Flip to the back of a new book. What do you see? Blurbs. Line after line of praise, proclamations, and predictions. Tucked in a small corner square is an author’s photo, a passport-size acknowledgment of the face behind the book. Often those faces are hidden inside a jacket flap.
Bring back the book jacket photo.
Bring back those full-page portraits that pronounced I wrote a book, damn it.
For The Reivers, William Faulkner stands in front of a bookshelf full of Modern Library titles. He wears a tie and suspenders, with The Philosophy of Nietzsche and Cities of the Plain at his back. He doesn’t look at us, but at the book open in his hands.
Framed in gold and set against black, Louise Erdrich’s photo for Tales of Burning Love feels pronounced. The novel begins: “Holy Saturday in an oil boomtown with no insurance. Toothache.” You can hear Erdrich, confident yet controlled, spin that yarn for us.
I’m a little afraid for Richard Ford on the back of Rock Springs, his collection of stories. Ford stands in the middle of a snow-lined Montana dirt road, against a backdrop of mountains. He doesn’t seem too concerned, and the pose matches the prose, after all. The first line of the title story is “Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.”
A novel is an accomplishment, something to be celebrated. Paradise by Toni Morrison got a fuller photo treatment than Beloved and Song of Solomon, and the author deserves it. Morrison’s countenance tells us: here is a story. Read it.
“Even a selected display of one’s early work,” John Cheever writes in the preface to The Stories of John Cheever, “will be a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.” Cheever, wearing an open-necked shirt and sport jacket, smiles on the back. He looks pleasantly resigned.
John Steinbeck channels Vincent Price on the back of The Winter of Our Discontent. Appropriate for the novel’s ominous epigraph: “Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today.”
Published in 1992, Susan Minot’s shot on the back of Folly is early ’90s cool: hair up, back, and messed, with an unbuttoned denim jacket. An interesting contrast with a work of historical fiction prefaced by an endlessly appropriate quote from Blaise Pascal: “Man is so necessarily foolish that not to be a fool is merely a varied freak of folly.”
Previously: Edan Lepucki on Marion Ettlinger
John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is the perfect read for the waning days of summer, when early evening thunderstorms break the heat, and when children play under moonlight — knowing their freedom will soon end. In the more than 50 years since it was originally published in The New Yorker, Cheever’s tale has become an undergraduate rite-of-passage, a staple of graduate writing programs, and a favorite of readers long out of the classroom. In the same way that James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are often relegated to shorthand, Cheever’s tale has its own summary: a man’s decision to swim home is not what it seems. The genius of Cheever’s narrative is how it courts, but ultimately resists, myth. The story gestures toward The Odyssey, but remains painfully provincial and absolutely suburban.
When a story reaches iconic status, we trade the actual text for its themes. Granted, the thematic considerations of “The Swimmer” are nearly endless. It is a love letter to youth and sport; document of mid-century Protestant despair; a metaphor for our seemingly perpetual American economic downturn. “The Swimmer” could be put into conversation with Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, contrasted with the Lisbon family’s superstitious suburban Catholicism in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, or perhaps best paired with Laurie Colwin’s fine story “Wet,” another tale of secrecy and swimming. It is also a quite teachable tale: no other work of short fiction better examples John Gardner’s potamological concept of fictional profluence than a story the main character of which travels by water.
“The Swimmer” begins passively enough: “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’” “Midsummer Sundays” is so lithe and hopeful that it carries into the “whispers” about hangovers in the second sentence. The town church, golf course, tennis courts, and wildlife preserve are all full of the talk. Most blame it on the wine. The opening paragraph’s haze blurs into the location of the story’s first scene at the Westerhazy’s pool.
“The Swimmer” is a sad story, but its sadness is particular. Neddy’s story is surreal and finite. He is handsome, confident, and athletic, and yet a footstep away from the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. When Cheever writes that Neddy “was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure,” the tongue is out of the writer’s cheek and pointed at the reader. Average comic writers pine for laughs. Brilliant comic writers embrace tragedy.
Cheever takes his time with tragedy. At the Bunkers’ pool, “water refracted the sound of voices and laughter and seemed to suspend it in midair.” Ned exists on another, mystical, almost psychotropic plane. He would get along well with Oedipa Maas. Of the party, Neddy “felt a passing affection for the scene, a tenderness for the gathering, as if it was something he might touch,” yet he does not wish to be deterred by the party chatter.
He soon reaches the Levy’s home. There are few architectures more soulless than an empty suburban space, and Cheever captures it: “All the doors and windows of the big house were open but there were no signs of life; not even a dog barked.” Having crossed eight pools — half of his intended journey — Neddy “felt tired, clean, and pleased at that moment to be alone; pleased with everything.”
