Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4436
John Cheever has been called both “the Chekhov of the exurbs” and “Ovid in Ossining”—which suggests both the variety and the complexity of the man and his fiction. Accused by some of being a literary lightweight—a writer merely of short stories and an apologist for middle-class life—he has been more often, and more justly, praised as a master chronicler of a way of life that he both celebrates and satirizes in stories that seem at once conventional and innovative, realistic and fantastic. His stories read effortlessly, yet their seeming simplicity masks a complexity that deserves and repays close attention. The line “The light from the cottage, shining into the fog, gave the illusion of substance, and it seems as if I might stumble on a beam of light,” for example, only appears simple and straightforward. It begins with a conventional image, light penetrating darkness, thus illuminating the way to truth, but the next five words undermine the “illusion” first by calling attention to it, then by paradoxically literalizing the metaphor, making this substantive light a stumbling block rather than a source of spiritual and/or philosophical truth.
“A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel”
Nothing in Cheever’s fiction of stark contrasts—light and dark, male and female, city and country—ever exists independent of its opposite. His stories proceed incrementally and contrapuntally, at times in curiously indirect ways. In “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel,” for example, Cheever’s narrator banishes seven kinds of characters and situations from his fiction, including alcoholics, homosexuals, and “scornful descriptions of American landscapes.” However, not only did his next novel, as well as much of the rest of his fiction, include all three, but also the very act of listing them in this “miscellany” confirms their power, giving them a prominence that far outweighs their hypothetical banishment from any later work. This play of voices and positions within individual works also exists between stories.
The same narrative situations will appear in various Cheever stories, handled comically in some, tragically in others. In effect, the stories offer a series of brilliant variations on a number of basic, almost obsessive themes, of which the most general and the most recurrent as well as the most important is the essential conflict between his characters’ spiritual longings and social and psychological (especially sexual) nature. “What I wanted to do,” one of his narrator-protagonists says, is “to grant my dreams, in so incoherent a world, their legitimacy,” “to celebrate,” as another claims, “a world that lies spread out around us like a bewildering and stupendous dream.” Their longings are tempered not only by the incoherence of their world but also by a doubt concerning whether what they long for actually exists or is rather only an illusion conjured out of nothing more substantial than their own ardent hopes for something or some place or someone other than who, what, and where they presently are. Even when expressed in the most ludicrous terms possible, the characters’ longings seem just as profound as they are ridiculous, as in the case of “Artemis the Honest Well Digger” searching “for a girl as pure and fresh as the girl on the oleomargarine package.” The line seems both to affirm and to qualify the yearning of a character who may confuse kitsch with Kant, advertising copy with lyrical longings, but who nevertheless seems as much a holy fool as a deluded consumer.
Whether treated comically or tragically, Cheever’s characters share a number of traits. Most are male, married, and white-collar workers. All—despite their Sutton...
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