August 31, 2009

you're underneath the stairs
and you're giving back some glares

Vania Zouravliov, Satan's Stereo

* Rick Moody on John Cheever from Conjunctions:

For [high school] graduation, my dad gave me a trip to Europe -- to Paris, London, Rome and Geneva. He also gave me a copy of The Stories of John Cheever. Foreign travel made me homesick, though, and I did nothing in London and Paris but read the Cheever stories. I lurked with my bulky red tome in the various parks near the hotel, in case Dad should permit me to fly home. In recognition of my afternoons spent reading, I decorated my hardcover copy of the Stories with a sticker (nontransferable) that allowed me to sit in a chair in Hyde Park. This luxury, back then, cost fifteen pence per diem.

I don't remember thinking much of the stories. I thought they were neither good nor bad. Fiction was narcotic, the way I saw it, and that was what I liked about this particular book, though I also remember admiring one piece, "Three Stories," in part narrated by a protagonist's stomach ("The subject today will be the metaphysics of obesity, and I am the belly of a man named Lawrence Farnsworth"), as well as a catalogue-story entitled "A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear."

Next came the punk rock years, during which I threw out most of my dinosaur records (Genesis, E.L.P.) and replaced them with totems of a new orthodoxy, the bands of CBGB's and of King's Row. As part of this dislocation, I began to bristle at aspects of my biography. I began, for example, to refer to St. Paul's as a high school -- as if, like other people's alma maters, it was just down the road and had a prom night. I began to avoid certain garments (Oxfords with button-down collars, tartan boxer shorts, loafers, tweed jackets), and to ridicule writers or artists or musicians or anybody else who seemed to have anything to do with the upper middle class or station wagons or cocktail hour or golden retrievers or show tunes or tennis lessons or backgammon or the Episcopal Church or ambitions for success in the world of finance. I began to ridicule the very archipelago of suburbs that had spawned me. I ripped holes in my T-shirts and jeans. I had my ear pierced by a friend.

Cheever, along with Updike, I suddenly included on the list of enemies of my new state. Who was this khaki-clad, Scotch-drinking New Yorker writer scribbling his sentimental prose about ordinary life? My resentments became more acute during my first year at Brown University when my freshman creative writing instructor, a graduate student, brought in The Stories of John Cheever as a model of good form, going so far as to single out the celebrated last paragraph of its first piece, which runs in part:

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to inestimable greatness of the race, that harsh surface beauty of life?

Well, I was the kind of student writer who looked eagerly for the dwarf or the burn victim or the heartbroken octogenarian, who scoured the newspapers for the tale of the pit bull who'd ravaged the schoolyard (three dead, scores injured), and I could hardly think of the close of "Goodbye, My Brother" as anything but propaganda for readers who wanted only affirmation of their conventions, an impression exacerbated by the PBS-style beauty of the last sentence, in which "the naked women came out of the sea." Nor did I care for the other, frequently anthologized Cheever stories my grad student instructor offered me: "The Enormous Radio," "The Sorrows of Gin," etc.

From freshman year forward, then, the mention of Cheever and any of his ilk was enough to provoke in me tirades about conformism and hypocrisy and oppression, about the schoolyard and country club cruelties I'd known back home. Ideally, youth is supposed to be flexible and open to ideas, full of reverence for the impromptu snowstorm or the poetry of kids crossing quadrangles with arms full of flowers and beer, overjoyed by certain loud guitars and amplifiers, altered once and for all in the thrall of great books, but above all disinclined to think prejudicially or to be contemptuous without investigation. Not in my case.

In the meantime, out of desperation and because of limited professional skills, I went to graduate school. There, in a literature class, I had yet again to confront those stories of Cheever. I'm powerless to describe exactly what changed in the five years between freshman year at Brown and spring semester of graduate school, what alchemy of bad jobs (recorded tour salesman, bibliographer), Upper West Side dusks and uncompleted romances did the trick, effected the transformation. I hadn't yet been through any real tragedies -- not of the butchering sort into which one might suture a change of heart. Maybe I was just growing up. The Cheever stories, of course, had traversed the interval intact. Their language was the same.

But in spring of 1986 the stories suddenly had a richness that they hadn't displayed the last time I'd checked. They weren't about surfaces anymore, but rather about contradictions and ambiguities beneath the "harsh surface beauties of life." "The Fourth Alarm," e.g., struck me as unusually poignant this time, in which the narrator cannot, apparently, tell the story he needs to tell unless he indulges: "I sit in the sun drinking gin. It is ten in the morning. Sunday. Mrs. Uxbridge is off somewhere with the children. Mrs. Uxbridge is the housekeeper. She does the cooking and takes care of Peter and Louise." Then there was the justifiably celebrated "The Swimmer," in which a pastiche of idyllic suburban poolsides (and further gin and tonics) culminates not in the bland affirmations I associated with Cheever's early work but, rather, in a powerful and sudden desolation, as the swimmer approaches his home:

The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys' for supper? Had the girls joined her there or gone someplace else?... The house was locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the stupid maid must have locked the place up until he remembered that it had been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook. He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.

There were oblique ambitions here that I had been too rigid to notice earlier, and these ambitions were especially vivid in the conjunction of Cheever's moral vision and the persistent inability of his characters to measure up to this vision. The best example of this later work awaited me, though, as I approached the last story in the collection, "The Jewels of the Cabots." In recollection, it seems that the only readers in my graduate school class who liked the piece were the instructor and me. There was a persistent feeling, among my fellow apprentice writers, of mystification about this final story. What was it about? Was it about anything at all? Had Cheever perhaps gone so far with his rumored drinking that he was capable only of a narrative so demented and fragmented? "Jewels" had none of the crafted, understated grace of, say, "Goodbye, My Brother." It didn't seem to settle down and narrate. In its events, it wasn't particularly credible. But for me it opened up a new stretch of highway.

* Paulson's Folly

* "Nothing is ever behind us." -- Roberto Bolano, from 2666


Blogger Iburiedpaul said...

Thank you, Dust Congress

12:37 PM  

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