Reunion by John Cheever Short Story

“Reunion” is a short story by John Cheever, first published 1962 in The New Yorker. You can listen to it read by Richard Ford.

STORYWORLD OF REUNION

As Richard Ford says, Grand Central Station is a place where anything could happen — any two people could meet.

The story is set in the 1950s or 60s, the heyday of ‘the perfect nuclear family’. It was a big deal back then not to have a father. Divorce was rare. Women were not financially supported. It is highly probable the boy was the only child in his class without a father at home. This would add to the pain of missing him.

COMPACT STORY FORM

“Reunion” is a compact short story of around 1000 words. Most of Cheever’s stories are much longer than this one. The reader deduces a lot:

  • The father has probably been kicked out of ‘the club’ and couldn’t take his son there even if he wanted to.
  • His terrible personality is the reason the narrator’s mother divorced him in the first place.
  • The father is showing off to the son, probably more than he usually does, because of the limited time he has with his boy.
  • He has a white collar job, and no doubt treats his co-workers and secretary in the same way. I’m imagining he works on Madison Avenue, in the Madmen world.
  • I imagine the father has some kind of personality disorder which gives him the ability to turn off empathy at will.

Cheever partly achieves compactness by:

  • Telling rather than always showing. The first paragraph is an excellent example of that.
  • Omitting the narrator’s reactions, focusing only on the father’s mesmerising horribleness. We only get the narrator’s reaction in the final sentence when it becomes clear he has decided not to see his father again (perhaps only later, after processing events).

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The Apparent Utopia In Storytelling

apparent utopia

The Utopian World is prevalent in children’s literature, known by various names as listed here. Move into young adult, and the top end of middle grade, and you will encounter The Apparent Utopia.

Besides slavery and dystopia, freedom and utopia, there is one other kind of world you can create for the beginning or end of your story: the apparent utopia. This world appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster. The suburbs are often an apparent utopia, with their manicured lawns and friendly neighbours, but in stories there is usually something terrible going on in the suburbs.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the apparent utopia looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the apparent utopia.

Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath.

In the opening of L.A. Confidential (1997), Danny DeVito’s jaded, ironic voiceover explains how Los Angeles was marketed to wholesome family types, but turned out to be anything but.

Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic apparent utopia:

Pines
By Blake Crouch

The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)

A SHORT HISTORY OF APPARENT UTOPIAS

The apparent utopia is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:

There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.

This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over. The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’

But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia — one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman — the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.

A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin

The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern Apparent Utopian story is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place — it simply seemed so. This puts the audience in a state of unease, because from our comfortable position on the other side of the page or the screen, we too, could be living

THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA

Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the ‘apparent utopia’.

“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

— Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”

Mad Men, of course, is an apparent utopia itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are an apparent utopia, set in mid-century American suburbs.

FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS

  • American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The apparent utopia symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.
  • Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.
  • Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)
  • Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.
  • Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is another example for young readers. In children’s stories, the apparent utopia is often pretty utopian, except for interpersonal issues, extending to bullying.
  • Pretty Little Liars, based on a series of YA books, marketed as Desperate Housewives For Teens. Interestingly, when adapted for TV, Pretty Little Liars makes use of many of the same landmarks as Gilmore girls, because they are both filmed in California at the same place.
  • The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban apparent utopias often feature houses made mainly of glass.

So if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know things are rotten just under the surface:

Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”

Ginia Bellafante, NYT

an advertisement for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1958
an advertisement for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1958. The greyscale with red palette makes it seem creepy even when it doesn’t mean to be.
This illustration by Ji-hyuk Kim conveys both the safety and excitement of the suburbs at night.

INVERSIONS OF APPARENT UTOPIA

The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.

Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a superior-feeling teenage NYC girl is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst — and so do we — because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface — because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.

This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which is full of parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no outside opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)

Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted apparent utopia because the town is not presented as a utopia at all — the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start — they didn’t want bigotry in this feel good show.