Then comes the storm:
It was suddenly growing dark; it was that moment when the pin-headed birds seem to organize their song into some acute and knowledgeable recognition of the storm’s approach. Then there was a fine noise of rushing water from the crown of an oak at his back, as if a spigot there had been turned. Then the noise of fountains came from the crowns of all the tall trees. Why did he love storms, what was the meaning of his excitement when the door sprang open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs, why had the simple task of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent, why did the first watery notes of a storm wind have for him the unmistakable sound of good news, cheer, glad tidings?
There is a hint of the supernatural in this prosaic world. Michael Chabon has called “The Swimmer” a ghost story, and he is correct. All suburban stories are ghost stories.
Neddy leaves the cover of the Levys’ gazebo to see red and yellow leaves scattered across the grass and the pool, and “felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn.” It is easy to read such lines and think that this wealthy man who lives in a wealthy area — he needs to cross a backyard riding ring on his way to the next pool — is not worthy of even our comic sympathy, but Cheever’s story has mysterious ways. Neddy is a pathetic soul. He is not simply a failure — he is unaware of his failure.
Look back to the first page of “The Swimmer.” From the dreary, town-wide hangover of Sunday morning emerges Neddy. His introduction follows the most syntactically simple sentence in all of valorized literature — “The sun was hot” — and his first action is sliding down a banister and giving “the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room.” Neddy is sound in mind and body. He greets the reader with a smirk.
While talking about the story, A.M. Homes notes “Life is incredibly surrealistic…So many things are so odd. You just have to be aware of it.” Homes sees the same literary moves occur in the fiction of Don DeLillo, particularly White Noise. Sarah Churchwell, likening Homes’s own work to the fiction of Cheever, explains that the latter’s “power comes from the bait and switch: he lures you into a complacent chuckle and then stabs you in the ribs.” Even Cheever felt that pain. He thought “The Swimmer” was a “terribly difficult story to write…Because I couldn’t ever show my hand. Night was falling, the year was dying. It wasn’t a question of technical problems, but one of imponderables.” Cheever “felt dark and cold for some time after I finished that story” — a lament the syntax and soul of which is baked into the syntax of “The Swimmer.”
The story’s second half contains a naked “elderly couple of enormous wealth who seemed to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists,” Neddy’s athletic exhaustion, a visit to a “stagnant” public pool, changing constellations — and yet so much more. Don’t take my affectionate word for it. Find a copy of The Stories of John Cheever, sit in front of a window on a cloudy day, and re-read “The Swimmer.” Allow the story to bring you back to the temporary innocence of July and August. Experience the deep melancholy of its final paragraph as you get ready for the cold months ahead, but don’t worry: there is always next summer.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Writers, praise the typographers and designers: our words are in their hands.
Bookshelves line the walls of my office. The room is small, and with the door closed, it feels comfortably claustrophobic with words. Lately my twin daughters pull books from the bottom shelves. They laugh while forming piles of prose and poetry. Transformations by Anne Sexton is splayed next to The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover, which smothers The Comedians by Graham Greene. My girls smile, then run away while I assess the wreckage. While returning the books to the shelves, I found Players by Don DeLillo opened to “A Note on the Type.” A colophon.
Colophons are sometimes the last words of books; the Greek origin of the word means “finishing stroke.” They are the end credits of literature. Colophons are the ticket out of the imagined world and back to the world of late trains and heating bills. Although often formal and informative, colophons are also peppered with personality. Handwritten colophons first appeared in 6th century manuscripts. The first printed colophon appeared in the second book printed by movable type, the Mainz Psalter, created by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer in 1457. The original colophon appears below, in Latin. Here is the translation by Douglas C. McMurtrie, from his comprehensive history: The Book: the Story of Printing & Bookmaking.
The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with beauty of capital letters, and sufficiently marked out with rubrics, has been thus fashioned by an ingenious invention of printing and stamping without any driving of the pen, and to the worship of God has been diligently brought to completion by Johann Fust, a citizen of Mainz, and Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim, in the year of the Lord 1457, on the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption.
Three years later, the colophon for Catholicon, a 13th century Latin dictionary written by Joannes Balbus, asserts it was printed “without help of reed, stylus, or pen, but by the wondrous agreement, proportion, and harmony of punches and types.” Wonder. Harmony. Letters.
