The Stories of John Cheever. Alfred A. Knopf. $15.
The deceptively modest self-portrait that John Cheever fashions in the preface to his newly collected Stories ("Naive, provincial . . . almost always clumsy") well accords with our customary sense of Cheever as a natural, as a self-reliant and largely homespun historian of the manners and morals of the upper middle class. Despite the elegant contrivances and highly figured language that have always called plain attention to Cheever's exertions as a stylist in both his novels and his shorter pieces, Cheever's image of himself as the innocent realist is a tempting one to maintain.
One principal advantage is that it allows us to suspend our moral exasperation with Cheever's dreamy and passive characters by shifting the blame for their indecision and frustration away from the author. We assign it instead to the world of WASP custom that Cheever renders with such sympathy and exactitude in his early portraits of prewar Manhattan, and, later on, in his sketches of the disguised Westchester suburb known in his fiction as Shady Hill. More abused than abusive, the usual Cheever hero tends to be, like Ralph Whittemore in "The Pot of Gold," a "prisoner of his schemes and expectations"; the unsuspecting and ironic casualty of his single decisive conviction in life, "an uncompromising loyalty," as Cheever puts it, "to the gentle manners of the middle class."
As a result, we can attribute the loneliness of the Cheever hero to a world of conventions no longer adequate to experience but still impossible to break away from (a "rigid script," as Cheever calls it in "Metamorphoses"). Such a reading shores up our sense of the Cheever hero as the hapless or pathetic victim, different in tone from the victim in Jewish fiction perhaps, but still consistent with the approved modernist hero at odds, like Conrad's isolates, with a world of received customs and beliefs.
The first real attempt to canonize Cheever came with the publication of Falconer in 1977, for Falconer seemed, on the face of it at least, to place Cheever securely in the kind of modern tradition that justifies inaction as an indictment of society; that exploits the familiar figure of the prison to express the way culture captures and confines the self. But if Falconer prison was the key to Cheever's triumph, it was not so much because it served a vision of modern life as a life of imprisonment and isolation, but because Cheever used it to measure confinement as our ruling notion about ourselves. A metaphor about a metaphor rather than a metaphor about life, Cheever's prison suggested that the real function of confinement was to produce, as its necessary yield and support, the notion of freedom.
If we inquire into the arguments and architecture of the Stories, here, too, we will find a very different kind of drama from the Christian and modernist one that supposedly liberates and resurrects Farragut as he emerges from a shroud outside Falconer's walls. There is, after all, no overwhelming burden or hypocrisy in the confinements that the quotidian world places on Cheever's characters in the Stories (imagine Ned Merrill in "The Swimmer" making his neighborly rounds without the obligatory drinks he takes at each house along his way), for it is a drama of accommodation to the duties of daily life that is being played out.
It is probably even inaccurate to say that character in itself is Cheever's particular focus. For all the richness of incident, each affair, each frustration, each hero is a variation on another. Sometimes whole dramatic situations are virtual contractions or extensions of one another, as in "The Music Teacher" and "The Country Husband"; sometimes mirror images, as in "The Cure" and "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill." In fact, character and scene alike are memorable less for themselves than for the particular angle of vision they provide on a world they behold in common.
The moral corollary, of course, is that Cheever's characters are the decided instruments of circumstance, unable and unwilling not only to act but even to react, whether to a pathetic rival in "The Season of Divorce," or to the regular provocation of a burned dinner and a sour wife in "The Music Teacher." One of the most irritating examples in all of the Stories comes at the start of "The Country Husband," when Francis Weed returns to Shady Hill dazed and battered by a near-calamitous crash-landing on a flight home to Idlewild from a business trip. When the exhausted Weed tries to tell his brawling kids and distracted wife about it, no one even hears him - the husband and father, alas, victimized by the very household he has created. But what looks like a refusal to engage moral questions by retreating into the fantastic turns out to be an attempt to determine what is decisive in the formation of character and what is not.
