Thursday, October 15, 2009

Moving Forward: Evolution of the singular writer and the one-note wonders

An article by Brock Clarke on therumpus.net sparked my interest about John Cheever recently.  I can tell Brock Clarke is a die-hard fan of Cheever's, which endears me to Clarke, though I don't totally share his sentiments.  I've often found myself trying to listen to the slight nuances of language in Cheever's stories and have many a time fallen asleep while doing so.  I will admit, though, there have been these beautiful moments before my dozing slumber when I've actually said, "Holy shit!  I think Denis Johnson stole that." He does possess those moments, if one can possess posthumously.  Anyhow, I'd like to revisit the topic of relevancy as pertaining to the talented (but possibly one-note) writers I mentioned in earlier posts.  Cheever had a style.  It was distinctly and remarkably his, and as far as I know, he never strayed from this style.  Neither, then, did he evolve (which is also apparently true to Cheever as a person according to the new biography), and perhaps this is why contemporary readers and writers find him to be obsolete, like my friend's living-room-sized laser-disc collection.

Recently, Roberto Bolano translator Natasha Wimmer spoke here in San Francisco.  Quoting from therumpus.net who is quoting from Wimmer, she said she was "struck by how different BolaƱo’s novels are from one another."  Bolano, it seems, may be the 13-sided D&D die to our voracious appetite for change (6 sides were never enough for us).   God knows nobody's blown up so quickly on such a wide scale in recent memory.  The guy's dead, and still, every time a new piece of Bolano's is translated, it feels like a new life has started.  Of course, you can't give all credit for his late American success to his diversified literary portfolio, but I have to think it might be at least a small portion of his success puzzle.  Do we truly want to read to be surprised?  Can the surprise come from just plot, or can it come from language? Any thoughts?  There's a lot here, including whether or not this evolution is an American literary fetish, but maybe someone can help me tackle it?

1 comment:

  1. Dammit, you raise good questions. I just read Cheever for the first time last summer. That means I had 32 plus Cheever-less prose-years floating around my brain. (Assuming, of course that my parents didn't secretly read The Wapshot Chronicle while I slept the sleep of infants. And since I didn't die from Crib Death, I'm guessing that they didn't secrete the dysfunctional middle class into me.) I would have to begin that climb on my own.

    But alas, in his early uncollected works, we find Cheever to be more interested in a working class that was a bit more intriguing to me. A young writer seeking relevance and perhaps an audience really listened to the people on the streets, in the diners, on the bus and came down with something almost a little Steinbeckian(?) There's a legitimacy and urgency to people (even if this isn't Cheever himself) through his keen observations. And maybe this is the Denis Johnson-like I would say Noir-ish language that you speak of. It is at least the same Steinbeck that Bruce Springsteen channels in his folkier works like The Ghost of Tom Joad.

    I'm much more compelled by this Cheever even though it may be a put-on. But isn't that the beauty of fiction? We get to inhabit a version of ourselves (for sure) but we also get to inherit the other. Soo, I recommend that the "non-evolution" of Cheever's style be investigated. Those early pieces are so much sparser and immediate (in my non-expert opinion) and in some ways more rewarding on human level - and yet the later work seems to tackle the complexities in modes less rooted to depression-era Worker Songs.

    Of course if your body of work veers from these early pieces and never returns is this evolution or just abandonment? And what's wrong with abandoning something if you can't embody it? Is it wrong to write a Viet Nam song if you didn't go? Does that make you more real? Does Billy Joel care anymore - he did stop writing, or at least releasing new songs... Poet Charles Reznikoff lived in NY all of his life and wrote about the people he saw walking around. Many of these folks were completely destitute but he went home to a nice apartment. He never abandoned writing what he saw - or what concerned him (See Testimony http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/reznikoff/testimony.htm.) But still he manipulated what he saw/found into poetry.

    Maybe Cheever is being criticized for looking in one place for a little too long. If I say that he's a one note show dog then I would have to abandon the humanist punk band, Bad Religion too. And after 20 years, I still love that band.

    Have at me.

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