Players was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1977. Fifty years earlier, an essay “Cult of the Colophon” appeared in Publishers Weekly. Skillin & Gay’s Words into Type notes that “In the early days of bookmaking, the colophon appeared on the last page of the book and gave most of the details now shown on the title page,” which accounts for the word’s other usage “for publisher’s device, trademark, or symbol” — elements that have now migrated from the end of the book to the spine and title page. Think The Modern Library colophon of a torchbearer. Jay Satterfield notes the “colophon’s twentieth-century revitalization as a quality trademark was symptomatic of literature’s commodification, although it drew on a tradition of fine printing consciously detached from commercial interests by its aesthetic progenitors.” Usage of colophons “by trade publishers illuminates a modern melding of interests: publishing sought to maintain an air of disinterested dignity associated with art and literature, yet also yearned for sales potential modern commercialization promised.”
Knopf said “a good-looking and well-made book will never do its author any harm anywhere at any time.” He attracted some of the nation’s finest typographers, although in Beauty and the Book, her consideration of fine book ownership in America, Megan Benton shows how some of those typographers thought that the Knopf colophons were “contrived.” William Addison Dwiggins, who coined the term “graphic designer,” said colophons were “shop talk.” He thought that readers “don’t care to know and they don’t need to know.” Benton also quotes Carl Rollins, who thought colophons were appeals to a book “buyer’s vanity;” a form of “free advertising for the paper merchant, the edition binder, the man who cast the rollers, and the provenance of the pressman’s pants.”
Through her particular consideration of finer texts, Benton notes that 20th-century colophons served two purposes. The first appealed to the “growing number of bibliophiles who were knowledgeable or at least curious about the particulars of bookmaking.” From a marketing standpoint, colophons “shrewdly enabled publishers to point out the craft-based aspects of production that distinguished fine bookmaking from ordinary:” the eternal tension of the book as art and product.
Players begins with an unidentified character’s speech, but quickly fades into the preparation for an in-flight movie. As the plane’s lights dim and the piano bar becomes still, the passengers seem to realize “for the first time how many systems of mechanical and electric components, what exact management of stresses, power units, consolidated thrust and energy it has taken to reduce their sensation of flight to this rudimentary tremble.” How beautiful, really, that only “One second of darkness” is “enough to intensify the implied bond which, more than distance, speed or destination, makes each journey something of a mystery to be worked out by the combined talents of the travelers, all gradually aware of each other’s code of recognition.” An appreciation for type is acknowledgment that good design enables enjoyment. The “one second of darkness” that is the union of reader, writer, and designer creates a form of literary communion.
When asked about the “raw materials” of his fiction, DeLillo thinks small. “I construct sentences,” he says, with the ritual sense of the Latin Mass of his youth. He continues: “There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look.” DeLillo says he is “completely willing to let language press meaning upon me.” Press, of course. Letters pushed into the page. A mark, a tattoo, a scar. He concludes:
Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence — these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger — I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way the words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page—finished, printed, beautifully formed.
Remember that books are crafted. Remember that books are words, words, words.
When writing about books — a world within a world — I always feel as if I am writing to save something. I might attribute this salvific sentiment to the self-importance all writers suffer from, the feeling that we are saying something worth noting. Or the origin might be my Catholic sense, the wish to transform and transfigure. Either way, a comparably venial sin in the service of something greater.
I spoke with Leah Carlson-Stanisic, associate director of design for HarperCollins, who thinks the decision to include a colophon is an important one, “because book publishing isn’t just the making and selling of something for the sake of consumerism.” Colophons — and the spirit behind them — are particularly essential now “during an important transitional period in terms of technology and how it is ever affecting our world and my industry.” In that vein, the colophon is a way to “reference and remember” the typographical tradition.
I am less than a novice in terms of design. My experience is confined to one undergraduate course, a few months of introductory work with weeks devoted to typography. I remember zooming in on the contour of letters, and how that closeness felt like looking into someone’s eyes. Afterward, I browsed books in the university library. A bit embarrassed, I found a study room tucked in the upper floor, and nearly put my face in books. I was convinced that I had discovered something new.
I love the right-justified colophon of Knopf’s The Stories of John Cheever. It looks like a pared wing. Part of a George Herbert poem.
Carlson-Stanisic explained her method in selecting a typeface. Historical Fell or Tribute might be appropriate for a manuscript dated by time period: both “are heavy and ornamental.” If a manuscript “is dense with elements [such as] lists, dialogues, e-mails,” she selects a “clean font with very crisp, readable serifs, that has a variety of weights so that I can distinguish all of the elements.” And “I always want a font that has a beautiful italic. I am a snob that way.” Beyond content translated to form, Carlson-Stanisic stresses the need for clarity: “If you set the leading too tight, and the lines are too close together, the page will overwhelm you. I want to select a typeface that is proportional, isn’t too fine but certainly not bulky, and that doesn’t have anything too stylistically unique about it that certain characters stand out too much and distract.” Her ideal is “a beautiful workhorse with an elegant italic.” Her favorites: Fournier, Filosofia, Perrywood, Garamond.