RELATED TO THE APPARENT UTOPIA

The Housebreaker of Shady Hill by John Cheever

Housebreaker and Other Stories

 

Fernweh Housebreaker of shady hill

Perhaps you’ve seen the meme — perhaps on Pinterest — that goes something like, ‘I have experienced all kinds of foolish melancholy — I’ve been homesick for countries I’ve never seen, and longed to be what I couldn’t be’.

There have been various riffs on this line from Cheever: Judith Thurman, contributor to the New Yorker has said, ‘Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.’ Was it Cheever, though, who popularised this concept, by including it as a sentence in this story, The Housebreaker of Shady Hill? Maybe. Then again, apparently there is a German word ‘fernweh which seems to translate to ‘wanderlust’ but apparently there is something of the above sentiment embedded in its meaning. It refers more to ‘a longing for far-off places’. The concept may well have been around for a long time. Personally, I feel this way about Canada and for that reason, I’m not keen to ever go there.

I don’t know if everyone has such a place. But it seems a lot of people pick Paris to be their fernweh place. Some people are even hospitalised after getting to Paris and learning that it’s nothing like the place they imagined. It’s called Paris Syndrome. Japanese nationals are particularly prone to Paris Syndrome. But before we laugh at these Japanese people for their grandiose, incorrect ideas about Paris, it has been observed that Tokyo and Kyoto seem to have become for young American writers what Paris was for Hemingway’s generation. So it works both ways.

The “Japan” of writers is, of course, half-imaginary, and what is interesting is how, since the 1960s, this literary conception of “Japan” has changed — from the locus of enlightenment (for the Beats and other spiritual seekers) to an internationalized zone of decadence and self-destruction (for the Byronic heroes of contemporary novels).

Jerry Griswold

Whenever you visit a place you have imagined, it’s always different. It might not be worse different, it might even be better different, but your original longing is ultimately quashed, because the place no longer exists in your mind, having been replaced by reality.

Is “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” ultimately a story about fernweh? The main character wants to be somewhere else, for sure, and wants to be someone else. Ultimately he finds peace by ditching his temporary persona as a thief and returning to his honest, family-man status.

You get a strange feeling
Another Pinterest travel quote which reminds me of this story

“The Housebreaker of Shady Hill” is remarkable for the way in which Cheever leads the reader towards certain doom, only to end happily. Cheever certainly didn’t want to become predictable in his endings.

John Cheever’s ecstatic and ultimately redemptive vision makes him singular among the suburbs’ sad bards; Cheever is rare among writers for his ability to consistently pull off believable happy endings….Ultimately the story has a comedic structure: The world gets more and more disordered, but in the end it’s put back together anew.

The Atlantic

But is the ending really a happy one, or are we listening to an unreliable — possibly manic — narrator?

The Housebreaker of Shady Hill is one of Cheever’s most well-known and analysed short stories, along with The Swimmer, which is also set in Shady Hill. Do you use the word ‘housebreaker’ yourself? It’s not in my active vocabulary. But in England between  about1660 and 1800, ‘housebreaking’ was considered a different crime from ‘burglary’ even though they were essentially the same thing. ‘Burglary’ was worse because it was done at night, whereas housebreaking was carried out during the day. Crimes committed at night were thought to be worse, even when they were exactly the same crime, because they were scarier.

This distinction had obviously gone by the time John Cheever wrote his short story.

Continue reading “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill by John Cheever”

Short Story Study: Just One More Time by John Cheever

The American Look

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

From the New Yorker synopsis:

The Beers were shoestring aristocrats of the upper East Side. They were elegant and charming but had lost their money. Alfreda took a number of jobs in the thirties & forties to help their finances. They did some unsavory things but managed to get by on their charm. Their children went to expensive schools. They were waiting for several relatives to die and leave them money. Eventually, they did die and the money they left the Beers was invested in the market – and tripled. Bob bought back everything his father lost.


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Reflection and Delusion In The Cure by John Cheever

martini the cure
One Cheever-endorsed Cure for Loneliness: Drink many martinis and forget the difference between reality and delusion.

In his story ‘The Cure’, Cheever comes pretty close to writing a supernatural thriller story, with a few typical thriller genre beats.

