Prior to this evening, I had never read anything by John Cheever, so I was quite unprepared to encounter a story with such a wealth of wit, imagination and insight. “The Swimmer” is impossibly dense, and I’m sure a blog post won’t do it justice. It is, by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking, casting an astute satire on suburban ennui while wisely dissecting human nature in broad strokes of the scalpel. The protagonist, Neddy Merrill, begins the story by undertaking a mission to “swim” across his suburban neighborhood, which in his limited scope of perspective means ambling from one gaudy house to the next, eking a drink out of his neighbors’ bars, swimming the length of their respective pools, and moving on. Even from the beginning of the story, I think Cheever’s aim is to examine the pratfalls of self-delusion or willful ignorance. We meet a character whose worldview is completely contained within the artifice of cocktail parties and the ensuing small talk that as far as he’s concerned, an “adventure” is merely a leisurely tour through the places he’s already been and the people he’s already met, all of which resemble one another uncannily. He considers his bizarre, meandering path a “stream” and names it after his wife, but it neither flows like a body of water nor resembles the processes of love. Cheever’s clever wordplay deliberately underplays the fact that a story billed as an epic journey is really just an account of a man getting drunk and systematically bothering his neighbors.
That is, until the story evolves into a surreal, Kafka-esque fantasy, at which point the implications of Cheever’s satire are inflated astronomically and Neddy’s stupid ramblings become allegorical of the universal tragedies of life. As his mission unfolds in a series of independently trite episodes, Neddy becomes apparently unhinged from time and space, a revelation that Cheever lets leak out very carefully, whetting the reader’s appetite with subtle and ambiguous foreshadowing. As an indeterminate amount of time passes, Neddy becomes vaguely aware of several extremely important events in his life that seem to have occurred while he was on his pointless crusade between drinks and swimming pools. He appears to have missed a love affair, a series of financial and familial tragedies, the illness of a close friend, and his own decline from a social dynamo (as far as he was concerned) to a pitiable pariah. The “point,” I think, can be oversimplified thusly: in circumstances bereft of variance or real interpersonal satisfaction, we find ways to distract ourselves from life and wind up blocking its most significant moments from our minds. Neddy gives himself an arbitrary goal, full of repetitive episodes, and follows it brainlessly, drunkenly, hopelessly. And in the process, his life simply moves on without him. I’ve only just read it for the first time, but “The Swimmer” strikes me as a close look at self-deception and cognitive dissonance. It’s about the ways we shield ourselves from painful memories and self-examination, about that moment we’re all doomed to reach when we look back on the events that most boldly marked our decades on this earth and feel as though we never saw them happen. Cheever deserves high marks for finding humor in this topic, and for presenting it in an entirely original manner. Some questions:
1. This story pulls off a balancing act between the fantastically surreal and the bleakly realistic. Can this story succeed simultaneously as an allegory and a character study? Or does one interpretation cheapen the other?
2. This story can be read with varying degrees of literalism. Is Neddy like Rip Van Winkle, a regular man caught up in a bizarre anomaly of time? Or has this story occurred “in his head,” as it were? Are we reading about a regular person plagued by nightmarish circumstances, or is this story a portrait of a broken mind?
3. We never learn much about the events Neddy seems to have “missed” or “forgotten.” Does this lack of exposition service the story or lessen its impact? Why?