William Addison Dwiggins, for all of his aforementioned reservations about reader interest in colophons, is noted in many. My copy of Circling the Drain, the only book by Amanda Davis, ends with a terse colophon.
Dwiggins returns in my copy of Thomas Mann’s The Black Swan, a discard from the VA Hospital in Lebanon, Penn. His own trademark at the end is a nice touch.
This colophon appears at the end of Crossing the Threshold of Hope. In 1993, Pope John Paul II had to cancel a planned live interview on Italian radio and television, but surprised the reporter by developing his responses into a full manuscript. Not every typeface earns the name of Dante.
I call for the return of colophons. The battle of the book is not to be won or lost in preferences of print or digital. The page will always remain. Letters will always remain. Colophons can send us back into books for another level of reading. If we love books, that second reading might be ecstatic in the same way good writing can lift us. Colophons are reminders that books are bigger than their writers alone. They are the measured exhale at the end of a satisfying experience. The sentence has end punctuation; the book has a colophon.
It is dangerous for a note on type to run too long, so even this appreciation must be truncated. The last words on type should go to a designer, so here is Carlson-Stanisic again:
Form and function is so important to us on every level — and people say that it is best when you don’t notice it — but I think design-oriented people will always stop to observe and appreciate it. There is something so sensual and so similar to the way we appreciate the curve of an arm on a well-designed chair, the elongated neck of a dancer, or the graceful curvature of a lower cased f set in Fournier italic. How could we survive without any of that beauty?
Expats are prone to occasional spells of low-level anxiety and paranoia. If it’s not the young French woman in London who tries to iron out her R’s, it’s the Mexican in Barcelona attuned to disdain from Spaniards, or else the unhappy Turkish immigrant who fears the ire of native Germans. The expat is likely to see hazards where none exist, or at least to worry about the specter of prejudice in the air. It’s hard, before you visit a country for the first time, to forecast just how your nationality will define you, but it’s a given that it will somehow, and in ways you won’t be able to predict. Before I head off on a trip or a long stay in Europe, I know a few people will jab me about the U.S. military, but until last year I didn’t know that if you enter an Irish convenience store, ask for a box of matches, stick those matches in your pocket and blithely try to exit the store, your shopkeeper will snap that matches cost money in this country. I know I’ll find a Starbucks in half the cities on Earth, but until recently I didn’t know that I’d find, as I did one day in Dublin, a laundromat that claims to be “American-style.” Their windows are colored red, white, and blue, and their typesets are straight out of Vegas.
If, over time, you manage to get used to living in a foreign culture, you start to revise your thoughts on the quirks of your own country. You see with a distance that can feel like sentimentality at first what it has that no one else can lay claim to, as well as what idiocies place it in the world’s Hall of Shame. You learn, at least if you’re marginally self-aware, how much your own anxieties color your attitude toward home. As a rule, expats project their own feelings onto conflicts, because it can often seem, when daily life is marked by dislocation, that every social misfire is a comment on your place in the world. In part this explains why, for instance, Americans who take pride in their educations get upset when Europeans crack jokes, either in jest or in malice, that touch on their intelligence or the brainpower of their countrymen. They find themselves defending those things about America they like, regardless of how barn-burning their own rhetoric may be at home. The experience teaches them what they love and what they hate, which has the nice effect of honing their sense of themselves. In my case, at least, I can’t study in Europe without getting misty-eyed for my alma mater.
I live in Dublin now. Over here the influence of literature is about as palpable as the weather. Since I arrived, two years ago, I’ve grown more interested in works about American expats, especially those in which the characters are not quite comfortable in their settings. I wanted to see what this literature said about the ways in which expat life in Europe evolved over the course of American history. I also wanted to find works that reveal, intentionally or not, how their authors constructed their own identities as Americans. (In looking for things to read, I stayed away from works about expats who weren’t from the States, in light of a quote by Colum McCann, who once said that when he reads a novel by a non-Irish author that takes place in Ireland, his instinct is to nitpick the novel into the ground. I don’t feel qualified, in short, to analyze non-Americans well, nor do I feel qualified to stray outside Europe, where I’ve lived for many years.) Beyond reading fiction that met my criteria, I read snippets of authors’ biographies, as a way of better understanding how their own views emerge in the text.
