But my wife was sad.Short stories are, in some ways, both the least and the most consistently demanding literary genre. On the one hand, they generally have neither the gnomic self-immersion of contemporary poetry nor the novel's slippery slope of pretension and turgidity. This means that they are accessible, and usually even entertaining, because they are largely unburdened by interpretive obstructions. (The consistency of this feature becomes striking when you consider how much more easily O. Henry and Ted Chiang coexist within a single genre than, say, Flaubert and Heinlein.) On the other hand, the fact that a short story is supposed to furnish all the materials for its own interpretation imposes a kind of special burden on both the writer and the reader: the need to make the story be about more than just the ending or the big reveal. Unfortunately, this is a burden that is rarely taken up with the proper sense of responsibility.
"What's the matter, darling?" I asked.
"I just have this terrible feeling that I'm a character in a television situation comedy," she said. "I mean, I'm nice-looking, I'm well-dressed, I have humorous and attractive children, but I have this terrible feeling that I'm in black and white and that I can be turned off by anybody. I just have this terrible feeling that I can be turned off." My wife is often sad because her sadness is not a sad sadness, sorry because her sorrow is not a crushing sorrow. She grieves because her grief is not an acute grief, and when I tell her that this sorrow over the inadequacies of her sorrow may be a new hue in the spectrum of human pain, she is not consoled. Oh, I sometimes think of leaving her. I could conceivably make a life without her and the children, I could get along without the companionship of my friends, but I could not bring myself to leave my lawns and gardens, I could not part from the porch screens that I have repainted and painted, I cannot divorce myself from the serpentine brick walk I have laid between the side door and the rose garden; and so, while my chains are forged of turf and house paint, they will still bind me until I die. But I was grateful to my wife then for what she had said, for stating that the externals of her life had the quality of a dream. The uninhibited energies of the imagination had created the supermarket, the viper, and the note in the shoe-polish can. Compared to these, my wildest reveries had the literalness of double-entry bookkeeping.
- John Cheever, "A Vision of the World"
John Cheever--at least, much of the time--is an author who shoulders it well. Of course, reading him is no longer as straightforward as it must have been fifty years ago. Not only has literature moved on--even the world he wrote about, with its alcoholic servants and decaying Italian aristocrats, no longer seems like it could ever have been real. As a result, those nuclear families and houses of his, which a mid-20th century reader would probably have experienced as an off-white backdrop to the real plot, have become more and more distracting; ultimately, perhaps, one sees in them a depth that isn't there.
I don't think that's a complete explanation, however. What lends Cheever's stories the character of depth is the fact that he is obviously conscious of the nuclear-family-New-York-bedroom-suburb format as a convention. If he uses it again and again, it is because he hopes to explore all of the possibilities that this stereotype can offer; if he defends the suburbs from the bohemian contempt of "lyric poets," it's because he doesn't see their world as any richer than Shady Hill. (Unfortunately, literary types today have largely forgotten the long and doomed struggle their forebears waged against Sinclair Lewises of various sorts.)
The remarkable consistency of Cheever's settings (and he is at his worst when he departs from his familiar turf) means, in the end, that he isn't a "pure" short story writer. His pieces cannot be adequately read as self-enclosed--or rather, they can be, but the meaty larger points each story raises about the experience of American suburbia really comes through only in juxtaposition to its dozens and dozens of neighbors. Only this can justify the more playful and self-aware of his stories, which would otherwise be simply self-indulgent. (What distinguishes a "self-aware" story, in Cheever's oeuvre, is the fact that not only the author but also the characters know that they are filling a prefabricated narrative mold.)
When self-awareness reaches its highest pitch, we discover what it is that Cheever is really trying to say. It's not really suburbia he's concerned about; it's The Human Condition. Shady Hill is not a weird zoo full of interesting animals. Rather, it contains people who are pretty much like people anywhere else--but whose limitations and psychic blindspots are made especially glaring by the obvious artificiality of their surroundings. The short story, in his hands, does not defamiliarize our experiences (even if the "our" denotes a reader in 1960). It simply treats as unfamiliar what we already knew to be so. And thus, in a sense, rereading Cheever brings us closer to his world--not further away.