29 June 2012

Status Symbol Land

FEAR—especially the fear of losing control—serves as the impetus for an awful lot of art. It also, of course, serves as the catalyst for an unhealthy dose of insomnia, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and death (either of the silent or walking variety).

Motivated by Alan Noble's "Why Christians Should Read Disturbing, Dark, and Secular Fiction," I thought that since I have read and am now again reading a good bit of it that I'd do well to put some thoughts down on a piece that I've read recently. (This is a bit like pulling the winner out of a hat; I'm working through an anthology of American short stories and there are too many from which to choose. I decided against O'Connor's terrifyingly bizarre "Good Country People" because (1) she's not exactly "secular"; and (2) apparently she's now a Christian-hipster favorite, and I'm like light years ahead of those people.)

So, John Cheever's "The Swimmer" it is (originally published in The New Yorker on 18 July 1964). Summary of the plot:

“The Swimmer” begins with suburbanites gathered around a backyard pool, nursing their respective hangovers from the previous night's cocktail party. The hero of the tale is a youthfully middle-aged, athletic, and affluent denizen of suburbia. His desire to rise above complacently takes the form of an odd, comical quest: He decides to swim home, fifteen pools to the south. The narrative follows his journey from pool to pool, from his initial exhilaration to subsequent exhaustion, from bright and sunny to darker and colder, to unprepared and exposed. After crossing a highway, he descends into a public pool—hell to his social class. But even here he is excluded after failing to provide the proper identification. The journey is further corrupted when he finds his mistress has replaced him with a new lover, and a couple he has previously dismissed socially denies him. Finally, when he is alienated from what he knows to be true, and dispossessed of his comfortable reality, he arrives home to a dark, empty, and locked house.
Truly, I envied the swimmer Neddy Merrill's excursion. It sounded fun. Even in the rain. The absurdity part of it only becomes apparent during the last few dips, and especially when he arrives "home." The fun of swimming across several pools in a couple of neighborhoods looks pathetic indeed when Neddy reaches his now foreclosed destination. And the enthusiasm with which Neddy is greeted at first is subverted by the tale's end: all those drinks and smiles look more like pity than friendship. Status symbols are, we must admit, everything to this crowd (our collective crowd in these United States), and Neddy's loss of them feeds a fear that grips him to the point of extreme denial, acting out the absurd.

How poignant is the climax of the story today? Neddy swims "home" to an abandoned and decrepit structure. How many of those have we seen walking the neighborhood these past few years? Ah, home ownership, a grand American institution. It looks to be only a vestige of its former glory.

Speaking of American social institutions, what about the extramarital affair? Neddy’s inability to cope with his situation caused him to shut down and retreat from reality, ultimately hurting all the people in his life that he ever cared about. The same could be said about any one of the other poor choices he has apparently made (in response to a financial misfortune).

Neddy’s swimming pool journey effectively parallels our false lives, our swimming through life with eyes half closed, choosing not to acknowledge behaviors that are significant and detrimental to those we love the most. Extramarital affairs, alcoholism, gambling, and debt—all these activities gradually eat away at relationships every day. Of course, these are all symptoms of a much deeper problem: "Who can understand the human heart? There is nothing else so deceitful."

The mix of realism and surrealism, concrete rootedness and absurdity, the lack of a single vision holding reality together, the rusty linings of every cloud, are a few of the reasons I so enjoy this era of literature (roughly described as "postwar"). Yet in spite of all the aforementioned disturbing darkness, we still pine after love and understanding, and thus we must face the vertigo of absurdity with practical action—like Candide tending his garden forevermore.

So, then, "have reverence for God, and obey his commands, because this is all that we were created for." Or, put somewhat differently, love thy neighbor as thyself.

Listen to Cheever read "The Swimmer" here.


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