I picked out a selection of stories that illustrate three time periods. The first period is the 1840s, when America was still for the most part an agrarian backwater. The second is the 1950s, when Bretton Woods, the Cold War and the rise of our pop culture marked the country’s growth as a hegemon. The third is the 1980s, when Vietnam, Watergate and other calamities still loomed large in the national psyche. I set out to draw a (very) rough sketch of what it meant to be an American in those years. It’s impossible, of course, to sum up the vast breadth of expat literature, but I believe we can still make out, in these stories, how we and a great deal of Europe have interpreted our character as a nation.
At least in my high school, The Scarlet Letter had a maddening ability to bring “Puritan” to the tongues of students who didn’t understand what the term entailed in full. The novel’s ubiquity on reading lists, combined with our generally poor knowledge of British history, led us all to use “Puritan” as a byword for moral stringency. I can’t say this for certain, but I suspect that if your average American student knows one thing about Hawthorne, it’s the extent to which colonial New England haunted him, much like the way in which the Old South held a spectral importance to Faulkner. If you were to read only the books I was assigned in my English classes, you’d likely crown Hawthorne the bard of buttoned-up America, and from there go on to conclude that if he sent his characters abroad, he’d probably saddle them with homegrown guilt and unhappiness. You’d be ready, in other words, to read The Marble Faun, in which Hawthorne sends a group of Americans to Rome, with predictable results.
Three of the four main characters are Americans. All three are sculptors and painters. Miriam, the central figure, suffers from guilt over a crime, one which may or may not have led to her exile from New England. Her baggage attains a physical presence in the form of a mysterious stalker. In four hundred pages, Hawthorne never gives us any details about her crime, and his narrator admits at one point that she may never have committed a crime at all. We’re expected, in the mold of Kafka, to see her guilt not as culpability for an act or a series of acts but instead as an ex post facto justification for her misery. Unlike The Trial, however, The Marble Faun puts the blame for this guilt on the culture in which its protagonist grew up. When Kenyon, one of the Americans, draws a comparison between New England and Rome, he suggests that Rome is a freer place, because although Rome in those days was run by a papal despot, New England forced its residents to get permission for everything they did. It subjected its natives to a bone-deep fear of censure. When Donatello, a young Italian, gets sucked into Miriam’s downfall, we see how degrading this mindset can be. As Miriam is falling apart, Donatello vows to shield her from her stalker, which eventually leads him to kill the stalker in the streets of Rome late at night. Afterwards, Donatello is destroyed, in part because he felt, in the moment before he raised his knife, that Miriam told him to commit murder with a “silent command.” In effect, she transfers her guilt onto Donatello, who subsequently justifies it after the fact. The message isn’t hard to suss out here—this culture is a toxic export.
Despite the overall negativity of this portrayal, the book also presents evidence of singular American virtues. When the narrator describes Hilda, an American painter, he calls her “pretty in our native New England style,” implying that her beauty is a consequence of prudent living. The Americans who form the nucleus of the book include Donatello in their circle because they possess a “republican and artistic simplicity of intercourse.” In one passage, the narrator suggests that Americans, in their failure to preserve the past, indicate an unusual awareness of death and its permanence:
The brief duration of our families, as a hereditary household, renders it next to a certainty that the great-grandchildren will not know their father’s grandfather, and that half a century hence at furthest, the hammer of the auctioneer will thump its knock-down blow against his blockhead, sold at so much for the pound of stone! And it ought to make us shiver, the idea of leaving our features to be a dusty-white ghost among strangers of another generation, who will take our nose between their thumb and fingers (as we have seen men do by Caesar’s, and infallibly break it off if they can do so without detection! “Yes,” said Miriam, who had been revolving some such thoughts as to the above, “it is a good state of mind for mortal man, when he is content to leave no more definite memorial than the grass, which will sprout kindly and speedily over his grave, if we do not make the spot barren with marble.”
In his journals, notes, and letters, Hawthorne echoed these knotty views of his homeland. He wrote in a journal entry about a thirty-five-year-old man, raised on a farm, who gave up the agricultural life to study at a ministry, explaining that, in his ambitions, this man is typical of his country, as he reveals both an urge to improve himself and a strange naiveté in his belief that a farmer has use for an education. In an entry on styles of architecture, Hawthorne writes that American buildings all trace their lineage to the log cabin. He vents about the failure of Americans to buy his novels, arguing with ample misogyny that popular women’s fiction is to blame. Yet though he despaired of his country at times, he also believed its people were plainspoken and honest. In a sketch of a French wine-merchant who came to New England from Denmark, he says the merchant didn’t have the good manners of Americans in the same line of work. In an entry that foreshadows a Hollywood cliché, he paints a visiting Englishman, distinguished by his rudeness, as oblivious to the ease with which he trashes the people around him. Echoing Miriam’s ode to transience in another passage, he describes a large house, one built by a rich man with an eye toward crafting his legacy, that fell apart and collapsed a half-century after it was built. It’s telling that Hawthorne cast his vote for Andrew Jackson in his youth. His gripes never outweighed the force of his populist leanings.
