From The Stories of John Cheever
Philip Roth called John Cheever “an enchanted realist,” which is an inspired way of thinking about one of the twentieth century’s great chroniclers of the American suburbs. Cheever’s stories seem at first glance to be models of verisimilitude, though scratch a bit deeper and an abundant strangeness starts to appear. The allusive final line in “A Country Husband” – an otherwise straightforward work of naturalism – hints floridly at the world of Hannibal and his army: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” An earlier story, “The Enormous Radio,” contains uncanny aspects that align it almost with Poe’s tales of the unnatural.
It is these elements of Cheever’s work that appeal to the Irish writer Anne Enright. Speaking on The New Yorker’s fiction podcast series, Enright talks about the way Cheever and his contemporaries were able to write in a naturalistic manner, but what happened on the page was not required to be tethered to our understanding of reality. “It is the dreamlike, metaphorical nature of the story that really calls to me. Because it’s a terrible thing to ask a writer to limit their words to life itself.”
The story to which Enright is referring is “The Swimmer,” from Cheever’s mid-career. It was first published in The New Yorker in 1964, and released as a feature film four years later, with Burt Lancaster in the title role. One of Cheever’s most famous – and most frequently anthologized – stories, “The Swimmer” starts off plainly enough, with Neddy Merrill attending a midsummer party at the house of Donald and Helen Westerhazy. At some point during the afternoon, Ned realizes that the swimming pools in the suburban backyards form a “quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county”; by using these pools, and taking “a dogleg to the southwest,” he could actually swim home.
This he sets out to do, and it is here that the story abandons much of its realism for something more frankly dreamlike (to use Enright’s preferred term).
In its early stages, “The Swimmer” focuses insistently on Ned’s youthful virility. While being “far from young,” Ned nevertheless retains “the especial slenderness of youth” and is still prone to exuberances such as sliding down the banister in his house. At the story’s opening, he has been swimming in the Westerhazy’s pool, and is pictured “breathing deeply, stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure,” which all “seemed to flow into his chest.” Ned’s potency and athleticism are inextricable features of his self-worth: “He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools.”
It is equally significant that Cheever insists on the time of year as being midsummer at the story’s start; as the tale progresses, and Ned proceeds further on in his swim home, the time of year shifts forward inexplicably, with midsummer giving way to autumn. “Leaves were falling down around him and he smelled wood smoke on the wind,” we are told at a later point in the story. “Who would be burning wood at this time of year?” Still later, Ned smells chrysanthemums or marigolds, “some stubborn autumnal fragrance,” and notices the constellations that appear in the sky have shifted to those visible in the fall.
Coincident with this perceptible but inexplicable shift in the season is a rapid depletion of Ned’s own strength and stamina. The more pools he visits, the weaker he becomes, until he is finally unable to hoist himself out of the water and onto the ground by his arms and is forced to use the pool ladder instead. “The swim was too much for his strength,” he thinks at one point, “but how could he have guessed this, sliding down the banister that morning and sitting in the Westerhazy’s sun?”
How, indeed? And how is a reader to respond to these uncanny happenings, to say nothing of the fact that events seem to have occurred around Ned without his being aware of them, including the sale of his house and a friend’s abdominal operation. “Was he losing his memory,” Cheever writes, “had his gift for concealing painful facts let him forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, that his friend had been ill?” The eerie discomfort in the story is a result of there being no incontestable explanation for what transpires to Ned, though it would seem that his journey home by water takes him forward not just in space but also in time, stripping him of all the benchmarks by which he has located his identity: his physical prowess, his family, his home.
Also – and, this being a Cheever story, significantly – his social status. Ned is, at the story’s outset, a vain man, and his vanity is manifested in a blithe contempt for those he considers to inhabit a lower social echelon than he does. As he proceeds in his journey, he is startled to attend a party at the home of a putatively less-well-heeled couple where he is treated rudely, first by the hostess, next (horrors!) by the bartender. He then attends the home of an ex-mistress, with whom he assumes he retains the upper hand; she also treats him with disdain.
“The wonderful thing about the sting in the tail of this story,” says Enright, ” … is that you don’t quite know what it is. It stings, but you don’t know what bit you.” Cheever himself compared this story to the myth of Narcissus, who famously drowned (in a different kind of pool) while gazing at his own reflection. In the final scene of Cheever’s tale, with Ned beating futilely on the door of his empty and abandoned house, we feel a kind of death, in that our hero has lost everything that he has held dear; his own vanity has somehow caused his downfall. But how, precisely, this occurs is left tantalizingly unclear. The anti-realist aspects of the story were sufficient to turn off numerous readers in Cheever’s own day; more than half a century later, the story has lost none of its power to puzzle and provoke.
From The Stories of John Cheever
John Cheever is perhaps best known for pulling back the curtain on the polite facade of American suburban life in the postwar period – he prefigures and anticipates writers such as John Updike, A.M. Homes, and Jay McInerey. His preferred mode is naturalism, and in this regard “The Enormous Radio” might be seen as something of a departure, tending more toward the fantastical or the allegorical.
