Friday, August 30, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 129: John Cheever, The Swimmer (#125)

John Cheever, "The Swimmer" (1964) from John Cheever: Collected Stories & Other Writings:

Look at what Cheever does here:
In the west there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance—from the bow of an approaching ship—that it might have had a name. Lisbon. Hackensack. The sun was hot.
Now, after having read the story a few times--it's just that amazing and strange and beautiful--I return to this passage from the first page; and it seems to capture so much of the story. There's the fantastical and totally recognizable beauty of a cloud looking like something else; twisted into something fantastical and prosaic with the addition of the city names, stretching the world from Lisbon to Hackensack; and then there's the crashing return into the truly prosaic with the simple "subject verb" construction of "The sun was hot." How much more prosaic can you be than the simplest form of prose, the declarative sentence with a single clause?

But the single clause declarative sentence isn't all that common here. I haven't done a count, but I'd say that question marks probably rival periods here. For instance, when Ned comes to a difficult part in his whimsical quest to swim across many different pools to reach his house, why doesn't he turn back?
He could have gone back, back to the Westerhazys’, where [his wife] Lucinda would still be sitting in the sun. He had signed nothing, vowed nothing, pledged nothing, not even to himself. Why, believing as he did, that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense, was he unable to turn back? Why was he determined to complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger? At what point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious?
And that's about as close to an answer as we get: he can't turn back because it has suddenly become serious--a bit of information which is hidden in a question. Look at all those questions--each of them contains some information orthogonal to the question itself. That is, instead of asking "Why was he unable to turn back?", the narrator asks that question and fits in the info that he believes "that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense." Which will come back to bite us and Ned when we realize that "common sense" is something that this story has little truck with.

That is, what starts out as a story of whimsical dissolution--with everyone commenting on how much they over-drank the night before--turns into a tragic story of disintegration. Instead of merely returning home after some morning party at a friend's house, Ned seems to be swimming through the years, and discovering that his life has fallen apart as people start reacting to him differently: pitying him or cutting him or talking about his tragic past--that he doesn't even understand is his. The effect is something very much like being underwater: we can see what's happening but it's been muted; it's a struggle just to get on.

And while there are parts where we get glimpses of Ned through the eyes of others, the real power of this comes from our position within/without Neddy. A lot of this takes place somewhere on the spectrum from direct discourse to external discourse, so that Ned's own observations are sometimes hard to extract from the narrative. Which occasionally gives us this great double-vision, not just in the big picture (Ned is a beloved neighbor/Ned is an object of pity), but in the small, sentence-level movements:
When had he last heard from the Welchers—when, that is, had he and Lucinda last regretted an invitation to dine with them?
From toe to top, this story reinforces itself--theme, plot, characterization, rhetoric. No wonder a passage in the first page contains the whole story.

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