It’s not easy to imagine a writer coming to this conclusion today without at least a hint of irony. Back then, America was a lot more isolationist than its European forebears, which partly explains the innocence Hawthorne perceived. American hegemony was still just a fanciful theory. To someone like Hawthorne, the country retained a particular dewy-eyed purity, no matter the racism and violence of life within its borders. For him, it was still possible to see America as an untested land.
John Cheever’s Collected Stories is one of those books that became so common in the decades after it was released that a lot of people will know what you mean if you simply call it the big orange book. Originally published as a hardcover of Biblical dimensions, the book contains all the stories that made Cheever the Chekhov of the Suburbs: “The Swimmer,” “The Enormous Radio,” “Goodbye, My Brother” and the sad, pessimistic “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow.” They cemented Westchester as the stomping grounds of Cheever’s imagination. Yet when I read through the book in its entirety a few months ago, I couldn’t maintain my view of the author as parochial. The reason for this is simple: nearly half of his stories are set in Italy, mainly Rome.
Like Hawthorne, Cheever went to Europe in the middle of his career, embarking on a year-long stay in Rome with his family in 1956. Unlike Hawthorne, however, Cheever didn’t get much writing done while abroad. Hawthorne put all his projects on hiatus and kept a series of notebooks about English life; Cheever, in contrast, wrote a total of one story in Rome. The length of his stay, combined with a weariness encapsulated by his remark “Is this all there is?” upon seeing the Tomb of Augustus, suggests that Cheever didn’t get much out of his time in the Eternal City. So it’s odd that he went on to publish a corpus of expat fiction. In the wake of his trip, American expats joined middle-aged couples, fractious rich families, and hopeless alcoholics in the gallery of Cheever archetypes. They let him to play out his upset over the changes of postwar America. To read him now is to sense a bitterness about modern life, coupled with a nostalgia for the country in which he grew up.
Out of all the stories in the big orange book, “The Golden Age” puts Cheever’s Luddite self-loathing most prominently on display. The plot follows a family—a mother, a father and two young boys—on sabbatical in Italy. The father, Seton, is a television writer, one of the first to make his fortunes when the medium took off in the fifties. The locals think he is a poet and refer to him as il poeta. His family is happy and secure. Yet his wealth has made him miserable, because he thinks that television, all in all, is a threat to civilization. As he walks through a village, he spots a television playing inside a bar, inspiring him to dream of the blue glow of the screen transforming Italians into gangsters and juvenile delinquents. He considers apologizing on behalf of America for stocking their restaurants with Coke. In a rowboat with his family, he worries that people on the shore can see how evil he is, alleging that all of them know that he is an “aesthetic criminal.” He admits to lying about his profession to ingratiate himself with the locals. But when a little Italian girl finds out he’s the man behind a famous, international sitcom, she tells him in an offhand way: “We thought, signore, that you were merely a poet.” It seems their disdain is in his head, and the contempt Seton feels is not a reflection of genuine anger but instead a projection of his own rage at the American Century.
Cheever made clear in his own remarks that he cast his lot with Seton. According to his son Benjamin, the author had little good to say about America in the late twentieth-century. While writing Bullet Park and The Wapshot Scandal in the sixties, Malcolm Cowley reportedly warned him: “You’re getting angrier and angrier.” At a symposium run by Esquire in Berkeley, he trashed the coarsening effects of modern American life, even going so far as to declare that “life in the United States in 1960 is Hell.” He thought the decency Hawthorne cherished was dead, imperiled by the twin scourges of the supermarket and TV Guide. In his later stories, the highway, that ubiquitous symbol of free movement, became, as Scott Donaldson argued in an old essay in the VQR, a symbol of industry laying waste to all it touched.
