Friday, August 17, 2012

Short Take: "The Five Forty-Eight," John Cheever

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

One may feel John Cheever is writing beneath himself in his 1954 short story, “The Five-Forty-Eight.” Or, one might think the story is brilliantly structured and paced. One’s reaction hinges on one’s attitude towards the use of melodramatic suspense. Cheever’s protagonist is a New York businessman who finds himself stalked by a former employee. The story’s first half recounts his efforts to elude her on the city streets. The second depicts the employee confronting him at gunpoint on his train home. The protagonist is typical of Cheever: a selfish, misanthropic personality masked by the trappings of success. Cheever’s incomparable eye for social detail is also very much present. But Cheever doesn’t build the narrative through ironies or characterization. He strings the reader along through dread. In the first half, one’s attention is held by the question of whether the protagonist is in danger. In the second, it’s whether he will get shot. Cheever makes it explicit that the employee is psychologically unstable, so the possibility is always there. One will either feel the suspense story is enriched by the social-realist surface, or the social realism is cheapened by the suspense. As far as the writer of this review is concerned, it’s the latter. The detail intended to confer gravitas seems pretentious; it’s decorative rather than integral, and the effect in this context is nasty. The most distasteful aspect is the depiction of the employee as mentally ill. It perpetuates ugly (and false) stereotypes of mentally ill people as inherently dangerous to others. (The character, who clearly suffers from a depression disorder, isn’t likely to be a threat to anyone but herself.) The depiction is not mitigated by the story’s clear judgment that the protagonist deserves some kind of comeuppance. A figure of pathos is still turned into a bogeyman, and the context offers no hint of irony. There’s no sense that one should take this portrayal with a grain of salt. This just promotes the bogeyman view of people with mental illness in real life. That’s deeply offensive. The story first appeared in the April 10, 1954 issue of The New Yorker. It is included in The Stories of John Cheever collection.

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