Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Decline and Fall and Fire of ...Review of the Wapshot Chronicle

The next book following Freedom was always going to be difficult but this 1950s American novel was ideal.
Cheever is apparently better known for his short fiction a bit like Chekov. He is also an influence on modern writers like Eggers and Franzen. So a thoughtful Xmas gift.
The novel as title suggests is a family saga. Indeed this New England clan can trace their origins back to the original settlers. But this family has seen better days. In many ways the family parallels the development of American capitalism.
Though the background is given the time setting is the 1920s and 30s. Significantly, i thought, this is never made explicit with no clear references to external events, it is more implicit. Both sons of the family work for the state in some capacity.
The faded glory is encapsulated by the father Leander a sailor trapped on a tourist ferry and his wife who is obsessed with gift shops.
For a novel written in the 50s and set twenty years before it is very frank on sexual issues. Theeldest son iis a Lothario with fairly misogynistic attitudes. The other is struggling with his sexuality - these passages seemed very hearfelt - I am not sure of Cheever's own background
Both marry into relationships that have their own specific style of unhappiness.
As a writer of short fiction each image in the work seems intricately crafted. I like the descriptions of train stations on Sundays. There is also some narrative experimentation with extracts from Leander's journal quite difficult to follow. An excellently written novel with a lot of originality - a lot of emphasis on fire as an image. Set in Massachusetts the Great Boston Fire of the late 19th century is a seminal moment. A book to think about once read.


  1. Hmmm, Leander rhymes with meander? I wonder if there is something in that?

    And fire? Fire...

    "The dove descending breaks the air
    With flame of incandescent terror
    Of which the tongues declare
    The one discharge from sin and error.
    The only hope, or else despair
    Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
    To be redeemed from fire by fire.

    Who then devised the torment? Love.
    Love is the unfamiliar Name
    Behind the hands that wove
    The intolerable shirt of flame
    Which human power cannot remove.
    We only live, only suspire
    Consumed by either fire or fire."

  2. Thanks for this Ms13.

    Leander is also classical reference he swims everyday to meet his lover Hero across the Hellespont. He drowns tragically - also significant in the novel.

    Keats wrote a sonnet about it.

    Fire and Water...

    Also it was the name of a character in the Wire!

  3. Do you know a Scottish band called The Bathers? They wrote a song called Hellespont in a Storm.

    I might read this Cheever sometime.

  4. I think I have I liked their album Sweet something? when I was at uni.

    Byron also swam across the Hellespont and it was the passage of water in the Odyssey which old Ulysses travursed..

    I think Leander also drowned in a storm.