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 out beneath him.
Much of the book’s action centers on Beasley’s Pond, a deep body of water actually used in winter, by Sears and others, for skating. (The main action takes place “at the time I’m writing about,” in “the province where his daughter lived”—the nonspecification serving to shiver ever so slightly whatever sense of solidity the reader retains.) In any case, the pond is big as well as deep; apparently it measures “two and a half or three miles, if one took the distance from end to end.” Yet male-factors propose to fill this entire lacustrine basin by throwing garbage into it, and then to erect on the gigantic dump they will have created a veterans’ memorial. For no reason more mysterious than money, mafiosi are involved in this scheme—so deeply that they commit two outright murders of environmentalists who are trying to protect Beasley’s Pond. Neither murder has the slightest consequence, as the village where everything takes place is largely devoid of human beings with names, faces, or occupations. This is the stuff of night-mare, maybe paranoia. (I use the word in a neutral, if not an actively favorable sense.)
The tendency of the solid surfaces to tail off into vagueness counterpoints the way people in the story change their minds abruptly and without explanation, the way crucial developments are determined by coincidence. A family driving home from a day at the beach accidentally leave their sleeping baby on the shoulder of a busy superhighway; he is rescued and returned to his parents by the very environmentalist engaged in saving Beasley’s Pond. Sears, abruptly abandoned by Renée, makes love with the elevator operator of her apartment building; on acquaintance, Eduardo proves to be a good husband and father, who explains that his younger son is a senior at Rutgers while the elder plays jazz piano in Aspen, Colorado.
That’s what you call spacing it out, and it’s spaced out still further by the narrator’s occasional erratic interventions, leisurely and free-floating. The sense of psychic distance, inconsequence, open possibility is enhanced by the vaudeville of Cheever’s style, his skill at seeming to tell a simple, unpretentious story absolutely straight, while introducing patterns of sidestep and evasion. Seeming is the theme of the book, apparent giving and real taking away. Its paradigm could be a lovely sentence from an old Irish nouvelle in which the narrator, describing a litigious landlord, says, “Out of forty-nine suits which he had, he never lost one but seventeen.”
The truth is that Cheever’s hero, though he masquerades as a technical specialist (“computer containers” are his line; he’s also into “cerbical chips,” and has traveled to the Carpathians where “cerb” or perhaps “cerbical” is mined), is really a poet, with persistent, intuitive feelings for the fresh, the intense, the mortal. His associations with rain run especially deep; they constitute a dimension almost as unfathomable as the mind of his mistress Renée. An open man, with a sneaking fondness for picturesque, idiotic theories and the exhilarations of a physical moment, his character invites use of the faithless adjective, “human.” Like an earlier Lemuel, he travels through worlds of outsize or wrong-shaped people, looking for one of his own sort. Among the phantoms is a current and present daughter, whose relations with her father are described in the dry word “skeptical,” and never mentioned again.
It has been said that satiric exaggeration is impossible in a society that already is a grotesque parody of what it pretends to be; also that paranoia in a society like our own is, on the odds, the safest approach to truth. In combining some of these dark perspectives within the frame of an idyll, Cheever has done more to create spacious and lively harmony than one would have thought possible in a small room. The ease and assurance with which the equilibrium is maintained are secondary pleasures of dealing with a practiced storyteller and chance-taker.
April 29, 1982