Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Wapshot Chronicle

Upon receiving my income tax refund, I treated myself to a couple of books, specifically, the Library of America's extremely handsome two volume set of the novels and stories of John Cheever. I had previously owned "The Stories of John Cheever", but now I had the complete oeuvre. I decided to start with his first "novel" entitled The Wapshot Chronicle.

This is the story of Leander Wapshot, an aristocratic WASP living the high life in a Massachusetts fishing village, and his two sons, Coverly and Moses, both of whom leave their peaceful life to try and make it in the real world, only to encounter tragedy, comedy, and everything in between.

I put novel in quotations above because Cheever's first novel is really just a bunch of short stories linked together. There's no overarching plot, just simply a bunch of humourous or sad tales strung together. The stories are still very entertaining.

Cheever has such a beautiful lyrical style, giving poetry to things sometimes simple as a cocktail party. It tends to make the subject matter seem more serious, but one has to remember that this is a fairly comic novel.

Cheever's lyrical style, however, can lend itself to obtuse verbosity, and since Cheever is no Nabokov, this can detract. This would be better suited to a short story than a full length novel, but I think most, if not all, critics agree that Cheever's true strengths were his mastery of the short story.

The Wapshot Chronicle is an enjoyable experience as each episode in the boys' lives are wrought with pathos, humour, and a clear understanding of how the specific character in question functions. This is a testament to building a whole world on three people.

The best parts of the books were the Wapshot boys falling in love with their respective wives. They are full of simple and beautiful moments captured, or drawn out during courtship, all done with an elegant hand.

What wasn't so elegant was Leander's journal excerpts, which are written in shorthand. It makes for a tiring reading experience. Luckily that style is balanced with an interesting and quite deep backstory and family history for the Wapshots. It's a credit to Cheever that this works in spite of the truncated and telegraphic journal style.

I'm going on and on about the style for this novel as opposed to meaning or theme because Cheever has such a beautiful and controlled style. There is a reason why Cheever is often compared to Chekhov. In his short stories, Cheever never wastes a sentence, using each one to convey meaning or atmosphere or character, all towards a common goal of "showing" not "telling". If anybody ever wanted how to write one successful type of short story, here it is, but in novel form.

The Wapshot Chronicle is good novel, or rather is a good series of short stories. While the episodic format does sort of try the patience of the reader, each individual episode is often better than some whole novels. Cheever's amazing controlled and lyrical style makes this novel worthy of its critical adoration, and its National Book Award win.

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