John Cheever American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6630

“Fiction is not cryptoautobiography,” Cheever warned with the insistence of a man either with a mission or with something to hide. Posthumously published biographical materials make it abundantly clear that Cheever’s fiction follows Cheever’s life rather closely but never deductively. “Fiction,” he claimed, “is our most intimate and acute means of communication, at a profound level, about our deepest apprehensions and intuitions on the meaning of life and death”; it is “our only coherent and consistent, continuous, history of man’s struggle to be illustrious.” For Cheever, then, fiction was much more a spiritual than a biographical or psychoanalytical exercise, closer to hymn and prayer than to either confession or disclosure.

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His essentially affirmative vision and lyrical style are not merely and superficially willed; rather, they are earned. His description of fiction as “the bringing together of disparate elements” places as great an emphasis on the apparent randomness of contemporary experience as it does on the elusive wholeness of being for which his characters yearn. “The most useful image I have today,” Cheever noted in 1959, “is of a man in a quagmire, looking into a tear in the sky.” One year later, Cheever would flatly assert that life in the United States in 1960 “is hell.”

This apprehensiveness is every bit as much cultural as personal and could, Cheever felt, be attributed to a “loss of serenity in our lives,” to a “loss of tradition,” that forced him as well as his characters and readers into ceaseless acts of moral (and, for Cheever, aesthetic) improvisation. The decorous surface of his prose stands in marked contrast to the nonlinear development of his plots and his characters’ lives. At its worst, this decorum (evident as well in the veneer of respectability of Cheever’s suburban stories, the mask of a venereal itch that is itself a mask for or symbol of something deeper still) seems little more than a form of what in Bullet Park Cheever, perhaps not so tongue-in-cheek, calls “spiritual cheerleading.”

This spiritual cheerleading may seem especially odd to find in the fiction of a writer whose early work was strongly influenced by that of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway distrusted the very words—honor, love, courage, valor, and so forth—on which Cheever’s lyrical vision came more and more to rely. Cheever’s fiction convinces the reader on the basis not of what it denies but instead of what it affirms by virtue of its emotional effect and cumulative power. It evokes a nearly liturgical dimension that leads the reader to believe, as Cheever did, that the purpose of both writing and living is to enlarge humankind rather than to diminish it.

Because his vision is earned rather than willed, the fiction operates not at the extreme of faith but between the poles which Cheever variously described: expansion and constriction (or confinement), “grossness and aspiration,” a world which “lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream” versus a world grown suddenly incoherent, inhospitable, even “preposterous.” In Cheever’s stories and novels, opposites meet but do not necessarily merge as the narrative teeters precariously between the prosaic and the poetic, the practical and the visionary. Even Cheever’s distinctive narrative voice proves hard to pin down, managing to be at once compassionate yet detached, celebratory yet satirical.

Cheever’s characters often find themselves similarly (ambivalently, even ambiguously) situated—not so much placed as displaced, or what Cheever’s friend Ralph Ellison would call dispossessed. They suffer, often seriocomically, from loneliness and from a loss of self-esteem; often (but by no means always) they live...

(The entire section contains 6630 words.)

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John Cheever Short Fiction Analysis