Thriller involves detection, but there are typically far fewer suspects, and emphasis shifts to the detective being an average person who enters extreme danger.

John Truby, Secrets of Genre

 

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE CURE”

From The New Yorker:

The story of a man’s attempt to cure himself of a disastrous marriage. His wife, Rachel, had left him for the 2nd time taking their three children with her. He had set up a routine for himself and wouldn’t answer the telephone, for he wanted no reconciliation with Rachel. But he was unnerved by a peeping Tom, who appeared at the window every night. When he discovered it was a neighbor who was harmless he felt no better. He seemed to see a rope around his own neck and he couldn’t sleep. Finally he answered the telephone. It was Rachel and a reconciliation followed. Tom was never seen again and all was well.

The New Yorker refuses to spoil the real story — theirs is a surface level summary, avoiding spoilers. The interesting question is: How much of this story is true, within the world of the story?

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Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor by John Cheever

At first, Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor reads like a comical story, but since you know this is a Cheever story you will be expecting a sombre turn before the end.

WHAT IS CHRISTMAS IS A SAD SEASON FOR THE POOR ABOUT?

An elevator operator complains of how lonely he is to all the people he gives rides to. Each passenger regales him with a story of their own kind of loneliness. Over the course of Christmas Day, it turns out each of the residents has prepared a present and a dinner with dessert for Charlie, who can’t possibly eat all of it, and spreads it across the floor of his locker room.

After drinking too much of the liquor that has been gifted to him over the course of Christmas Day, he gives one lady a fright by joking with her:

“Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We’re going to make a loop-the-loop!” Mrs. Gadshill shrieked.

This gets him fired. To make himself feel better about the day, he puts all of his presents into a burlap sack and takes them to his landlady, who has lots of children and not all that much money. This woman accepts them on behalf of the children, but when Charlie has left, the narrator tells the reader that in fact these children have had lots of presents all day and aren’t quite sure what to do with new ones. So she plans to regift the as-yet unopened ones to a family she feels is even less well-off than herself.

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Clancy in the Tower of Babel by John Cheever

In “Clancy in the Tower of Babel” (1953), Cheever dealt with homosexuality overtly for the first time. But his treatment is stereotypical; he portrays his homosexual characters as effeminate, hysterical, and tortured.

glbtq

It’s difficult to read the stories of John Cheever without taking what you know of the author’s life as a palimpsest for his characterisations. Though I’m interested in reading one of the biographies, I’m deliberately holding off until I’ve finished his collected short stories, but even the most rudimentary look into the life of the author soon highlights his bisexuality as influential in the themes of his work.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “CLANCY IN THE TOWER OF BABEL”

An Irish immigrant to New York has an accident at his labouring job and eventually finds a job as an elevator operator at a nearby apartment block which, despite its geographic proximity, is completely foreign to Clancy, and his simple life which is in many ways humble. He gets to know the people who come and go, and eventually learns that one of the men is gay. He is disgusted when this man brings back a male lover, and refuses to take them down in the elevator.

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The Sutton Place Story by John Cheever

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE SUTTON PLACE”

As outlined by The New Yorker, which delivers its own plot spoiler for “The Sutton Place” by John Cheever:

A little girl gets lost through the carelessness of her nurse who leaves the child with a friend of the family’s while she goes to church. The parents are frantic and have sharp feelings of guilt until at last the police find the child wandering about the streets.

SETTING OF “THE SUTTON PLACE”

Place

This story takes place in the city but  from this part of new York you could ‘throw a stone onto Welfare Island’, it seems. Welfare Island is these days called Roosevelt Island. It was named Welfare Island between 1921 and 1971, because it was principally known for its hospitals. It is an island between Manhattan and Long Island City. It’s a part of Manhattan.

The Tennysons live in a tenth floor apartment.

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Goodbye My Brother by John Cheever

“Goodbye My Brother” is one of John Cheever’s best known short stories. In fact, it was this story which contributed to Cheever’s receiving his Guggenheim Scholarship. An uneasy relationship between two characters who are brothers is a dynamic Cheever returned to time and again throughout his writing career. When he does this, the relationship is always a metaphor for something bigger.

