26 October 2014

Not John Cheever’s Fault But Mine


by Louis Willis

         I’ve been alternating between reading stories in the anthologies The Dead Witness and Murder & Other Acts of Literature in my ongoing attempt to discern the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction. My post in August was from The Dead Witness.
         For this post, I read "Montraldo" by John Cheever (1912-1982) in Murder & Other Acts of Literature. I’ve read only one story by Cheever and that was in college. I don’t remember the story. What I remember is it didn’t invite me to read more of his stories. I decided, in choosing “Montraldo,” to give him another chance to impress me.
         The nameless narrator opens the story with the statement, “The first time I robbed Tiffany's, it was raining.” He goes on to describe how he did it. After his explanation, I was expecting him to rob the store again and maybe dodge the cops or pull some other jobs. I was disappointed.
         He uses the money from fencing the jewelry to travel to Montraldo in Italy. Instead of staying in one of the two luxurious hotels, he rents a room in a villa that is in poor condition– no running water and no toilet– because he likes the view and is curious "about the eccentric old spinster and her cranky servant." The two argue constantly.
         The servant, Assunta, insults the old woman (not named), calling her “Witch! Frog! Pig!” The old woman replies calling the servant, “the light of my life.” As the old woman lay dying after a fall, at her request, the narrator gets the priest.  
         About a third of the way through the story, I began to suspect what the surprise ending would be. When it came, I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I thought, “John, my man, I’m impressed.” Cheever didn’t help with my attempt to discern the difference between genre and literary fiction. Only one crime, the robber, is committed and, although the old woman dies, whether it was murder or an accident is ambiguous. Maybe one difference between literary and genre fiction is a tendency toward ambiguity in literary stories, while genre stories tend to be straight-forward.
         I can't judge Cheever based on only two stories, one of which I don't remember. “Montradla,” however, is one of those stories that I feel I would not have missed anything if I had not read it. Although I enjoyed “Montradla,” it didn’t invite me to read more of Cheever. That he is not one of my favorite authors is my fault not his. But I like what he said about "car thieves and muggers."

6 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Interesting, Louis. I read less and less literary fiction; sometimes I think its purpose is to remind us how mundane life can be. Indeed, non-fiction can often be more exciting.

But the story you mention shows promise.

janice law said...

Try The Swimmer. Not about crime but a simply marvelous story. Or Falconer his novel about prison- I think you'll be impressed.

Eve Fisher said...

Cheever waxes old with me, too - but I can re-read Somerset Maugham's short stories over and over again. He mixes genres, plus he has a good eye for people, how they think, how they behave. (I've gotten enthusiastic here before about his "The Round Dozen.")

Anonymous said...

Cheever's quote exhibits a well-known cultural tendency to project the most pathological aspects of human behavior onto natural systems (in this case, a prairie). There is a lot of literature from both Western and Indigenous scholars that points to this type of projection being associated with (and stemming from, historically) theology and metaphysics relating to "the Fall" of Christian tradition, which paints the natural world, including human bodies, as fallen and sinful. So nature becomes the source of all evil. In fact, evil has been projected there, to the great detriment of almost everyone.

Leigh Lundin said...

Thoughtful point, Anon. I hadn't made that leap, but I can certainly see the argument against a blinkered perception of the world.

Louis A. Willis said...

Leigh,
I’ve been reading some essays, and I’ve often find them to be more interesting than literary short stories.

Janice,
I plan to visit my local library and checkout FALCON.

Eve,
I loved Maugham’s short stories. I read them and his novels after college when reading them was no longer mandatory.