Oh What a Paradise It Seems
Not until the publication of his fourth novel, Falconer, in 1977 and The Stories of John Cheever one year later did John Cheever finally begin to receive the popular and critical acclaim he had long deserved. Oh What a Paradise It Seems, Cheever’s final book, has been reviewed respectfully, in some cases even enthusiastically, but always with a reservation or two. It is, the reviewers have said, a coda, a recapitulation of major themes by a major craftsman, a work of art certainly, but in a distinctly minor key. One suspects that lurking behind these reservations lies the long-held critical bias against the form that Cheever chose, the novella. The fact is, however, that Oh What a Paradise It Seems suggests neither a literary last will and testament nor the supposed limits of the novella form but something of an advance in both Cheever’s art and vision. It evidences the author’s willingness to experiment yet again with literary form and his further development of the theme of man’s redemption that was begun in the stories and first three novels and more fully explored in Falconer. Moreover, despite its brevity Oh What a Paradise It Seems is a remarkably generous work in terms of the author’s vision of man and the gracefulness of his style. As the last work of a dying author, it is also a gift to the reader, a reflection of the earthly and spiritual abundance that Cheever felt had been bestowed on him so generously.
This sense of generosity is implied even in the narrative voice. Cheever’s amiable narrator addresses the reader directly and familiarly. “This is a story to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night,” are his first and, ninety-seven pages later, last words to the reader. Above all, the narrator puts the reader at his ease. The rain that falls, for example, falls gently; it is needed, but not “with any desperation.” His story is set in the reader’s future, which is the narrator’s past, at a time at once distant and yet familiar—a timeless present, as in fables, of joggers, computers, pollution, and four-digit interstate highways, of seasons (winter to summer) but no years. It is a world in which truth must not be reduced to the merely factual, just as life must not be equated with mere biological functioning—a point made painfully clear when the dying Cheever, through his narrator, comments glancingly on those who are kept alive “unconscionably” by means of advances in medical technology.
The story focuses on Lemuel Sears. His given name, which in Hebrew means “consecrated to God,” recalls the biblical king in Proverbs who was told to speak “for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction,” as well as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, whose travels brought him to the various shores of human oddity. Sears, who is employed by Computer Container Intrusion Systems, maker of “cerbical chips,” successors to the silicon chip, is twice a widower. “An old man but not yet infirm,” he is proud of his success and his youthfulness. His most distinctive trait, however, is his hopefulness. Seeing a cardinal on East Seventy-Eighth Street in late January, “his heart leapt.”
His heart’s leap leads Sears in two rather different directions. One is to Beasley’s Pond near his daughter’s home in Janice (presumably somewhere in the exurbs of Westchester, New York, or Connecticut). Skating on the frozen pond helps to satisfy Sears’s yearning for fleetness, grace, and innocence; it seems to connect him not only with the other skaters but also with ancient human experience. Thus, his feeling of “homecoming,” which ends abruptly when, a few Sundays later, he finds that his paradise has been rezoned (thanks to Mafia bribes) as a dump and given tax-exempt status as the location for a future war memorial. In the transmogrified pond, Sears finds the apt symbol of America, a nomadic society of spiritual vagrants driven by a passion for permanence (thus the need for dumps for all the accumulated goods that cannot be carried on their nomadic travels). Sears knows that “To scorn one’s world is despicable,” yet everywhere he looks, he sees not a world spread out before him “like a stupendous dream,” as Cheever once described it, but, from Beasley’s Pond to northern wilderness lakes polluted by acid rain, a land darkened by some human “wrong turning.” It is not only the society, however, that is at odds with itself; Sears, too, is a Jekyll-and-Hyde, a man attracted to light and faith who nevertheless succumbs to less exalted urgings; the second direction his leap takes him leads to the pratfalls of erotic love.
Deprived of his pond, Sears pursues and, for a time, wins Renée Herndon, a woman whom Cheever seems to have borrowed from the fiction of his friend Saul Bellow. To Sears, Renée seems to promise wholeness, a bridge between the disparate events of his discontinuous life. At first, Renée appears both exotic and mysterious. It soon becomes clear that she is neither: she was once married to a dentist named Arthur, from Des Moines, Iowa; her secret meetings turn out to be a Chautauqua of the soul; and her refrain (“You don’t understand the first thing about...
(The entire section is 2142 words.)