Oh What a Paradise It Seems
Whether John Cheever consciously set himself the problem of making a small piece of fiction feel like a big one, that is the most impressive thing he’s accomplished in Oh What a Paradise It Seems. The book is what Henry James delighted to call (without ever condescending to define the word) a nouvelle; and it would almost seem that the old master had Mr. Cheever in his mind’s eye when he wrote of “the only compactness that has a charm, the only spareness that has a force, the only simplicity that has a grace—those, in each order, that produce the rich effect.” Though the canvas is small in this new novel, it is not miniature work; it is broad, impressionistic, at its best a poetic narrative.
The book’s central figure is a man of some years, old (we are told, with a touch of defiance) but not yet infirm, and shaken by a sense of the fragile beauty of vanishing things. He lives and works in what is clearly New York City, and spends much of his time in what could be the Connecticut suburbs—though really his world is almost limitless because it persistently shades off into vagueness and nondefinition. His actions hint at a parable without ever taking on the symmetry of one; they touch on melodrama, but glancingly. Other characters encountered by the hero are mute, almost inarticulate; with little ado they materialize, and with even less they disappear, as into soft mist.
Lemuel Sears’s affair with Renée Herndon occupies a considerable part of the book (though less than the reader is led to anticipate); their rendezvous are complicated by her attendance at a series of early evening meetings to help people stop eating or drinking or smoking—just what isn’t clear. He asks her about these evenings at parish houses or in church basements, even tries to spy on one; but she won’t tell him what they are, he never learns, and neither does the reader. Her standard conversational gambit is, “You don’t understand the first thing about women”; and about this woman it’s certainly true. Sears doesn’t understand her, she makes no effort to explain herself so the reader doesn’t understand her either; if Cheever does, he isn’t letting on. There’s an enormous, charming, unreliable vacancy in and around her.
The surface of the book is also charming and unreliable. At one point Renée weeps in frustration at being unable to open a door; Sears takes her in his arms, “not to solace her for the locked door of course but to comfort her for Harold and every other disappointment in her life.” She is divorced, indeed, but her husband was named Arthur; apart from this passage, Harold has no other existence in the book. A speed-reader will sail blithely across the novel’s glistening surfaces; if he pauses a moment to look under his feet, the thin ice will be starring …