Feb 28, 2009

The Reviews are Coming In and They're Uninspired

Yesterday I spent the morning in bed reading Joy Williams' review of Flannery: A Life in the NYTBR and Charles McGrath's preview of the new Cheever biography in the NYT Magazine. Here's my meta-review:

William's review is meant to come off as a stylized homage--a kinetically-paced list of curios, trivia and back-handed compliments--but it comes off instead as a Lives of the Saints pamphlet written by a skeptic who is nonetheless moved to write because O'Connors's story is so rich and colorful.

McGrath is the former editor of the Book Review and was, briefly, Cheever's editor at the New Yorker, so I expected a little something extra. I expected too much. It is a polite account of the serendipitous way the Cheever family came to entrust Blake Bailey with the task of writing the book, but is for the most part a clumsy piece, ending as it does with a perfunctory-seeming narrative ending in which McGrath is taken to the Cheever's rental home in Westchester that inspired so many of his best stories.

Updike has an honest appraisal of Bailey's biography of Cheever in the most recent New Yorker. He puts his finger on what's been bugging me about the book--it's long (700 plus pages), not dramatically written, and, therefore, freaking torturous. Cheever was a sad case, as everyone knows, but he really belabors the fact.

Feb 23, 2009


One of things that I have to constantly guard against when reading either Flannery or Cheever is sentimentality. O'Connor was very wary of it, seeing it as the gateway to much evil--an "arrival a mock state of innocence," which "strongly suggests its opposite." She saw compassion as sentimentality's kissing cousin: "In the absence of faith we govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chamber."

Here is the whole passage from "Mystery and Manners:"

We lost our innocence in the Fall, and our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ's death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purpose, and so far disconnected it from its meaning in life as to make it simply an experience for its own sake.

O'Connor's stories and novels definitely avoid sentimentality of this sort, as it is precisely the possibility of redemption that each of her characters stands before, even the ones--especially the ones--who are atheists. The characters in O'Connor's work who survive their personal ordeal are left scorched by the experience. I am immediately in the mind of the twelve-year-old girl of "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" who must endure as house guests two bratty, boy-crazy fourteen-year-old sisters who call themselves, with much ironic relish, Temple One and Temple Two. The young girl tags along with Temple One and Two on their double-date with some hickish boys to a freak show where they are exposed to a hermaphrodite who proclaims to the crowd: "This is the way [God] wanted me to be." And though we are not clumsily informed that the girls' lives are forever changed for the better, we later see the young child on her knees in church asking God: "hep me not be so mean." But the effect of the story is not complete until the last image in which the setting sun appears as an "elevated host drenched in blood." Many of O'Connor's stories contain this triangular arrangement--a precocious, introspective youth looking out at the world with angst, anxious for a time when she will be vindicated. Julian, the socially progressive, race-conscious son of a bigoted woman in "Everything That Rises Must Converge" rails against the narrow-mindedness of the South only to be brought to heel by his mother's stroke.

Cheever's stories rarely deal with precocious children or sophomoric social progressives. The barrel of fish that he often found himself shooting into contained money-strapped, melancholic men who feel that they are past their prime, have somehow failed in their masculine duties and are now, sometimes quite literally, staring into the abyss wondering what next.

"My name is Johnny Hake. I'm thirty-six years old, stand five feet eleven in my socks, weigh one hundred and forty-two pounds stripped, and am, so to speak, naked at the moment and talking into the dark." So begins one of Cheever's best stories, "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill."

Or this, from one of my all-time favorites, "The Death of Justina":

So help me God it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one's purest memories and ambitions; and I can barely recall the old house where I was raised, where in midwinter Parma violets bloomed in a cold frame near the kitchen door, and down the long corridor, past the seven views of Rome--up two steps and down three--one entered the library where all the were in order the lamps were bright, where there was a fire and a dozen bottles of good bourbon locked in a cabinet with a veneer like a tortoise shell whose silver key my father wore on his watch chain. Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing.

Cheever wrote in the Preface to The Stories of John Cheever: "I like to think, that decorum is a mode of speech, as profound and connotative as any other, differing not in content but in syntax and imagery." Indeed. Cheever's imagery and syntax has the sense of rarity, of a passing heady feeling that comes only once in a great while when the sky is clear and the stars bright, or when the right components collide--the smell of wood smoke, the sounds of a football game, the tender look a wife has for her husband in the morning upon waking. O'Connor is uncomfortable describing the domestic sphere. Children are always badly behaved. Parents are monstrous idiots and profoundly ignorant of a world beyond their county. The sky is always bloody red and looking as though it were held up by scaffolding--of punishment and construction.

