Park Backwards is Krap and Cheever is a Funny Last Name

John Cheever’s Bullet Park (1967) won the Pulitzer Prize. About which fact, who am I to comment? It was written to introduce the topic, as a fact that might also validate the reading of the novel and give some credible context.

Anyway, here’s what happens: a mysterious dude named Hammer moves into Bullet Park (a suburb of NYC), meets a quiet man named Nailles (who has a son that goes through a depression), and then interacts with Nailles’ son. To inform you of the interaction would be to report the climax of the novel. So that sounds like a really brief, uneventful plot, right? Well, it is. The book’s narrative action isn’t full. But the novel nevertheless persists as a page-turner.

Rather than hooking the reader with its plot, the novel seamlessly introduces and then penetrates practically each character within the course of its reporting of the narrative proper. This is to say that we meet someone and then are told—again let me stress that this telling is consistently seamless—a history about that person, which explains who the character is and usually why they are committing the action at hand.

So I think Cheever really succeeds with the real truth that everyone has a story, rich and unique. But the problem is that none of the characters are good.

In Bullet Park, as in everywhere else the novel’s characters travel, people are fundamentally vapid and materialistic and narcissistic. And that’s only true when the characters actually choose to act. Most of the time, they just go along with whatever decision is easiest, as determined by their environment—like a woman who would make a cuckold of her husband but various odd coincidences prevent her from it. Usually the easiest decision is indecision and acquiescence to an understood way that things should be, like they were before, like we were taught.

Cheever, with two (it could be argued three) characters, investigates depression and a lack of fulfillment with the kind of world he builds, but these characters are either greatly thwarted or miraculously (read: inconclusively) cured.

Now again, the novel, at the micro-/page-to-page-level, is pretty great. Cheever’s a wonderful writer, with real talent for description and quick characterization. And he broaches some terrific techniques—that could be classified as postmodern; like, here’s the first line of the novel: “Paint me a small railroad station then, ten minutes before dark.” This introduction clearly calls one’s attention to the artifice of fiction writing. Again, mid-novel, Cheever begins to comment on the way we talk about traveling, seemingly taking writers to task, or at least calling attention to techniques of storytelling: “We speak of travel—world travel—as if it were the most natural condition. ‘Mr. X,’ we read, ‘then traveled from Boston to Kitzbühel.’ How far this is from the truth!”

But when we step back to inspect the novel from a macro-level, the worldview of Mr. Cheever—a man who lived longer than I have and wrote more than I have—is hopefully, like some of our turns of phrase, “far…from the truth.”

Make No Mistake, This is Mostly a Good Thing

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (2006) by David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

The book is an assortment of essays (10), which were written for different publications (e.g., Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Gourmet, etc.), the earliest published in 1992.

I know you’re wondering already—because my wife asked, and she never asks—about the title. It is the title of an essay that was written for Gourmet magazine in 2005, wherein DFW details his visit to the Maine Lobster Festival, an essay that eventually begins raising ethical and philosophical questions about animal cruelty and the relationship between morality and aesthetics.

Let that sink in for a moment and you’ll have a decent idea of the abilities of the author, who finds life and meaning everywhere through a simply stated but maddeningly demanding-to-practice formula: he pays attention. And this is generally regarded as his greatest, most transcendental skill. Past the surface, past the first meaning, deep into any given object that enters his comprehensive gaze, DFW perceives significance in it all. Cultural, relational, personal, emotional, spiritual, whatever—it’s all there.

The real joy and fortune for readers is his power to communicate. He applies the same attention he gives the world to his writing. And because of that, the voice and verve of each piece resonate. Something is built in even the shortest essay that compels you to continue as if you’re in a real conversation. DFW transfers the capacity to pay attention to the reader, which provokes the careful thinking about the topic at hand that accompanies all good writing.

The content of the collection ranges from John McCain’s candidacy campaign in 1999 to book reviews of a biography and dictionary of usage to the rise and impact of political radio to an elegant response to 9/11.

Editorially, I think it was a bad decision to begin the book with an essay about his reporting from the Adult Video News Awards, but I am admittedly a prude who lives in the South. Even still, I didn’t find much structurally or rhetorically appealing about the piece.

However, I routinely teach two of the essays from this collection: “A View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” DFW’s Midwestern coverage of 9/11, and “Consider the Lobster.” I also include passages from “Authority and American Usage,” the sixty page treatise on the importance of writing, which uses The Dictionary of Modern American Usage as its topical locus. (And this essay changed and constructed all sorts of conceptual approaches to and beliefs about composition for me.) All three pieces present the unlikely benefits of cynicism if it can be coupled with kindness, a kindness that manifests in really close attention. Maybe respect would be a better word, rather than kindness, and maybe skepticism, rather than cynicism, but when put together, they (whichever it is) equal the critical eye. DFW shows you how to respect something by demonstratively respecting the objects of his writing. A multitude can be learned here, but I’d like to point out more clearly two things:

1) To write about something well, we must look at it closely. And only considering something important enough to be looked at closely will enable us to write about it well. This is the respect. We must respect things to know them, which, if true, makes automatic respect a prerequisite to getting to know something (or someone), as if respect is the attractive impetus that calls young men to pay attention to young and pretty women. But it’s the idea that all young women are attractive, the operating under the assumption that all things demand respect already by virtue of their existence, their being a part of our world.

2) From the careful inspection of small and seemingly singular things comes really significant understandings of larger things. The first section of “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” is titled Synecdoche, which means that the part is used (or can be substituted) for the whole, like DNA. It reminds me of a Pirsig quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower.” Whatever you think of as ultimate truth can be found in any object of this world. We must only look at it close enough to see. And writing, for some of us, can serve as our microscope or window, or even as our eyes.