Friday, 17 June 2011

Review: John Cheever's stories Part 1 - A Modern Mad Microscope.

As the maelstrom of marking eases (onset a little earlier this year) and the battle to resist compulsory redundancies has abated for a little I have found a bit more time to read ma books.
It was a bit of a palaver to get the full collection of Cheever stories this year but I finally did. I have devoured the first half which covers the beginning of his short story writing after his dismissal from the army at the end of WW2 and the end of the 1950s.

What Cheever does is present a complete meticulous dissection of the growing wealth of American society and the individuals involved. New York Apartments, the tea-time drinking of Martinis and Old Fashioneds, suburbia (then in its infancy), swimming pools, adultery and city life. But just as with Irvine Welsh's similar approach to working class communities in the East coast and the sub-cultures within it Cheever provides us with startling insights on the nature of human relationships, mortality, love and life really.

He also does explore the poor - in particular elevator operators - very significant in Manhattan, janitors and nannies - serving the wealthy. This is an interesting comparison to his Wapshot novels when only really one part of the Saga could really be said to focus on the New York work/suburb/bourgeouis ennui nexus. Those works' focus are much more older wealth in the States - an earlier generation.

Many parallels with these stories could be drawn with the show Mad Men (have never watched it) which I see has been done a lot online. I have wondered why that show is so popular and I think it is partially to do with why I find the stories so resonant. They deal really with a group of people for who wealth is not a problem (although see the Housebreaker of Shady Hill story - similar to the movie 30 years later Fun with Dick and Jane) in a different way to the "old money" and they throw that into consumerism - of which this era was the first really. And it is one in which many of us now live or are definitely influenced by - property booms, commuting and consumer products.
Thus they are the first really alienated middle class in human society - they work in a different location from their home, in many ways this is reflected in their behaviour when they are literally different people - see Housebreaker, the 548, the Chaste Clarissa, their comforts dont solve their unhappiness - see pretty much every story! And there is a group desperate to enter that class The Pot of Gold, O City of Broken Dreams a move indeed which will be resisted by the incumbants.

As in Mad men the position of women is dubious and I think Cheever is ambiguous over the role of women of whether they are to blame for their partner's boredom or over indulgent of male excesses. See Torch Song and the Trouble of Marcie Flint for this.
Or whether they are the victims of male predatory behaviour - The 548 and the Chaste Clarissa.
Some say that these stories present a misanthropic view of human relationships and indeed some are not for the faint hearted - pardon the pun - but I think when there is a glimpse of genuine happiness and love then it is truly moving.
There are less classical references than in his novels but there are similar mentions of bisexuality and alcholism both of which were a struggle for Cheever. There is also a continual theme of absent or neglectful fathers - not sure how that was reflected in Cheever's own life.
I have also read one set in Italy the Bella Lingua which is very good and reflects his own ex-pat life and a big part of the Wapshot Scandal.
So far I have really enjoyed the Summer Farmer, the Sorrows of Gin and the Housebreaker. But their real brilliance is that a phrase or sentence jumps out from every page sometimes at quite surprising moments. The detail is also depressing but brilliant - the shabby bar by the train station, the faded wealth of Rome.
A break for some other books then ill read the second half. Highly Recommended - gives an insight into the Madmen world that only a novel could do.