Thursday, January 4, 2007

Archives Project: STL #1

Since the first post was so short, I'll now repost the designated #1 of the first series of Simplest Things Last. There's a lot of linking in here, a practice I think I fall away from later. Mechanical errors will be silently corrected when I find them. I still like some of the observations and turns of phrase, though the last line makes me cringe.

Title: There are no languages here. Only dialects.
Description: STL #1: On the short fiction of two very different writers, John Cheever and Paul Bowles.
Date: 30 June 2003

I’ve had two big short story collections staring down at me from the top bookshelf for a while now. Recently I’ve taken them down, one after the other, and cracked them open. First I read The Stories of Paul Bowles (Ecco Press, 2001), and now I’m making my way through The Stories of John Cheever (Knopf, 1978). Both books are literally “big,” in the sense that either 700 page volume is hefty enough to stove in my nose if I were to nod off in bed. They both represent big literary impacts as well. Before a reading, Richard Ford said Cheever’s ubiquitous collection was known in his circle (which included Raymond Carver) as “the big red book” and was for them a sort of bible. Ford went so far in his homage as reading Cheever’s “Reunion” before his own story of that title, something I have rarely seen in a reading. Unlike Cheever, Bowles’s fame is due mostly to his novels, especially The Sheltering Sky. But Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review, Gore Vidal, and other have eloquently argued the import of the short stories.

The two writers seem to exist in entirely different worlds, even though they were contemporaries (Bowles lasted a little longer, 1910- 1999; Cheever lived 1912-1984). Bowles, the proto-Beat, represents the exotic and experimental in the collective literary imagination. His stories appeared in cutting edge periodicals like the New Directions annuals. I happen to have New Directions 11 (1949) which features, along with Borges,WC Williams and the sadly forgotten Lorine Niedecker, one of Bowles’s early stories. But while Bowles bespeaks the hip and bohemian and cutting edge, Cheever is synomonous with the straight bourgeois New Yorker magazine, the most frequent publisher of his work. To commuters reading the magazine on their way home from work, Cheever’s characters must have seemed to mirror their lives and anxieties. One could no doubt abstract a broad sociology of the 1950’s from the writers, covering both the raw and the cooked, the hip and straight.
Because of my training in lit crit, I instantly went for an unlikely thesis, that Cheever and Bowles aren’t as different as they seem. I postulated readers of both New Directions and The New Yorker coming home from the city, or going out to the desert, finding the same existential despair in both. And to be sure, existential despair was the lingua franca of Western writers at the time. But really, only bad writers are ever similar to one another in the end and, say what you will, neither the laureate of the upper-middle class nor the Tangier visionary are like anyone else—and certainly not each other. Compare two early stories: Bowles’s “A Distant Episode,” in which a linguist is abducted in North Africa, gets his tongue cut out and becomes enslaved as a “holy maniac,” is a literal world apart from Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” a family drama set in a “Laud’s Head” (Cape Cod?) summer house which culminates in a half-hearted assault of one brother on another, and the resulting rupture. The differences are significantly deeper than plot and setting. For example, the trans-cultural dynamic is completely (and always) missing from Cheever. Cheever, I think, is trying to capture a broad dynamic by studying one small element, like the brother Lawrence in the story, who misinterprets a family backgammon match. Bowles, on the other hand, lives in an uncentered world as an expatriate in a land with “no languages, only dialects.” This last phrase, though literally impossible, might be a nice motto for twentieth-century American literature.

Bowles disdains extravagant figures like Cheever's “the girls’ perfume smelled like strawberry jam.” This simile is from another story, but Cheever is an exemplar of what later became the crafted “workshop” story. I somewhat sheepishly admit that I prefer the bard of the UMC; while reading Cheever I am constantly impressed by the snap of particular phrases, or the aptness, both in the careful observation and the timing of revelation, of certain details (through the first third of this collection at least). Sometimes annoying in early Cheever is his recourse to big S Symbol—because the family is decaying, the ocean house is not only being eaten by termites but is slowing slipping into the sea to boot! I hasten to admit that Bowles’s unadorned language can be devastating: “The next day was an important one in the Professor’s life, for it was then that pain began to stir again in his being.”

Perhaps a fuller analysis might reveal stronger parallels between these writers who seem to speak completely different dialects. But dialects enrich our language. We have Cheever searching for closure, resolution, and the mot juste in postwar America, while we have Bowles unflinchingly facing the silence and violence at the disjointed fissures of the world.

Remembering Bowles

You may be able to read a pop-up excerpt of Bowles.