Zone of Strangeness: On John Cheever’s Subjective Suburbs

April 11, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 4 7 min read

John Cheever may be the most misunderstood and miscategorized important American author of the 20th century.  On three separate recent occasions, and many more times over recent years, I have read articles/interviews that group him stylistically with Raymond Carver.  This is mystifying:  one would be hard-pressed to think of a body of work more antithetical to Carver’s spare, working-class realism than Cheever’s elegant, upper-class fabulism, where nymphs come to life and families vacation in Italian seaside villages.  I can only guess this very bad comparison stems from people not actually having read Cheever, while knowing that 1) he and Carver were drinking buddies at Iowa, and 2) both of their names begin with C and end with VER.

He is often also (mis)paired with Richard Yates, a more understandable comparison.  Both men served in the Second World War and chronicled the roiling fault lines beneath the tranquility of New York’s far suburbs.  Both men were impeccable stylists, although Yates tended toward a rhetorical stylishness powered by limpid prose, while Cheever was, like John Updike, an extravagant sensualist, both in subject matter and descriptive tendency.  Both men enjoyed their greatest success with novels, while exerting their greatest artistic mastery in the short story form.

But Yates’s world, however dated it may be in 2017, is the world we live in.  Cheever’s is not our world and never was.  I have no way to verify this, but I suspect in the ’50s he was misread as well, though misread more widely.  He seems to be writing about the Westchester suburbs — Shady Lawn and Bullet Park, with their sloping lawns and cocktail parties populated by characters recognizable as ur-Don Drapers, ur-Roger Sterlings.  Except as we read, the landscape distorts, the familiar becomes strange.  Cheever’s stories are, to put it simply, strange, and in them, the Mad Men may really be mad.

Take “The Swimmer,” his most famous and familiar.  Neddy Merrill, half-cocked on gin and tonics during a restorative summer brunch at the house of some friends, decides to return home through several miles of Connecticut exurb by swimming the lengths of contiguous pools.  Thus begins a minor odyssey during which we watch as Neddy makes his way, first in drunken delight, but then through rainstorms, colder weather, and the hostility of former friends, gradually growing old and infirm, finally arriving home to find it deserted.

What is going on here?  In fiction, when unreal elements appear, usually one of two things is happening.  In the first case, the unreal actually is real.  This describes much of genre fiction, in which the reader expects vampires and aliens to appear — would, in fact, be disappointed if they didn’t.  In literary fiction, too, the unreal may be introduced with a straight face, for effect.  Magical realism depends on the introduction of a fantastic element into otherwise grim reality, for instance in Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”  The appearance of an angel in a poor Colombian village creates a host of consequences, though a crucial difference between magical realism and, say, fantasy, is that in magical realism the narrative is primarily interested in the village, while in fantasy the author would focus primarily on the old man, his wings, how he got them, and what his home world is like.

cover More typically, in literary fiction, the fantastic occurs as a manifestation of the main character’s disordered psychology.  In close third person, the narrative is so intimately linked to a protagonist’s point of view that the world appears in subjective terms, and if the main character is sufficiently disoriented — drunk, delusional, or simply experiencing very heightened emotion — aspects of their immediate surroundings may become distorted in a way that reveals their mental state.  In William Kennedy’s Ironweed, Francis Phelan, an itinerant, guilt-wracked alcoholic sees the ghosts of dead people he’s known, some of whom he killed.  Although the narrative never states that they are apparitions deriving from his fear and shame, it doesn’t need to:  we are able to read them as having a kind of immediate corporeality, at least to Francis, while still being utterly unreal, figments.

So which of the two is happening in “The Swimmer?”  Well, neither, really.  On the one hand, it is impossible to read “The Swimmer” and think that the main events of the story are happening as described — that, in the course of a single afternoon, a man ages 30 years while becoming increasing destitute and reviled — unless we believe Neddy Merrill has entered some horrific parallel universe.  On the other hand, it is equally impossible to read the events of the story as merely a manifestation of Neddy’s mental state.  He’s been drinking as the story starts, but not that much.  He is happy, overwhelmingly content in his life, really.  Even if we were to read the story as a projection of Neddy’s subsumed life anxieties, it is impossible to imagine him projecting a vision of the world this entirely altered.

Neddy finds himself in a third situation, a Cheeverian zone of strangeness between the actual and imagined, crucially of both and neither.  Although Cheever makes frequent use of mythical tropes and creatures, it is not myth, not purely figurative.  It is not magical realism because the strangeness is not intended to be taken literally — strangeness in magical realism is almost always encountered and acknowledged by multiple characters, and is, in fact, a device meant to comment on the interlaced relationships that form a society.  Strangeness in Cheever performs the opposite function:  it is personal, particular, atomizing.

In another well-known Cheever story, “The Enormous Radio,” a Manhattan couple buy a radio, and enjoy it until it begins picking up the conversations of neighbors throughout their building.  The wife becomes obsessive, the husband guilt-ridden.  It threatens to destroy their marriage and is returned.  As with “The Swimmer” — because the other elements in the story are so prosaic, so local and identifiable — it is very hard to read the story as intending the reader to believe in a magical radio.  But also like “The Swimmer,” the events of the story are too sharply defined and internally consistent to be written off as mistake or delusion.

