Thursday, 20 January 2011

Sex, Death and Boredom: The Wapshot Scandal Review

Hot on the heels of my first Cheever experience I have now devoured his other Wapshot novel - published almost 10 years later: the Wapshot Scandal.

A sequel? Of sorts: Leander is now dead although a lost chapter from his journal reemerges to give us a reminder of his struggles and demons. His wife also gone, mentioned as an afterthought. The senior materfamilias(? though she's not actually the mother) Honora is still here as are the separate but equally unhappy brothers : Coverly and Moses. Though there is no narrative link really.

I must say the vibe of this book is very different the Chronicle had a turn of the nineteenth century early American Capitalist feel to it - even some earlier periods with modernity only being introduced through the last chapters. This is a mid-twentieth century work in every way: the Nuclear race, suburbia, adultery, consumerism are all dissected with minute accuracy.

I would also say the influence of Cheever's short fiction is more apparent here. Though there is some continuity in character and lightly in plot - the development of a torrid but sad affair, the pursuit of a tax dodger - essentially each chapter reads like a set piece short work in itself. Nothing so wrong with that because what it does do is give minor characters incredible depth in their moment in the sun: Dr Cameron the sinister scientist who is Coverly's boss at a nuclear development site, Emile the young delivery boy who Moses bored and alienated wife takes an interest in.

But above all the writing. The writing is consistently magnificent - I found myself highlighting passages. There is humour throughout and it does in its own way paint an accurate picture of American life at that time. But I think death is the continual theme here. It begins and ends with a death. The last phrase in the work is "nothing at all". All characters are struggling with the fact that one day they will not be here and react to it in different ways.

The classical references are less but there is an interesting portrait of post-war Italy intertwined in the work. Loads of great parts - I particularly enjoyed the disintegration of Coverly's wife Betsey the roots of which were laid in the earlier book. But you could choose any piece - I have to say for its differences I think I preferred this work.
And the Scandal? Difficult to say it could be one of many things but taken apart they look so minor yet heart breakingly major in their consequences.

But let the writing speak for itself:
"The pain in her chest seemed to spread and sharpen in proportion to her stubborn love of the night, and she felt for the first time in her life an unwillingness to leave any of this...."

Now if only Amazon would deliver his collection of short stories.

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.