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Amber Paulen

Reading John Cheever

In a 1969 Paris Review interview with John Cheever, he said:

Verisimilitude is, by my lights, a technique one exploits in order to assure the reader of the truthfulness of what he’s being told. If he truly believes he is standing on a rug, you can pull it out from under him. Of course, verisimilitude is also a lie. What I’ve always wanted of verisimilitude is probability, which is very much the way I live. The table seems real, the fruitbasket belonged to my grandma, but a madwoman could come in the door any moment.

Reading story after story of John Cheever one gets the sense that an uncomfortable uncle is in the room and that he is standing in the room to make you uncomfortable. It took several stories for me to begin to appreciate his strange straightforwardness, but now that I have there’s no going back, only an acceleration through a massive collection as well as the biography, Cheever by Blake Bailey.

I think my major sense of uncomfortableness comes from his usual setting being the banality of the suburbs and his usual characters being very unusual and un-suburban. Which seems to be related to the character of John Cheever himself, whose self-depreciating secrets made his own suburban life not like the advertisements. Madwomen burst into the rooms of his stories, as they burst through the rooms of his life—though his madwomen had little by way of corporeality and were more the imaginations and implications of corporeality. Is it impossible for a creator to be free of torments, as his narrator Asa Bascomb, in The World of Apples wonders:

… but the broad implication that he had, by choosing to write poetry, chosen to destroy himself was something he rebelled against vigorously. He knew the temptations of suicide as he knew the temptations of every other form of sinfulness…. He had seen in Z some inalienable link between his prodigious imagination and his prodigious gifts for self-destruction.

Asa Bascomb, a famous poet, does not go crazy for suicide, but he becomes obsessed with the venereal. He begins writing dirty limericks and other forms of pornography. He begins to see lewdness everywhere after stumbling upon a couple making love in the woods. He cannot clear his mind but by pilgrimaging to a nearby saint and jumping into a freezing waterfall, like his father once did. Water as cleansing is used over and over, never have I read so much about swimming, a favorite past-time of Cheever’s, which he did naked.

There is redemption in The World of Apples: the clarity and light of the soul returns to Asa Bascomb and his poetry. I don’t think that for Cheever it was so easy.

The beauties of the place were various and gloomy. He would always be a stranger there, but his strangeness seemed to him to be some metaphor involving time as if, climbing the strange stairs past the strange walls, he climbed through hours, months, years, and decades.


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