The closest available description is dreaming — Cheever’s protagonists often feel as though they’ve slipped into a dream, their own or someone else’s.  And yet this doesn’t seem exactly right, either.  The fantastic does seem to be happening, but in an intensely subjective sense, as characters’ fears and desires warp the sturdy fabric of their previously staid realities. Cheever’s preferred locales — Manhattan, Ossining, Italy — deform like wax effigies, exposed to the heat of a character’s sudden lusts.

This deformation is grotesque and startling in stories like “The Swimmer” and “The Enormous Radio,” and in less famous pieces like “The Chimera” and “Metamorphoses.”  But many of Cheever’s less fantastic works operate in the same mode, if quieter.  “The Country Husband” begins with Francis Weed nearly dying in a plane crash.  He returns to Shady Hill to find everything subtly altered — more vivid, shot through with erotic feeling, uncomfortably alive.  This reads as standard narrative strangeness, i.e. a man has undergone trauma and found his perspective changed.  But the next evening, Francis and his wife attend a neighborhood cocktail party, and we find ourselves in a zone of distorted reality.  Francis suddenly recognizes the neighbors’ maid:  when he was serving in France during the war, a French woman who’d been having relations with a German officer was forced to march naked through the town square.  The maid is that woman.

Normally, we would ascribe such an unlikelihood as a misperception on Francis’s part, but Francis asks after the maid and the hostess confirms she was hired from the same small town in Normandy — Trénon — where Francis had been stationed.  Misperception is eliminated as an explanation — it is, we are reassured, the same woman.  But this seems wildly improbable, especially given that Francis has just had a paradigm-shifting experience, one that has tilted him toward the mysterious and sensual.  A woman is sexually humiliated during the war; years later she reappears in a Westchester suburb, pouring brandy and coffee and serving as an emblem of the main character’s thwarted sexual energy, which later manifests itself in clichéd lust for the babysitter.

While many writers could write the near-crash and subsequent vivification of their protagonist’s senses, it is uniquely Cheever to present the maid as a new fact of the landscape and leave the reader to deal with it.  What is she doing there?  She is real and she is impossible, or so improbable as to amount to the same.  Again, like a heavy ball bearing rolling across a piece of tautened cloth, the weight of a protagonist’s anxious desire seems to have distorted the physical reality of his surroundings.  In the end, Francis visits a psychiatrist and addresses himself to basement woodworking, a wholesome pastime that also sees him sequestered from the outside world — not in self-protection, but rather, one senses, protecting Shady Hill from himself in a kind of erotic quarantine.

The cumulative effect of these individual fantasias is, paradoxically, a strengthening of the apparatus of social realism in Cheever’s work.  As in “The Chimera,” when a dream woman emerges from the woods surrounding the home of an unhappily married man, these events are oppositional in nature to the backdrop of reality and routine.  The plots of many Cheever stories are, in effect, aberrations, and they do not last.  The maid vanishes into the unnoticed shadows of suburban domestic life, and the radio is returned to the store.  The fantastic in Cheever is intense, but it is not durable.  In the end of most Cheever stories, the force of social expectation tends to smooth these abnormalities over, though it is not always clear how we’re meant to feel about this.  At times we sense an opportunity lost; at times the story itself seems to breathe a sigh of relief as the normal rhythms of life reassert themselves.

As a social critic, Cheever can be read, therefore, as simultaneously transgressive and conservative.  On the one hand, the twin treadmills of suburban family life and postwar American consumerism stifle the human spirit.  These visions represent a reaching beyond the borders of societal expectation for something rare and ineffable:  sexual, religious, often both.  The implication being that there is no adequate means for people to fulfill themselves within the boundaries of their normal life.  Once a Cheever protagonist deviates, they deviate wholly, as in “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” in which Johnny Hake is fired and begins plundering the homes of his neighbors for cash.  A corollary implication here would be how thin the line is between normal and the freakishly abnormal, how little occupiable space exists between the two.

But this view of life, with the forces of madness held at bay only by an adherence to work and marriage is, itself, inherently conservative, in both its diagnosis of disease and prescription for cure.  After all, given a binary choice between dull routine and utter chaos, most people will chose the former, and this mostly holds true in Cheever’s stories.  Johnny Hake is wracked with guilt and, reinstalled in his previous position, returns the money he’s stolen.  Francis Weed takes up penitent basement carpentry as a dull corrective while outside, dryads caper in the moonlit shadows of his garden.  In a similar backyard, the Chimera, Olga, emerges a last time from the edge of darkened woods, staggering and bleeding, seemingly battered by her imaginer’s self-judgment.

It is the tension between these two countervailing urges — the urge for freedom and the urge for safety — that lends Cheever’s work much of its enduring power.  Though social norms have changed dramatically in the 50 years since his heyday, we still negotiate this axis of desire in our lives.  We still veer wildly into chaos and overcorrect back into predictable routine.  To survive the mundane crush, we daily create little fantasies that must be destroyed by nightfall.

Image Credit: Pexels/Kelly.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.