Which isn’t to say that he held a rose-tinted view of the past. Although it’s true that, in the 20s and 30s, America didn’t have quite the level of consumerism he found so offensive, it was also a far more judgmental place. Folded in with the kinder aspects of his youth was a bent towards harsh morality that Hawthorne would have found familiar. In “The Bella Lingua,” a story which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1958, this pops up in subtle, unsettling ways. The protagonist, an American in Rome named Wilson Streeter, signs up for Italian lessons with a fellow American, Kate Dresser, who grew up in Iowa at a time which evokes Norman Rockwell. Yet Kate remembers her childhood mainly for the cruelty with which her peers mocked her upturned nose. She has a son, a teenager whose wardrobe consists of leather jackets and Levi’s, who tells her every day that he wants to “go home” to America. Kate informs him testily that his home is in Italy. When her brother, a hardheaded man she calls Uncle George, pays a visit to their Roman villa, he demonstrates unintentionally why Krasbie is not the place for her. The statues around the city, many of which are nude, offend him, as he feels they indicate a people steeped in hopeless decadence and sin.
It’s remarkable how directly this comment ties Cheever back to Hawthorne. Uncle George inadvertently summarizes the worst of American rigidity: the allergy to pleasure, the prejudice, the moral code which banishes people from society for piddling reasons. Uncle George would have tied the stakes if he’d been a colonist in Salem. In part, his outlook explains why, in small towns across America, lone faults to your reputation could doom you for the rest of your life. It’s no coincidence that Cheever hailed from Massachusetts. Like his forebear, he knew how to weaponize the burden of omnipresent shame.
“A Woman Without a Country” aims this knowledge at the cruelty and power of mass media. Revolving around Anne, the heiress to a lumber mill fortune, the story begins a few years after a tabloid mired her in a scandal. After trusting a neighbor who offers to give her a ride home, she gets assaulted by her neighbor in her foyer, at which point her husband comes home and resolves to divorce her for infidelity. On trial for custody of her children, she claims the humidity impaired her senses, setting off a firestorm of ridicule in tabloids across the country. She gets away from the mockery by leaving America for Europe. Ensconced on the continent, she decides that her homeland is a miserable, savage place. But when she meets a businessman from Philly whose impeccable manners appear to absolve her country, she grows so homesick that she books a flight to New York. When she gets there, however, she immediately hears a janitor in the terminal singing “Humid Isabella,” a song written by a tabloid reporter years before to capitalize on her notoriety. It’s proof to her that America is tainted, and that as long her peers have functioning memories, it will never again be home. She books a flight to Rome and resumes her status as an exile.
Is it even necessary to compare her to Hester Prynne? The parallels are too eerie to ignore. Over three centuries after The Scarlet Letter was set, and a hundred years after it was published, “A Woman Without a Country” establishes in poignant fashion that yes, that harshness is still there. In spite of the changes wrought by shopping malls, highways and TV shows, our own breed of strictness lived on, and Cheever wouldn’t let us forget it.
It’s not hard to see why writer who lived through the Cold War might think the US was a kinder place when he was young. But for readers today, the majority of whom have spent their whole lives in the world he detested, Cheever comes off as a crank. You don’t have to classify him as one of David Foster Wallace’s Great Narcissists to think a person who railed against the evils of the supermarket didn’t have the strongest grasp of the ways in which things had improved. His biases, which only multiplied as he aged, impaired his ability to see the world he painted so well.
The same can’t be said of the novelist Lynne Tillman, whose fiction reveals a clear fluency with modern life. In Motion Sickness, a novel which follows a conspicuously unnamed narrator on a long trip through Europe, her characters are savvy to the world as they see it, unlike the harried everymen of Cheever’s catalogues of horrors. Her protagonist makes scores of friends as she moves from country to country. Her circles, which include people from all over the world, talk politics as easily as they talk about the weather. Since the novel was published in 1989, the setting is the lead-up to the Soviet collapse, though none of the characters could have known it at the time. The book has an atmosphere of controlled anomie, in which most people are resigned to the permanence of a capitalist world order.
It’s in Motion Sickness that I saw the most vivid reflections of what I’ve felt when I go abroad. In cities across Europe, the narrator finds herself hungry for American media, which provides her with a surrogate comfort zone. In a coffee shop in the Netherlands, she reads a novel about Hollywood and finds herself wishing a television was playing in the background. She tells us that “almost anything” sparks an urge to go to the movies. Every day, she reads the Times or the Herald Tribune, though she admits that once in a while, she buys a local paper, “simply to appear to be trying.” She resorts to monosyllabic terms to describe herself while reading Mickey Spillane. She compares the glass in which she drinks tea to Dolly Parton or Mae West, noting simply that her Dutch hotel manager wasn’t likely to make this analogy. For her, the saturation of media is a fact of life, one neither to fear nor to view as much of a blessing. It is, instead, a state of being to observe, without feeling.
