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).