Clear Island Goodbye My Brother
Modern Day Clear Island, Massachussetts

 

I like the contrast between two brothers, and I prefer the nihilist brother Lawrence, nick-named ‘Croaker’. He may have a tendency to point out the downside of any situation, but he is nonetheless right. When he notes that making improvements on a house near the coast is futile due to erosion from the sea, I’m reminded of that very modern division that can occur between family members at gatherings: Those who worry about climate change and rising sea levels versus those who insist that any climate change is a natural phenomenon and nothing at all to worry about. No matter the era, there will always be somewhat of a clash between pessimists and optimists; that’s what make this story timeless.

After reading this particular short story, I suspected there was far more to it if you cared to look below the surface. Sure enough, after reading Peter Mathews’ essay A Farewell to Goodbyes: Reconciling the Past in Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” I realise that in order to really understand Cheever you would ideally have an understanding of mythology, the history of religion, and a keen eye for symbolism. I’m sure I could keep digging into this one until I reached China.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “GOODBYE MY BROTHER”

The Pommeroy Clan gathers at the family’s summer house, built in the 1920’s on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Continue reading “Goodbye My Brother by John Cheever”

The Swimmer by John Cheever

PLOT OF THE SWIMMER

Neddy Merrill, half-cocked on gin and tonics during a restorative summer brunch at the house of some friends, decides to return home through several miles of Connecticut exurb by swimming the lengths of contiguous pools.  Thus begins a minor odyssey during which we watch as Neddy makes his way, first in drunken delight, but then through rainstorms, colder weather, and the hostility of former friends, gradually growing old and infirm, finally arriving home to find it deserted.

THE MILLIONS

In more detail:

The story begins with Neddy Merrill lounging at a friend’s pool on a mid-summer’s day. On a whim, Neddy decides to get home by swimming across all the pools in the county, which he names “The Lucinda River” in honor of his wife, and starts off enthusiastically and full of youthful energy. In the early stops on his journey, he is enthusiastically greeted by friends, who welcome him with drinks. It is readily apparent that he is well-regarded and from an upper-class or upper-middle-class social standing.

Midway through his journey, things gradually take on a darker and ultimately surreal tone. Despite everything taking place during just one afternoon, it becomes unclear how much time has passed. At the beginning of the story; it was clearly mid-summer, but by the end all natural signs point to the season’s being autumn. Different people Neddy encounters mention misfortune and money troubles he doesn’t remember, and he is outright unwelcome at several houses which should have been beneath him. His earlier, youthful energy leaves him, and it becomes increasingly painful and difficult for him to swim on. Finally, he staggers back home, only to find his house decrepit, empty, and abandoned.

Wikipedia

 

Is Neddy dead at the end of this story? That’s one interpretation, but is too literal for Anne Enright. There is a long tradition of stories with stings in the tail. This is another such story. It stings but we don’t know why, exactly. We don’t know how many years have elapsed between the beginning and the end of the story. In the end, the mood is the important thing about this story rather than the plot, which is a wrapper for the mood.


 

SETTING OF THE SWIMMER

Place

Cheever himself moved from New York to the suburbs of Westchester County, New York to bring up his family. Many of his stories are set in this kind of suburb, and he has been called ‘the Chekhov of the suburbs’. (He has also been called Dante of the cocktail hour.) He wrote a series of stories set in the fictional ‘Shady Hill’. This is a rich suburb, where everyone seems to have a pool and house staff. They throw big parties and employ bartenders. No two pools are alike — quite a feat of description.

Westchester County NY where The Swimmer is set

 

Time

The story is set on ‘one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.” This is explained in the very first sentence. We don’t know exactly what year it is set, though the story was written in the 1960s. In fact, the lack of specific time is part of the story itself. By the end, we don’t know how many years have metaphorically passed between Neddy’s first and last swim. But we do know that this is the Cold-War era, when America is expanding.