The narrator also runs into a character who all expats meet at some point. In London, she befriends a fellow American, Jessica, who neatly fits a stereotype I call the bourgeois exile. Jessica left the States during the Vietnam War as a form of political protest. She preaches the value of Buddhism and speaks in a torrent of aphorisms. In the States, she had a comfortable life—her parents can trace their ancestry back to the revolution—and it’s obvious she has enough money to live wherever she wants. Her unmistakable privilege lends her a campy quality. When she speaks, you get the impression that London is part of her style, that it exists in her view mainly to prove her wealth and considerable good taste.
Jessica takes pains to distance herself from America. Yet when the narrator talks with her about the details of her past, she picks up a peculiar and distinctly American mindset. Jessica grew up in the Midwest, in tiny towns isolated from much of the world, and her family developed their own breed of cloistered weirdness. The gigantic skies, combined with the religious bent in her community, inculcated “a certain kind of American psychosis” in Jessica. This manifests in her dual belief in Buddhism and Christian angels. Her oddness is akin to the madness that plagues Hawthorne’s New England. At one point, Jessica says that, in her youth, she even went through her own Protestant awakening.
Wherever she goes, the narrator suspects that her own psychosis is evident. She worries that a man who fails to introduce himself to her does so because she is American and thus will invariably make the first move. In a cafe in London, she enunciates her order and sees half of the patrons glare at her, their faces mirroring their deep-rooted antipathy to Americans. She braces for the possibility of being attacked for her nationality. Yet when she meets a person who actually does have harsh things to say about her country, she barely reacts. In Barcelona, her lover informs her that his neighborhood is being modernized—but in a good way, not like what you see in New York, where unscrupulous landlords toss the poor and the infirm onto the streets. The narrator, upon hearing this, says nothing, instead pondering whether she can impress him with her scant knowledge of German and French.
I felt a great kinship with the narrator while reading this scene. Regardless of what else may define him or her, the expat is a canvas of hopes, prejudices and hatreds, on which world citizens of all stripes project their ideas about foreign cultures. The narrator of Motion Sickness is aware that she is always an emissary. To some extent, the rest of the world will always see you as they see your country, and you will see yourself, in a way you never did at home, as a child of the land that raised you. There isn’t a place on Earth where you won’t stand for a set of values.
I remember a story a friend told me about a semester he spent in Kenya. On the way home, he saw a billboard for a new Bourne movie looming over the freeway in Nairobi. In Paris, he saw the exact same billboard while making his connection, and when he finally got back to San Francisco a day later, he saw it again in the baggage claim. We talked about how strange it was to know our country had made that happen. “Hollywood gets around, doesn’t it?,” he said.
Image credit: Pexels/Francesco Ungaro.
I kept a reading journal for the first time this year and I highly recommend it. It’s humbling for one (that’s all I read?), inspiring (read more!), and clarifying (choose well). That said, it was a pretty great year reading-wise. I read David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green twice, re-read Turgenev’s First Love, William Gass’ On Being Blue, and Don DeLillo’s End Zone, and I highly recommend them all. With everything going on with the Penn State scandal, Margaux Fragoso’s harrowing memoir of sexual abuse, Tiger, Tiger is both timely and even more devastating. I finally read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and thought it was terrific. I took Ann Patchett’s advice at the opening of Parnassus, her independent bookstore in Nashville, and bought Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, devouring it in a single sitting. I had so much fun reading The Stories of John Cheever in conjunction with The Journals of John Cheever that I read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in tandem with his Letters, which includes a wonderful introduction by its editor, Benjamin Taylor. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace — my first experience with his work — was riveting, appalling, and beautiful. Jim Shepard’s story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway was so wide-reaching, variegated, and emotionally precise I felt like I’d read a collection of micro-novels.
Still, of all the books I read, only Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian took over my world, and by that I mean I had that rare experience, while immersed in it, of seeing reality through its lens whenever I put it down and in the days after I finished it. Ostensibly it’s about a band of Indian hunters run amok along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-nineteenth century but really it’s about how man’s natural state is warfare. You can buy that bill of goods or not but like McCarthy’s greatest works (Suttree, The Crossing) it’s written in his inimitable style, that fusion of The Book of Isaiah, Herman Melville, and Faulkner (though he’s more precise than the latter, more desolate and corporeal than Moby Dick’s author; whether his prophetic powers are on par with his artistry remains to be seen), a voice which is all his own, of course, and has an amplitude I’ve encountered only in, what, DeLillo at his most ecstatic? Murakami at his most unreal? Bellow in Augie March or Herzog? Alice Munro in The Progress of Love? John Hawkes in The Lime Twig? Read it if you read anything this coming year and note: a bonus to the experience is that you’ll add at least two hundred words to your lexicon.
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