Even "The Enormous Radio" holds a more problematic meaning than its rather weak moral patina suggests. Though Jim and Irene Wescott have bought a new radio for the pleasure of listening to music, the mysterious machine forces them instead to listen in on the sad and sometimes brutal private lives of their neighbors, and appears to jolt them both into the discovery of passions and pains of their own. What is shocking about the story's final scene, however, is not the substance of Irene's sudden moral attack on her husband for his past sins, but that the imperturbable and virtually blank Irene (at the start of the tale she has "a wide, fine forehead upon which nothing at all had been written") has suddenly acquired the abusive rhetoric of intimacy from overhearing the lives of others.
Hence the energy of a plot in a Cheever story lies less with what we think of as the customary driving force of short fiction - the moral dilemma, the emotional tension of a conflict to be pressured or resolved - and more with engaging the reader in a wish to uncoil the enigmatic structure of motivation and desire, to track down the origins of identity through the names and images that determine it. This is the privileged obsession of Charlie Mallory in "The Geometry of Love," an engineer whose marital squabbles and "lost . . . sense of reality" impel him to "decipher," for each significant moment in his life, "the chain of contingencies that had detonated the scene," and thus to express in miniature Cheever's own enterprise in the Stories at large.
So in a single strategy that combines his lyric gift for the particular with his visionary inclination for what is abstract and paradigmatic, Cheever focuses not on character as a thing in itself, but on what he calls in "The Sorrows of Gin" "the literal symbols of life" - a familiar object or a scene from the past - by which a particular character finds his own relation to life concentrated in a particular image or situation. "The Lowboy" is a prime example of how an object allows Cheever both to evoke a world and take apart its mechanisms in a single stroke. Like those haunting summer houses in the more familiar stories in the volume, the old and once-forgotten piece of family furniture that gives "The Lowboy" its title raises powerful memories of childhood and primitive rivalry in two brothers, memories deriving from a scene or object like those of Proust's madeleine or like the symptoms of Freud's hysterics. The Stories might even be arranged in terms of the "symbols" or situations that locate and define the self from tale to tale - the allure of Broadway for Evarts Malloy in "O City of Broken Dreams"; the ancestral summer place in "Goodbye, My Brother" or "The Summer Farmer"; the moving van that becomes an icon of humiliation and flight in "The Scarlet Moving Van"; even a particular day in a family's history like the one that gives "The Day the Pig Fell into the Well" its title, and that allows a fractured and embittered collection of relatives to reaffirm its stamina as a unit by recalling, from various points of view, the circumstances that surround the decisive event.
If there is melancholy and hesitation in Cheever's world, there is, however, no anxiety in our recognizably modern or Jewish sense, no struggle for self-mastery or coherence because life is already coherent as it is. The inability of Cheever's characters to take action or even to feel anxiety or rage about their circumstances is not, then, so much a moral vision with problems as it is a moral problem beyond or apart from the moral as we normally conceive it. For Cheever, culture precedes the individual and subordinates him to it - makes him possible in the first place - through the constitutive power of the "symbols" it supplies (thus Victor and Theresa Mackenzie in "The Children," who wander from situation to situation with no identities apart from those they can assume by attaching themselves, for love and money alike, to a wealthy family or an ailing estate). The Cheever of the Stories has a less coherent nostalgia for the natural than the pastoral Cheever of the Wapshot novels, and so a less coherent notion of culture itself as evil. Indeed, the "moral chain of being" that Cheever identifies in the preface as one of the "constants" he meant to find in life is most profitably understood as a notion of the "chain" of "mores" that links the moments of life to one another, and that provides whatever sense life may hold for Cheever's characters. Rather than rail against the "chain" as though it represses nature and desire, Cheever prefers instead to analyze the way the "chain" of culture produces what thoughts and feelings we have. To characterize Cheever's project in this way not only suggests his links with James and Hawthorne before him, but also his less manifest links with postmodernist contemporaries like Borges or Pynchon. Despite its realist premises, after all, Cheever's art, too, is in search of a means to represent, not life itself, but the representations that structure and determine our experience of life. By remaining at the same time resolute in its obligation to render that experience in the sympathetic terms of the particular individual and his relation to the quotidian, however, Cheever's fiction wins for itself the additional distinction of maintaining two apparently antithetical modes - one realist, one antirealist or surfictional - in an equilibrium that would collapse in less knowing hands.
Originally published in Partisan Review 3, 1980