome. There was my story." (Paris Review)
It is the tension between the need to explore a story's meaning, with the desire to appropriate the minutiae of life, that gives of course not just Cheever's work but many writers' stories their significance. It is then a question of what makes Cheever's work singular. Perhaps nothing in particular, as we can find similarities with Updike. Yates and others. Yet there is a capacity for the opposite of the mythic in Cheever's work that resides in the secretive. In 'The Wrysons', one day many years after his mother had died, Mr Wryson bakes a cake and finds in the baking the reassuring memory of his mother. After finishing the baking, his depression alleviates. He eats one slice and throws the rest in the bin. For years afterwards, he would occasionally do this when feeling low, and would sometimes in the middle of the night, while his wife and daughter were asleep, go downstairs and see what ingredients he could throw together. In 'Talk about The World of Apples' the famous writer has taken to writing vulgar limericks for his own pleasure. "While he tackled his indecent projects with ardour, he finished with boredom and shame." They are secretive little ditties next to the public work.
The third point rests on his characters' frequent capacity to find themselves besotted. In 'The Chaste Clarissa', Baxter says "here was something else and it took his breath away." In 'O City of Broken Dreams': "his mouth was dry. It might have been the antic pace of the last days, it might have been his loss of sleep - he didn't know - but he felt as though he had fallen in love." In 'The Country Husband' "there were tears of lust in his eyes." In 'The Ocean' the narrator recalls first seeing his wife: "Who is she?...who isshe?" In each instance Cheever suggests the fragility of identity in the face of beauty. Keeping Updike's remark about original sin in mind, falling in love can seem like a fall from grace. Quite often we find that in Cheever's work that characters falling for someone, means failing because of the commitments elsewhere, as in 'The Country Husband', and 'O City of Broken Dreams'. This issue of commitment in its various manifestations is a point Kureishi makes biographically in the introduction to The Collected Stories. "The Cheever of The Journals appears to be a thin skinned loner who loved both men and women. This confused him and at times drove him crazy to be with, since it was conventional, when he was a young man, to make a choice." Cheever's figures are usually at the mercy of their passions, without quite being passionate men. When the country husband falls in love it isn't the passion that is most pronounced, but the threat of internal collapse it implies.
What we find in many Cheever stories is fragility and comfort, opposing elements one might suppose, but one is personal the other social. Many of Cheever's characters have creature comforts but are not comfortable creatures, thin-skinned indeed, and unhappy in that skin. As he says "verisimilitude is, by my lights, a technique one exploits in order to assure the reader of the truthfulness of what he's being told. If he truly believes he is standing on a rug, you can pull it out from under him. Of course, verisimilitude is also a lie. What I've always wanted of verisimilitude is probability, which is very much the way I live. This table seems real, the fruit basket belonged to my grandmother, but a madwoman could come in the door any moment." (Paris Review) It is remark that sums up his work horrifically well, the detail allied to a first principle of the fragile that suggests the good life awaits at any moment its shattering. It is perhaps a hint of religious superstition, the idea that Commuter belt living is a pact that at any moment can be broken, but without the individual necessarily in control of that breaking.
© Tony McKibbin