In The Wapshot Chronicle, John Cheever tells the story of the eccentric Wapshot clan from the once-prosperous seaport town of St. Botolphs, modeled on Quincy, Massachusetts, where Cheever grew up. Autobiographical to a degree, the novel traces the coming-of-age of the two sons against the many blows their father suffers to his self-esteem in his relations with his wife, who starts her own business, and his cousin Honora, the spinster-matriarch who controls the Wapshot inheritance. The Wapshot Scandal takes up the sons’ and their elderly cousin’s fortunes some years later. Both novels were generally well received; The Wapshot Chronicle earned for its author a National Book Award, and The Wapshot Scandal received a Howells Medal. Reviewers and critics, however, continued to wonder whether Cheever the short-story writer possessed the right temperament and talent to write a novel that was more coherent and less episodic. His reputation as a writer of short, relatively realistic fiction depicting generally middle-class, often suburban characters seemed sufficient reason to judge his work according to such standards.
Cheever, however, was not trying to write according to such standards; he was adapting the conventions of nineteenth century novels such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872), Sarah Wapshot’s favorite reading, to meet the demands of life in the mid-twentieth century. Far from proving narrative mismanagement on Cheever’s part, the multiple plots of both Wapshot books, The Wapshot Scandal in particular, suggest the psychological restlessness of his nomadic characters. Even as Cheever creates a soothing, nostalgic sense of distance and wholeness (for example, by using the phrase “at the time of which I am writing”), he undercuts it by making this distant past closely resemble the reader’s own present and by deploying transitional phrases (“in the meantime” and “at about this time”) that suggest randomness rather than causality, comic coincidences rather than cosmic connections. As Cheever undercuts the novel’s seeming realism by interjecting elements of farce and fantasy, he undermines the ceremoniousness that figures so importantly in The Wapshot Chronicle, which begins with an Independence Day parade and ends with Leander’s funeral. Cheever’s choosing to frame The Wapshot Scandal with two ambivalently described Christmas scenes makes the book’s ceremoniousness seem a little too pat, too self-consciously contrived, leaving the novel poised between celebration and satire. Haunted at the beginning by Leander’s ghost and sounding more hollow than hallowed at the end, The...
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