Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Collected Stories, by John Cheever

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

John Cheever (1912-1982) was both a brilliant literary stylist and a shrewd observer of his own cultural milieu. In this wonderfully bulky collection of his stories from the 1940s to the 1970s, he dissects middle-class American suburbia and reveals a people who are materially well-off but spiritually poor.

Before the TV series Mad Men there were writers like John Cheever, Richard Yates and Sylvia Plath, lifting the veil on perky, sunnily optimistic 50s and 60s America. While highly regarded for his novels, John Cheever is most celebrated for his short stories. He is often called the Chekov of the suburbs, employing a silvery, seamless prose to describe the seething discontents of America’s middle class suburbs.

Cheever’s stories deal with the flip side of affluent suburbia’s cheerful facade: alcoholism, adultery, troubled sexuality, family feuds, and a deep-seated envy of the wealth of others. The main paradox of Cheever’s fiction is that his characters luxuriate in all the trappings of wealth, yet  remain miserably unhappy. In one story Americans are described as being a deeply envious people, living in a constant state of disappointment. The American economy, it seems, produces wealth and misery in equal measure.

While Cheever may concentrate on gloomy themes and self-absorbed characters, his urbane prose is a stylistic feast for anyone who savours the aesthetic pleasures of reading. His stories marry a born writer’s fluid style with a high intellect and shrewd power of observation. Like Jane Austen he studies closely his own immediate society, working his observations into penetrating insights on the American condition. You often gasp at Cheever’s cleverness and panache, but he never descends into showiness.

The troubled subject matter may make these stories sound morbid, but Cheever can be hilariously funny. He has a keen eye for idiosyncratic characters and bizarre situations; his style in humour is urbane and sophisticated.

The stories in this collected edition cover Cheever’s writing from the mid 1940s to the late 1970s. The early stories follow more conventional lines, although they have Cheever’s distinctive mark. By the 1970s the stories almost dispense with any pretensions to being fiction, and read like literary riffs or journal pieces. Life and art meld into one, with the act of writing as necessary as oxygen.

To read the stories of John Cheever is to experience American life under the skin, its ecstasies and disappointments. He presents a society that has every material want satisfied, but that is spiritually sick.

Collected Stories, by John Cheever. Published by Vintage Classics. ISBN: 9780099748304 RRP: $12.95