 

CHARACTERS IN THE SWIMMER

Neddy has a kid’s name. A grown-man would more often be called ‘Ned’. His quest is childlike in its enthusiasm. He has the narcissism of youth, thinking of himself as a legendary figure, as little boys often imagine they’re superheroes. His ego level depletes as he swims forth.

Cheever’s mastery lies in the handling of Neddy’s gradual, devastating progress from boundless optimism to bottomless despair, from summer to fall, from swimming pool to swimming pool….as we read the story we feel time passing, before our eyes; feel Neddy losing heart, growing weary, getting old.

– Michael Chabon

The story opens with everybody’s hangovers, but Neddy is not complaining about his hangover. Probably because he’s still drunk from the previous night. By the end of the story he may have sobered up, and sees the reality of his life.


 

THEME IN THE SWIMMER

Neddy Merrill literally ‘floats’ over the reality of his life, which is that he’s drowning in his suburban life, and in his alcohol problem. Of course, this is the natural reading after knowing about the life of the author, but how would the story be interpreted if we knew nothing of Cheever’s alcoholism? This is a story about the denial of knowledge. Neddy is able to continue while his life crumbles beneath him. Theme: People can remain brittle and tenacious even as things fade and dissolve under them. Yet there’s no morality in Cheever. He doesn’t wag a finger, telling us we must face up to reality.

Cheever himself said this story is about ‘the irreversibility of human conduct’. It’s about grandiosity of any description. You don’t have to be rich with lots of swimming pools in order to understand this story. This story is about drinking, but ‘we’re all drinkers’ (in some fashion or other).

It’s also an allegory for getting older. Everything withers and crumbles in the end. We just keep on trucking. There’s no turning back. The birds he mentions at the highway scene are a type of heron that get netted while trying to swim upstream.

The story has mythic echoes — the passage of a divine swimmer across the calendar toward his doom — and yet is always only the story of one bewildered man, approaching the end of his life, journeying homeward, in a pair of bathing trunks, across the countryside where he lost everything that ever meant something to him.

– Michael Chabon


 

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN THE SWIMMER

This story is an example of how well Cheever is able to bring the reader into the story. The first paragraph offers a wonderful description of setting. He makes use of the second person, moving from the universal to the specific social group, ending/beginning with the priest. Drinking too much is juxtaposed with the church. Slate use the word ‘litany’ to describe the feeling evoked by the first paragraph. A litany is a ritual repetition of prayers when applied to the church, but is also used outside church settings to describe something which feels repetitious in a tedious sort of way.

At one point Cheever wanted to parallel the tale of Narcissus, a character in Greek mythology who died while staring at his own reflection in a pool of water, which Cheever dismissed as too restrictive. As published, the story is highly praised for its blend of realism and surrealism, the thematic exploration of suburban America, especially the relationship between wealth and happiness, as well as his use of myth and symbolism.

Wikipedia

The turning point is marked by the onset of the storm. Ned sees the first red and yellow leaves and starts to get signs that things are not all right. Yet Netty loves the storm. It’s a big drinker’s story. Along with the idea that nothing ever changes is another idea of let it all come down. Inviting destruction. In the opening paragraph everything is lovely. The cloud is like a city, but no ordinary cloud.

Cheever has written an intensely dark story, there are comic elements, such as when the drivers on the highway throw things at him. Even the epic journey itself is fake and therefore laughable. But there is both pleasure and misery in this story. It’s a very slow apocalypse. The beautiful people are moving on, no longer beautiful; Ned has lost everything he ever held dear. The comic elements make this darkness even darker.

Cheever has chosen the names of his characters with care. Neddy’s wife Lucinda, for example, is named after ‘light’, which is associated with time.

Cheever uses sound to create extraordinary atmospheres.

Metaphysical moments are scattered throughout: The constellations of the sky, for example. (Another story like this is Rabbit.) Metaphysics is a traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it.