"What can you do with a man like that?" Cheever asks in "Goodbye My Brother"--or, in this case, woman. For Cheever the world was a fallen place, and as such his characters seem constantly in search of and need of a happy portent, whereas O'Connor's characters, less aware and attuned to the sensual world, are shocked into recognition of "Maker" rather than a mushy, romantic "Creator."

Feb 15, 2009

Cheever and Flannery

So I'm on self-imposed deadline to write a review-essay on the forthcoming biographies of John Cheever and Flannery O'Connor, by Blake Bailey and Brad Gooch, respectively. Both biographies have one-word titles ("Cheever" and "Flannery") followed by "A Life". Not very clever, but I guess when you're as well-known as these two you can go simple. Flannery is now available and is selling well, but Cheever is not due out until March 10th.

I've been reading both simultaneously looking for parallels, which are numerous. Flannery has been the most enjoyable, but Cheever has been more informative. I think that's because Flannery, despite her brief life, was not a tragic case. She was a hard-working, earnest and principled person who despised "intellectuals" and characterized herself as a 13th century Catholic, so the very fact that she achieved the acclaim she did in a profession that loves its bad boys is a triumph. Cheever, on the other hand, was a train wreck in slo-mo. His early life and career (he published his first story in The New Republic at 19) was spent writing bad Hemmingway imitations and getting bent with Malcolm Cowley, the Republic's editor, and his illustrious band of socialist-sympathizing bohemians in the Village, including Hart Crane, ee cummings and Walker Evans. O'Connor, attended the newly-founded Iowa Writers Workshop. Cheever never graduated from highschool. O'Connor was, according to many sources, nunnish, whereas as Cheever was, as Yvor Winters once said of Crane, a "sexual acrobat."

Such a study in contrast has me thinking that I will be able to weave the essay into my current book project because they are, as those of you who know me will attest, the Tigris and Euphrates circumscribing the fertile crescent from which my own literary ambitions sprang forth. I fell in love with Cheever after reading one of his early stories, "Goodbye My Brother" in a used paperback copy of his second story collection The Enormous Radio and Other Stories. The story, about two quarreling brothers--one dutiful and the other misanthropic--struck me very deeply because of the trouble I was having at that time with my own brother. Though Cheever is usually cited for his witty, urbanity and his redress of suburbia before it was en vogue, I was attracted to him immediately for his decorous prose. For Cheever, if a story was worth telling, then it was worth telling with the kind of gravity and largesse associated with legend. "We are a family that has always been very close in spirit," the first sentence goes. It has never left my head since the first time I read it fifteen years ago.

Flannery is a different matter. My love affair with her began before Cheever, and started in a much more charmed place--City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, while on Spring Break. While my friend, Bryce, a Beat Generation-junky browsed the Ginsberg and Kerouac, I spotted a copy of A Good Man is Hard to Find. I had read the title story once in high school and then again in a sophomore seminar--both times I was amused and puzzled by the story, but I had never thought to track down the book in its entirety. I bought it along with a City Lights Bookstore t-shirt (which I still have) and spent the rest of the morning in a fancy salon reading it while Bryce got his hair cut. I can recall sitting in that salon and stifling a laugh when the cat gets loose from the Grandmother's valise, sending the car into a ditch: "We've had an ACCIDENT!" the children screamed in a frenzy of delight."
Who was this woman? What upbringing would bring about such a deadly sense of humor?

Now, both of my favorite authors are the subject of biographical treatment, and I am beside myself. On the one hand I feel the drunken joyous release of so many of Cheever's characters: "His heart was high and he ran across the grass;" "...it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains." But on the other, confronted by the vast differences between these authors, I see the troubling bifurcated nature of my influences and myself--the anxiety of influence, I suppose. It is because of O'Connor and her many grotesque characters that my eye is so trained on the human tendency toward duplicity and self-deception, but it is because of Cheever that I am so concerned with the human impulse for lyricism and decorum. These two tendencies are constantly at odds in me.