First published in 1947, the story focuses on Jim and Irene Westcott, an apparently typical, upper-middle-class couple, “the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins.” They reside “near Sutton Place,” one of the most affluent addresses in New York City (the fact that they reside near Sutton Place indicates that the couple has not quite cracked the upper echelons of American society), and they attend the theatre “an average of 10.3 times a year.” They have been married for nine years and have two children. The only thing that distinguishes them from their peers is their “shared interest in serious music.” The fact that they share an interest in “serious” music, as opposed to the popular music that dominated the airwaves in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, is a subtle dig at the superficial tastes that much of American society evinced at the time; the implicitly elevated tastes that the Westcotts espouse will turn out to have an ironic tinge by the time Cheever’s story has unfolded.
To indulge her taste for serious music, Irene listens to the radio during the day while her husband is at work and her children are at school. Unfortunately, the Westcott’s radio is “an old instrument, sensitive, unpredictable, and beyond repair.” When it finally ceases operating altogether, Jim goes out and buys his wife a new radio so that she can continue to listen to her beloved classical music. But when the new radio is delivered, Irene is repulsed by its “physical ugliness” and “confounded by the number of dials and switches on the instrument panel.” When she turns the radio on, the dials glow “a malevolent green.”
The word “malevolent” is not accidental: the radio has a kind of devilish effect on the Westcotts, acting as a catalyst in exposing the carefully concealed secrets that exist behind the pleasant surface of their daily life. It turns out that the appliance has the peculiar ability to broadcast the activities in other units in the Westcotts’ apartment building. Irene and Jim listen to their neighbours’ nanny reciting nursery rhymes to a little girl; hear another neighbour complaining that she “just [doesn’t] feel like” herself anymore but won’t go to the doctor “because the doctor’s bills are so awful already;” and eavesdrop on an “enraged woman” telling her recalcitrant child, “We paid eight hundred dollars to get you into that school and you’ll go if it kills you.”
Through it all, Irene feels vaguely uncomfortable listening in on her neighbours’ problems: “Irene’s life was nearly as simple and sheltered as it appeared to be, and the forthright and sometimes brutal language that came from the loudspeaker … astonished and troubled her.” The word “nearly” is significant, as it becomes clear that Irene and Jim’s married life is just as fraught as those of the couples they eavesdrop on; the facade of placid normalcy in the Westcotts’ lives is just that – a facade. The Westcotts’ entire existence, it becomes clear, resembles their old, broken-down radio: it is “sensitive, unpredictable, and beyond repair.” The dials on the new radio are a “malevolent green,” indicating a kind of Satanic agency: Irene takes on the mantle of Eve in the garden, and the radio becomes the tree of knowledge that leads to her eventual downfall.
Right from the opening paragraph of his story, Cheever insists on the ways in which the Westcotts have embellished their circumstances to make themselves appear to be something other than what they are. Irene wears “a coat of fitch skins dyed to resemble mink,” and Jim dresses “in the kind of clothes his class had worn at Andover.” Jim’s attempts to appear younger than his chronological age become fully apparent late in the story when he complains to his wife, “I’m not getting any younger, you know. I’m thirty-seven. My hair will be gray next year. I haven’t done as well as I’d hoped to do. And I don’t suppose things will get any better.” They cloak themselves in the veneer of respectability, but the longer Irene listens to the goings-on in other apartments, the more she comes to doubt this veneer, and to suspect that if she can spy on her neighbours, they must also be able to see the unvarnished truth about her life.
It is her husband who eventually calls her out on her hypocrisy, reminding her that she appropriated her mother’s jewellery before the will went through probate and that she never gave her sister the money that their mother had bequeathed her. “[And] where was all your piety and your virtue when you went to that abortionist?” Jim demands. “You packed your bag and went off to have that child murdered as if you were going to Nassau.” Irene has managed to convince herself that she and her family exist on a separate plane, untouched by turpitude or moral relativism. She takes pride in the way she has decorated her home and the clothes she wears, assuming that these exteriors will convey the image of a perfectly flawless existence. It is only when Jim brings the “hideous cabinet” into the apartment that this vision begins to unravel.
“The Enormous Radio” has been called an allegory of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It is certainly a merciless examination of hypocrisy and denial in early postwar America. As Ian Colford suggests:
On a superficial level, “The Enormous Radio” can be read as a relatively simple tale of one couple’s moral downfall. However, if we regard the apartment building as the human psyche and the radio as an unexpected means of tapping the hidden depths of the unconscious mind, then the story takes on additional resonance. The radio is also very clearly a demonic presence in the “Eden” of the Westcotts’ home, one that precipitates their fall from innocence. And finally, as Henrietta Harmsel notes, a case can be made for interpreting the story as a criticism of the many ways in which technology invades and encroaches upon our lives, interfering with our attempts to communicate with one another and encouraging isolation by offering itself as a tempting surrogate for human contact.
If Harmsel’s reading is accurate, Cheever’s story is arguably more pertinent today than it was when it first appeared.
Courtesy of Life: a picture gallery of famous literary drunks and drug addicts. How come it doesn’t surprise me that Ayn Rand was a speed freak?
P.S. Three guesses who was responsible for the quote in this post’s title. (And, no: it wasn’t me.)