Friday, May 28, 2010

Boxing The Demons

The tradition of maligning short fiction could have begun with John Cheever, following one of his early and persistent influences, Hemingway, though Hemingway might not have made a distinction between novels and stories as greater and lesser forms. In Blake Bailey’s expansive biography Cheever: A Life, it is apparent that Cheever thought writing short stories for the New Yorker year after year was not a worthy path for a serious writer. Yet a handful of his stories seem to have changed the fiction terrain forever after. In the cult of fiction hegemony, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the writer from their mythology, making them superhuman. All the easier if they’re dead. The man who writes his every naked personal desire and whim in his copious journals (published posthumously), and produces an estimable body of work (the stories, numbering in the hundreds, and five novels), is surprisingly humanized when the veneer is stripped away.

It’s as if with Cheever, the themes--family, middle class livelihood, the desire for love, the lift of grace--never changed, and though he turned out sublime stories in “The Swimmer” and “Goodbye, My Brother,” knowing how long he struggled with the first novel, it was clear the major struggle, the ultimate performance, was going to be in a sustained work. The short story becomes a kind of trial run, a small performance.

Here, in Cheever’s first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, is Rosalie, the young boarder at the Wapshot’s house, ruminating on thoughts of her date’s “secretive life”:

The thought of the picnic hamper reminded her of his plain, white-haired mother, who would have sent along something of herself in the basket--watchful, never disapproving, but saddened by the pleasures of her only son. He had his way. His neat, bleak and ugly bedroom was the axis of their house and the rapport between this man and his parents was so intense and tacit that it seemed secretive to Rosalie. Every room was dominated by souvenirs of his growth; guns, golf clubs, trophies from schools and camps and on the piano some music he had practiced ten years ago. The cool house and his contrite parents were strange to Rosalie and she thought that his white shirt that morning smelled of the yellow varnished floors where he took up his secretive life with Ma and Pa.

The prose signals the inner life of a woman who herself has secrets, and has not yet arrived into full self-possession. Mildly glum and resigned, Rosalie sees herself, too, in what she observes. The reader senses Cheever’s compassionate understanding of his character and a desire to reveal her beating heart.

Cheever was committed to the novel as an art form. He was not merely distancing himself in a kind of performance, which short stories really can be, and many novels simply are. In a literary novel, one gets a sense of who the writer is; it’s as if one gets an insight on the ruthlessness of the writer’s psyche.

The writer's sensibility is ever dominant in the biography, but it’s not just honesty, and not only brutal honesty (which would aim to call others on their shit but not necessarily to face it within oneself--a quality popularly known as “self-denial”). This sharpened sense of the interior life of one’s characters comes from first hand knowledge.

Cheever, who fueled himself on gin, whisky, and an unusual amount of self-loathing coupled with a genuine dog-like (dogged?) loyalty to loved ones, is initially conveyed to have the charm of a genial drunk. A self-destructiveness in Cheever’s journey comes in, maybe as more of a passive self-annihilation, through alcoholism. I couldn’t help but think on many occasions, “What a sad, miserable life.” Yet his life had its joys, too.

A writer who cannot transform their torments, or cannot get far enough past the source to risk a possibility for some more contented life, is trapped perhaps by their own image and expectations. Cheever is frequently characterized as a narcissist--the tragedy in such a figure is that they are their own worst enemy. They can never fully lift themselves up; there is no solid source within. Life has to be reconstituted incessantly from the next ego stroke. This is the forest for the trees analogy: one cannot see the world from staring at their own life for so long. Yet the ability to draw from life seems to be a therapy, too.

In trying to understand what draws me to novels that have a gravity, perhaps honesty is the prevalent quality: emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Maybe it’s as accurate to say, this is the writerly aspiration, or should be; what one should want to project in the best of their work. It’s the built-in bull-shit detector not even simply to oneself, which is where Hemingway’s seems to have short circuited; Hemingway was perpetually boxing his demons (in both senses of the word). The result is often transparent: retarded self-defensiveness posing as confidence, otherwise known as machismo. For Cheever, boxing his demons was more like having this box in an attic room where he could occasionally look in on it with cautious surprise and curious wonder.

Cheever’s struggles were not just something he could write himself out of, nor like so many celebrated writers who have followed him, was he satisfied with intellectualizing the grist for his mill (which is, ironically, perhaps an effort at self-preservation). The Wapshot Chronicle reveals he had the wisdom to acknowledge this, while reinforcing the complexity that centered him. This flawed human being, however tragic, was able to get his hands around the heart.