Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Book Review: Falconer

Falconer - John Cheever

How much context should we bring to a novel? Should we consider the writer's other works? Should the author's biography inform the reading of a particular novel?

I would like to read a book independent of its context. While the text may have an historical context that comes from without, what we should care about is within the text. Yet, when I read John Cheever's Falconer I couldn't help but consider the author's other work. The novel is so different from what I think of as John Cheever.

The novel centers on an upper-middle-class heroin in Falconer prison for murdering his brother. Other than the upper-middle-class part, there is little in common with the characters that inhabit most of Cheever's writing. But it goes beyond the setting and the protagonist. The writing itself is loose, casual, colored with flourishes. At times it is brutal, infused with violence and obscenity, and at others it is dreamlike, fantastical.

Falconer is not a suburban novel. It is a prison novel, filled with the things that make up prison life. Shocking, naturally, but even more shocking in contrast to Cheever's other work. At the same time, it never feels like the other is trying to shock us. He doesn't show us the violence and sex in order to make us gasp about the awfulness of it or to prove that he can shock. Falconer is given to us from the point of view of a character who has, in a way, given up. He is not shocked by what comes his way. Not resigned, but not amused. He doesn't completely accept his fate, but his attempts at change are only derived from desperation. Even when he experiences strong emotion, he seems to be documenting it in order to make it true. At the novel's ending, he has gone through change and maybe we can believe that he is capable of the emotion he describes, but he is so over the top that we can help but doubt him.

In all, context or not, more like Denis Johnson than John Cheever, the novel was a good read.

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