John Cheever – Collected Stories

The Stories of John Cheever, by John Cheever

I finished John Cheever’s Collected Stories this morning before I went to Starbucks for my morning ritual of coffee, bagel, and reading. I only had 20 pages left, and I wanted to read it and post about it before I went to Starbucks so I could start fresh with a new Pulitzer. I knew I had some running around to do today which would culminate in going to Rogers Park to help Drew Moody move into a new apartment. This was the perfect circumstance to read the last two stories in this collection. Last night I sat down to finish the collection after I got off of work, and had a few beers and ended up texting another friend in some relationship trouble. So I only read a few pages before being consumed in some other relationship triage. I usually try not to put too much time in between getting some coffee and having my first cigarette of the day, but this morning I thought it could work. Even before I took the dog out, I sat down to power through the last 20 or so pages. The imperfections of the last two stories did not serve this process well, and I became dissatisfied with the whole endeavor. I finished the book as I was nearing my own ticking clock of exhaustion at waiting too long for my coffee and first smoked. I did not intend this, but this is the exact set of emotions every story engendered in me, impatience with a writer I feel is capable of more that has nothing interesting to say. I closed the book with a heavy sigh of dissatisfaction at its utmost. I did not like this book. I placed the book on my finished shelf, crossed it off in my journal, updated Good Reads, calculated my percentages completed which saw the page number ratio dramatically increase. I read this book during an interesting time to read such material which is all that I will say on that subject, and at times the subject matter was not very helpful for me to read. In addition to this, I felt that his treatment of the affluent was rife with a understated dispassionate approval of their way of life that I found repugnant. Although his rich people live in a world that Cheever does not treat kindly, he also does not do the hard work of landing on an appraisal of the situation if that makes sense. I do not know why Cheever chose to include so many stories, aside from his reasoning in the introduction which was that he thought that they contained a larger whole as they were an unabashed collection of miscues and victories that signified more together than they do apart. I understand this approach, but here I think that it is just exhibitionism at its finest like so many of his characters. I often found Cheever standing behind the naked ‘extras’ of his stories shouting look at me and what I have created. I did not care for these things. The stories lose taste as they progress as well as a reason for being.
he stories were so similar and uninspiring that I was getting the characters confused. That is not to say that Cheever does not write convincingly round characters, it is to say that they are all the same or nearly the same person with the same exact pursuits. The final tragedy of these tragic tales as they are supposed to be gripping realism of a time that is repressed and unrealistic is that the chief motivation of almost all of his characters is to lead in some worldly fashion, ‘interesting lives’ and in some they succeed according to their own metrics given by Cheever and his time period. The failure though is that the stories themselves are not interesting, and the characters struggles are just as purposeless as the narratives placed upon the characters that they struggle against. While to our 21st century ears this may be rife with the irony that would seem convincing it is not at all what I believe Cheever intended to write boring stories about boring characters who are chasing interest in their own lives, that sounds like an interesting although tenuous enterprise. Here Cheever believes that he is writing something of worth and note. You can tell as he attempts twists that are all to predictable, plots points ‘you didn’t see coming’, allegory that is right in front of your face and heavy handed, The Swimmer for example, and moralizing like the day is long.

To finish succinctly as Cheever never would, I did not like this book and there are only a few, very few, moments that I could point to where I felt engaged enough to be let down. It all happened as I let go of my emotions for these characters like the characters in the story itself with the story about the little girl who is pulled into the turbine at a ski resort and is mutilated. Several of the stories proceeding it were preparing me for it, but I did not like that grotesque misuse of a child’s death and I gave up like the parents in that story did for their own marriage, and I could not bring myself to regain any semblance of emotional investment after that. On to the next Pulitzer I go, and I believe I will forget much of this extra long work.


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