Not Quite Magical Realism

In fiction, when unreal elements appear, usually one of two things is happening.  In the first case, the unreal actually is real.  This describes much of genre fiction, in which the reader expects vampires and aliens to appear — would, in fact, be disappointed if they didn’t.  In literary fiction, too, the unreal may be introduced with a straight face, for effect.  Magical realism depends on the introduction of a fantastic element into otherwise grim reality, for instance in Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”  The appearance of an angel in a poor Colombian village creates a host of consequences, though a crucial difference between magical realism and, say, fantasy, is that in magical realism the narrative is primarily interested in the village, while in fantasy the author would focus primarily on the old man, his wings, how he got them, and what his home world is like.

More typically, in literary fiction, the fantastic occurs as a manifestation of the main character’s disordered psychology.  In close third person, the narrative is so intimately linked to a protagonist’s point of view that the world appears in subjective terms, and if the main character is sufficiently disoriented — drunk, delusional, or simply experiencing very heightened emotion — aspects of their immediate surroundings may become distorted in a way that reveals their mental state.  In William Kennedy’s Ironweed, Francis Phelan, an itinerant, guilt-wracked alcoholic sees the ghosts of dead people he’s known, some of whom he killed.  Although the narrative never states that they are apparitions deriving from his fear and shame, it doesn’t need to:  we are able to read them as having a kind of immediate corporeality, at least to Francis, while still being utterly unreal, figments.

So which of the two is happening in “The Swimmer?”  Well, neither, really.  On the one hand, it is impossible to read “The Swimmer” and think that the main events of the story are happening as described — that, in the course of a single afternoon, a man ages 30 years while becoming increasing destitute and reviled — unless we believe Neddy Merrill has entered some horrific parallel universe.  On the other hand, it is equally impossible to read the events of the story as merely a manifestation of Neddy’s mental state.  He’s been drinking as the story starts, but not that much.  He is happy, overwhelmingly content in his life, really.  Even if we were to read the story as a projection of Neddy’s subsumed life anxieties, it is impossible to imagine him projecting a vision of the world this entirely altered.

It is not magical realism because the strangeness is not intended to be taken literally — strangeness in magical realism is almost always encountered and acknowledged by multiple characters, and is, in fact, a device meant to comment on the interlaced relationships that form a society.  Strangeness in Cheever performs the opposite function:  it is personal, particular, atomizing.

THE MILLIONS


 

STORY SPECS OF THE SWIMMER

The Swimmer” a short story by American author John Cheever, was originally published in The New Yorker on July 18, 1964, and then in the 1964 short story collection, The Brigadier and the Golf Widow. Originally conceived as a novel and pared down from over 150 pages of notes, it is probably Cheever’s most famous and frequently anthologized story.

Wikipedia

The Swimmer is considered to be one of Cheever’s best short stories.

Anne Enright feels that this would never have worked as the novel (as Cheever had originally planned) and feels that it would work even better as a short story had he lost one or two pools. The naturist communists are amusing but we don’t want any more than that.

The Swimmer 1968 movie poster


COMPARE THE SWIMMER WITH

The New Zealand writer Keri Hulme writes stories with a blend of realism and surrealism. (Sometimes called ‘magic realism’.) See her collection Te Kaihau.

The surrealism is also a bit like the surrealism of The Graduate.

The Enormous Radio, also by Cheever, has the same sort of surrealism.


 

WRITE YOUR OWN

Where to start, if your intention is to practice writing a story of magic realism? I suppose we might first start with a theme and build a magical/surreal setting which makes the theme clear to the reader. In this type of story we write in a realistic way but we’re not obligated to write ‘the truth’. How does Neddy get into the public swimming pool? Does he carry spare change in his swimming trunks? I asked myself this question as I read, yet in this type of story it’s not important. When the details are specific and familiar enough, the reader will be drawn along for the ride.

If we’re to be inspired by “The Swimmer”:

  • Start with a character embarking on a slightly absurd quest
  • Decide what the quest stands for, thematically
  • Include comic details
  • Use the weather to help build atmosphere
  • End with a sting in the tail

 

RELATED LINKS

Read it here: The Swimmer PDF

Listen to it here: The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, read by Anne Enright. (The second part of Enright’s commentary starts at -9:30.)

Read Michael Chabon’s description of reading The Swimmer for the first time.

Spark Notes

Slate’s Audiobook Special