I have a confession. I don’t get why Cheever’s short stories are so loved. If you look at my past blog posts, you’ll see that I could pontificate for hours on the greatness of stories by DFW or Barth or Borges or Barthelme or Calvino or … You might be thinking: well, those are post-modernists. You grab on to the structures, language, and self-reflexivity when you write about them. Most people read for character and story.
But I also get why Turgenev or James Baldwin or Michael Chabon or Hemingway or Joyce’s Dubliners are good. They show human struggle and focus on exposing deep truths. They are masterful at building intensity and pacing. They have consistent and unique voices throughout the stories. In other words, they’re about something, and the writing makes you see that.
Let’s talk about Cheever. Pretty much all writers put him in the top 10 greatest short story writers in English. I’ve seen several forums where “The Swimmer” is universally agreed to be the greatest short story of all time. This means I’m missing something. The fact that I don’t understand what makes him great means I can’t tell whether my own stories have this quality.
Unlike the stories mentioned above, Cheever stories read to me like they aren’t about anything, and then at the last moment you realize it might be about something, but that something is totally different. In other words, they are boring and the end doesn’t seem to cohere with the rest of the work. This series will be about some of Cheever’s most famous stories and my attempt to figure out why people care.
The first story is one that I almost get. It is the closest I’ve come to liking a Cheever story. I know there isn’t going to be a single silver bullet that explains the greatness. It will be a hundred little things that don’t seem like much on their own but when taken together add up to greatness.
We’ll start by examining “The Country Husband.” The beginning of this story is magnificent, which is why I say I kind of get this one. A man is on an airplane that makes a crash landing. This is the type of traumatizing event that can permanently change a life. This is probably the most significant thing to ever happen in this man’s life.
When he gets home, he tries to tell his family. One by one, they are all caught up in their own trivial activities, so they can’t hear him. We make fun of this as a purely 21st century phenomenon. You’ve seen the scene I’m referring to. A family sits down to dinner or someone is on a date, but everyone is so involved with their phones/tablets/devices/etc that no serious conversation could ever happen. No one even hears the other people when they speak.
This story proves that narrative wrong. Cheever perfectly captures this feeling in 1954. If the story ended there, I’d say this was a work of genius that has withstood the test of time. It is a brilliant criticism of suburban culture. Everyone is so wrapped up in their own egocentric trivialities (someone called me an idiot on the internet!) that they go unaware of actual traumatizing events even when being told to their face.
The story also contains striking poetic lines: “She paints with lightning strokes that panorama of drudgery in which her youth, her beauty, and her wit have been lost.” Or: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” I’ve heard that people like Cheever’s stories because he drops these in unexpected places. But this can’t be a real reason he’s so admired, because almost all the rest of his sentences are so unremarkable.
Here’s where the story loses me. The main character becomes unrelatable. I don’t mean “unlikeable,” which I think is fine for a story. His actions make little sense. He says something extremely mean and out of character to someone. He essentially stalks the babysitter claiming to love her but briefly fantasizes about raping her.
I understand on an intellectual level that all the plot points, no matter how extreme and varied, tie together around the theme of breaking the myth of a perfect suburban neighborhood. But it seems to come at the cost of being believable, which I would have thought was the element that made a story like this great.
I can rationalize the behavior by saying the main character bottled this traumatic event up and these are the ways the pyschological trauma is manifesting itself. But that’s mostly a cheap way to fix something that really felt off to me.
Of course, the point was not to criticize, but to find out why it is great. In this case I’d say there is excellent metaphorical language, a strong and relatable cultural critique, and each element served the overarching theme.