Saturday, August 12, 2006

On My Failure To Fully Connect With The Writing Of John Cheever

I've read Falconer by John Cheever. I've read some of his short stories. I think I might have started The Wapshot Chronicle at one time, but never finished it. I think I'm going to classify what I know of Cheever's writing as a sort of literary equivalent to the guitar playing of Eric Clapton. While it might well be technically stunning, at times even perfect, it generally leaves me feeling hollow and empty. Similarly, most times, I don't connect with Cheever's characters, regardless of the impeccable sentence structure he employs. Of course, they generally populate a world which is completely foreign to me, the upper-crust suburbs of New York and New England, replete with maids, cooks and gardeners, almost as pieces of human furniture. The main characters seem an empty-souled lot, by and large, seldom satisfied without a partially consumed martini in hand. But, let me also confess that, of that mid-20th-Century The New Yorker group of authors, my loyalty lies firmly with J.D. Salinger. So, while I find Cheever less objectionable than Updike, well...whatever.

Check out this opening sentence from the short story "The Enormous Radio": Jim and Irene Westcott were the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins. I rather like that line, as I do most of Cheever's opening lines. (Incidentally, I seldom invent an opening line of my own that's worth a shit, usually settling for a quotation or some pop culture reference.) But, then there's this gem, after a newly-purchased (and enormous) radio is turned on: The quintet was in the distance for only an instant; it bore down upon her with a speed greater than light and filled the apartment with the noise of music amplified so mightily that it knocked a china ornament from a table to the floor. Well, I hate to get too technical*, especially since I'm generally all for hyperbole. But, it irritates me that he chose "speed greater than light" to describe the travel of sound waves. My vote is to keep the bizarro world of physics in the realm of science fiction. Here it just strikes me as sloppy.

But, that's the exception anyway. It's not the writing style. It's these empty characters. Screw it. I might be back later on this...but maybe not.
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* By getting "too technical", of course, I mean that it is impossible for sound waves to travel at a "speed greater than light." The speed of sound varies based upon the medium through which it is traveling, among other conditons. However, under normal circumstances, sound will travel through air at approximately 761 miles per hour. The speed of light is measured in a vacuum (through which sound will not even travel, by the way), and is greater than 186,000 miles per second. This isn't even a competitive race, people. In this case, the tortoise will not beat the hare.

8 Comments:

Blogger Old Lady said...

So much for poetic license!

1:28 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

You're right. I know it's probably too picky a point. It's definitely far from my main complaint. It's just one I chose for this post.

But, really, comparing the speed of sound and light is the type of absurdity normally reserved for movie comedies like Dumb and Dumber.

3:11 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger Beth said...

I gotta say, Haahnster, I respect a man who can write a book review that ties the author to a musician. Brilliant Cheever/Clapton analogy! I haven't read Cheever in decades, and I'm tempted to pick up a volume of his short stories. I love riding the NYC-to-'burbs trains (my best friend lives in Connecticut), and must always mention during the ride that I feel like a Cheever short story. So, it behooves (like that New Yorker word?) me to read him again. And then we can debate lively, or I can agree with you wholeheartedly.

How's Emily feeling?

3:35 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

I'm happy to report Emily is feeling much better, at least judging by the return of her bubbly personality and renewed playfulness.

:-)

9:07 AM, August 13, 2006  
Blogger Dale said...

You've got a right to get irritated by things like that. If I wasn't such a piece of blogging Cheever character furniture, I'd join in the fight with you.

4:53 PM, August 13, 2006  
Blogger haahnster said...

Dale: Do you see yourself as more of a chair or table? Couch or desk? If you were furniture, what type of furniture would you be?

I see myself as an overstuffed recliner, badly in need of re-covering.

5:01 AM, August 14, 2006  
Blogger Dale said...

A three legged chair? No, that's rude.

A mighty oak destined for greatness but reduced to toothpicks by a probing Barbara Walters? No, faulty imagery and off point.

A footstool worn with time but still purposeful and comfortable. Ahh, yes.

7:51 AM, August 14, 2006  
Blogger Rob said...

From the small amount of Cheever I've read, I see a lot to agree with in your assessment. It feels a bit like that old-New-Yorker-style parlor fiction. Or something. (Oh and by the way, agreed that Updike is by far preferable to Cheever! Rabbit, Run v. The Wapshot Chronicle...please!) "The Enormous Radio" is pretty good as I recall...

10:13 AM, August 14, 2006  

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