Saturday, March 07, 2009

Cheever in the WSJ

As you can tell, I read just about nothing besides the Wall Street Journal these days. Blame it on working too hard and studying too much. Trying to stay up to day takes up what little I have left. Nevertheless, I read a good article today made me want to read. I'm really read... fiction.

David Propson, editor of The Week, uses the publication of The Library of America John Cheever complete novels and collected stories and a new biography as an occasion to revisit Cheever. My own reading of Cheever has been limited, though the big Pulitzer-prize-winning short story collection sits on my shelf and on my reading list. From my suburban perch, the article makes Cheever's study of suburbia sound like something I ought to be reading.

His subjects were the hung-over train commuter, the pill-popping analysand, the indefatigable bed-hopper. Their habitat was the pretty suburban house, the swimming pool, the cocktail party and the bomb shelter -- a habitat only recently erected atop the bucolic land that Cheever adored. They purchased groceries to the strains of Muzak Mozart and ate fast food from "Smorgorama and Giganticburger stands."
Cheever's suburbanites aren't stuffed-shirt fogies but shallow hedonists who refuse to grow up. Marriage, far from being a repressive institution, is a sprawling and unpredictable terrain. The extramarital affairs of his male protagonists end in catastrophe, or simply end. Conformity sometimes seems to be the threat, but quite as often it's just one of two evils. People's own unruly natures endanger their happiness, just as weeds creep up the lawn. His characters sense the precariousness of the civilization they've cobbled together and cling to it all the more.

Like I said before about Lee Siegel's idea of suburbia, Cheever's is also one that is hardly recognizable today. Gone are the swimming pools and cocktails, replaced instead by beer and kiddie pools. This is middle class suburbia, sprawl, and malls, and Starbuck-ed neuroses. Today's suburbia deserves the same sort of study. And Cheever deserves another read.

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