Enright Reinvigorates "The Swimmer"

"The only maps or charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary"

The Overexposed Swimmer
Overexposure can drain the power from legendary short stories like John Cheever's "The Swimmer." The elevation to "classic" can lead to over-recommendation, over-teaching, over-quoting, and over-familiarization. Worst of all, truly great stories about the murkiness of mid-life reckoning, if exposed too early, risk engendering permanent disgust in high school students whose aesthetics are too dewy for such dolor. Even among mature enthusiasts, an overexposed "classic" often starts to float in the litosphere as a concept more than a story, detached by assumptive renown from the thrilling muscle-and-tendon exertions that created it in the first place--i.e. words, narrative, plot.

Westchester Waterbodies
An old proofreader's trick for making text fresh is to read it backward, or to reprint it in an unfamiliar font, but those contrivances seem too hiccuppy for a story that wants to flow across the dorsal muscles of a man who decides to "swim" home across eight miles of suburban pools. Neddy Merrill's odyssey along the mythic "Lucinda River" holds some surprises for both him and the reader, but how to make them new?

A Dublin Defamiliarizer
The answer, for me, was to listen to Anne Enright read "The Swimmer" aloud in this New Yorker: Fiction podcast (iTunes link to Enright episode here). From the moment Enright says "The pool, fed by an artesian well with a high iron content, was a pale shade of green," in her rounded and soft, almost furry, Dublin accent, I noticed more fully the elemental setting of "The Swimmer": its mineral flavor, liquid summer hues, and its al fresco alertness. By the time Enright animates Cheever's tender enumeration of Neddy's physical sensations with her foreign female voice ("he had slid down the banister that morning"), it was all new: I was immersed in the story as if I had never read it before.

Audio Brackets
This podcast includes a pre- and post-story chat between the reader-author and The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, in which the issue of over-familiarization is addressed, and Anne Enright makes several tart and charming observations about American short stories. If you're coming to this post in March 2011, you might still be able to download the episode of the PRI: Selected Shorts Podcast in which Mary-Louise Parker reads a tart short story of Enright's own devising, called "(She Owns) Everything," in which handbags substitute for pools (trust me, it works).  (iTunes link here, but be warned that these podcasts expire after about a month.)

More Cheever
Litagogo's review of Richard Ford reading "Reunion" by Cheever, also from the New Yorker: Fiction podcast (with links).


The Once and Future Paris Review

Literary Plush
For a peek under the beret of The Paris Review, listen to this podcast recorded in October 2010 at "Live From City Lights [bookstore]" during San Francisco's annual Litquake festival. (Online City Lights podcast link here; downloadable iTunes link here.)

Le Funny et Les Grotesqueries
In the 48-minute (English) conversation, a dapper two-hander, writer/critic Oscar Villalon gets new(ish) Paris Review editor Lorin Stein to divulge some morceaux about what kind of writing the grande dame of lit mags is looking for within the category of "the best possible new writing." Stein cites "entertainingness," and his taste for realist fiction that contains humor and sex--even a little grotesquerie is fine. "I need to be having fun, all the time, when I read," he says. Reportage is no longer on le menu--Stein sensibly points out the timeliness issues for a quarterly attempting to cover current affairs--but art is making a comeback. The perennial "interviews" with literary luminaries will persist, though I will now read them with a far more worldly eye (see below*).

Le Futur
Stein relates that the board of The Paris Review told him to make it bold, and part of that boldness appears to be a deluxe and energetic online presence, where he hopes to convert browsers to subscribers. Online is also the chosen venue for topical non-fiction, published in a "belletristic" format, under the banner of "the Paris Review Daily,"(with its cute and casual lower-case online "the").  In addition to consuming wide-roaming arts and sports coverage for free, you can also email the editor for advice, as did this would-be submitter of tender years.

*An Interview Is Not An Interview
Maybe I'm the gulliblest long-time reader of The Paris Review ever, but I was shocked to learn from this podcast that those Plimpton-coined Art of X "interviews" are not interviews, but collaborations! The subjects are allowed to edit their responses, and some interviews go back and forth for years before they're published (though the fact that Norman Rush's interview generated 500 pages of transcript is less surprising). Stein explains that The Paris Review relinquished the "gotcha" in order to coax the interviewee into more openness. Once I got over my shock it made perfect sense--it's not like great writing depends on a top-secret soft drink formula that could be accidentally extracted during an interview.

A Portrait of the Young Editor
Finally, for those who think knowing an editor's personal proclivities is useful, Villalon elicits charming biographical details about young Stein's early passions (viz M. Eeyore, above), the effect of Merle Haggard on his literary sensibilities, and his interesting career path. I do not, however, recommend submitting your oeuvre on Winnie-the-Pooh notepaper.